Harry Tate (18721940), by Houston Rogers
Tate, Harry [real name Ronald McDonald Hutchison] (18721940), music-hall artist and comedian, was born at 47 Osborne Terrace, Clapham Road, Kennington, London, on 4 July 1872, the son of Robert Henry Hutchison, a mercantile clerk, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Delauney. He reputedly took his stage surname from the company of sugar-refiners for whom he had once worked, and first appeared under it at the Oxford Music-Hall on 13 April 1895. His early act consisted of sketches in which he mimicked music-hall stars of the day, utilizing ingenious clip-on paper costumes to allow as many as forty-two changes in one act. He married Julia Maude Kerslake Baker in 1898.
In the first decade of the twentieth century Tate developed the comic persona and sketch style on which his reputation would be made, gathering around him a cast of six oddly-assorted performers with whom he toured extensively until the 1930s. The sketches in which this small, riotous troupe appeared revolved around Tate's good-humoured, though occasionally testy, ineptitude. His stage persona was that of a larger-than-life, genial bourgeois, inexpertly fascinated with the latest gadgets and fads. Dressed in loud checks and a gaudy waistcoat, and sporting a large false moustache, he would in a typical sketch veer between a self-delighting hobbyist enthusiasm and bluster and bluff as he worked hard to remain, in his own words, master of the situation, in the face of a combination of cussed technology and the antics of his stoogescomedy enhanced by his rich, fruity roar and the elaborate see-sawing of his moustache.
Tate's greatest success with this format came before the First World War with Motoring, which began a series of sketches that reflected Tate's preoccupation with the typical enthusiasms and crazes of the burgeoning lower-middle classes, among them Gardening, Fishing, Selling the Car, Flying, Golfing, Billiards, Wireless, and Going Round the World. In Motoring, which would be extended and filmed as a six-reeler in 1927, Tate's unsuccessful attempts to start his car were variously disrupted by his inept chauffeur, passing drunks and urchins, and a policeman intent on arresting him on a charge of furious driving. His precarious mastery of the situation was further tested by the exasperating falsetto comments of his stage son, Tommy Tweedly, perched high on the car's back seat in top hat and Eton suit. The regular calls of Good-bye-ee as the car made to set off and then didn't move, became a much-used catch-phrase and would be made the basis of a popular song of the First World War. Other catch-phrases that Tate popularized included I don't think (as in the disparagement, He's a nice chap, I don't think) and How's your father?, which Tate would employ as a device to change the subject when the conversation threatened to take him out of his depth.
Tate's status as one of the nation's best-loved entertainers was enhanced by his reputation as a favourite comedian of royalty, having famously amused George V with his motoring sketch during the first royal variety performance in 1912; in all he appeared four times in royal shows. His appeal across class boundaries was one reason for the longevity and popularity of his career as a sketch-based comic: he was one of the few performers who was able to extend a reputation made in music-hall to the newer modes of variety, revue, and the broadcast media.
Tate was widely admired also as a gifted comic actor and revue comedian. He featured as chief comedian in several revues, starting with Hullo, Tango! at the London Hippodrome in 1913. According to a Times obituary, his performance as a dogged suburban householder Fortifying the home against enemy spies in Razzle-Dazzle in 1915, remains in many elderly memories, as one of the joys of the dreary years of the last war (The Times, 15 Feb 1940). Tate was one of the first entertainers to be broadcast on radio, and later played a substantial number of supporting roles in films, beginning with Her First Affaire in 1932 and including an appearance in the first British technicolor film, Wings of the Morning in 1937. He continued, in spite of rumours of his heavy drinking, to be held in high esteem throughout the thirties, touring with his son, Ronnie Tate, until his final performance in All Clear at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in December 1939.
Harry Tate died on 14 February 1940 at Sutton, Surrey, having suffered a series of illnesses including partial blindness and a heart attack. His claim to journalists that these were consequences of his having been injured during one of the first air raids of the Second World War has been taken literally by many commentators. Others have seen it as the irrepressible and enduring last laugh of a humorous and highly talented wag.
J. Fisher, Funny way to be a hero (1976) · R. Wilmut, Kindly leave the stage! (1989) · W. MacQueen-Pope, The melodies linger on (1950) · Motoring, Fishing, H. Tate and others, The old time stars' book of comedy sketches (1971) · Fishing, The old time stars' book of comedy sketches (1971) · The Times (15 Feb 1940) · J. Agate, Ego 4: yet more of the autobiography of James Agate (1940) · G. J. Mellor, They made us laugh (1982) · R. Busby, British music hall: an illustrated who's who from 1850 to the present day (1976) · J. R. Nash and S. R. Ross, The motion picture guide, 12 vols. (1987) · b. cert. · WWW · microfiche, General Register Office for England
BFINA, documentary footage
BFINA, performance footage
BL NSA, documentary recordings
BL NSA, performance recordings
H. Rogers, photograph, V&A, theatre collections [see illus.]