Charlie Chaplin blue plaque unveiled

A block of flats over a newsagent and a dry cleaners, on a busy main road in Brixton, south London, might not be everyone’s dream home, but to the teenage Charlie Chaplin, having survived a childhood as grim as any Dickens novel, it was a palace.

The comedian Paul Merton unveiled the English Heritage blue plaque on Glenshaw Mansions, honouring the home Chaplin shared with his older brother Sydney and recalled as “a cherished haven”.

Merton said the plaque was a reminder of the humble origins of one of the greatest comic geniuses of the early 20th century. The flat, with its little bit of grandeur in the stained glass over the narrow front door, was the first comfortable, permanent home for the brothers, and they furnished it with £40 worth of cheap, gaudy furniture – £15 over their budget.

Merton said Chaplin’s earliest films were out of copyright and were now often shown fragmented, out of sequence or with completely inappropriate soundtracks.

“But was he funny? Ask the people who have been laughing for 100 years.” In 1925, Merton said, the infant BBC broadcast Chaplin live from the Savoy – which for the radio audience meant 15 minutes of listening to an audience roaring with laughter at silent clowning.
Chaplin’s granddaughter Kathleen, a singer, was there with her seven-year-old son Jaydn – and said he was already filching her iPhone to make films. His great-grandfather, Jaydn said solemnly, was very funny.

Jaydn modestly declined to demonstrate the comedian’s famous walk, so Christer Jonsson, a Swedish comedian, magician and fan, who had come complete with battered topper and cane specially for the occasion, obliged.

Chaplin spent his early years within a few miles of the mansion block. They left him with an enduring sympathy for the poor and marginalised, embodied in his Little Tramp character.

He had no birth certificate, but believed he was born in 1889 in East Street in Walworth. By 1908 the brothers were orphans. Charlie’s father, Sydney’s step-father, skedaddled when he was two, and died through alcoholism. Twice their destitute mother was forced to put the boys into the local workhouse, a time Chaplin recalled with heroic understatement as “a forlorn existence”. A few years later his mother would be confined to a mental hospital for life.

But in 1908 their fortunes were on the up: Sydney had just got Charlie his break with the famous Fred Karno company and despite the impressario’s doubts about the “pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster”, he was an instant hit with audiences.
They had money to spend, and Chaplin fondly recalled the impact of their £40 outlay on the top floor flat, their couch and two armchairs, Moorish screen backlit with a yellow bulb and tasteful pastel of a female nude, “a combination of a Moorish cigarette shop and a French whorehouse. But we loved it.”

The block was only a few years old when the brothers moved in and has proved as indestructible as Chaplin’s reputation. The area has been extensively redeveloped, and in the Blitz a bomb destroyed the neighbouring site, but Glenshaw Mansions would still be instantly recognisable to him.

In 1910 Chaplin left Brixton for America, leaving a note instead of saying goodbye to Sydney. There, a natural in moving pictures, he would become one of the greatest stars of the 20th century. The films he wrote, directed, composed the music for and starred in, including Modern Times, The Great Dictator and City Lights, would make him famous and loved across the world – but as Greg Dyke, a member of the English Heritage blue plaques panel, said: “London was where Charlie Chaplin grew up and first made people laugh.”

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