Queer Kinship and Shared Nuance – An Interview with Alison Child, by Thom Cuell

Tell Me I’m Forgiven is the story of the inter-war music hall stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney. Drawing on press reports, previously unheard interviews, and diaries, the book not only explores the nuances of an unconventional and sometimes tempestuous love affair, but also shines a light on 1920s lesbian subculture. The book has been shortlisted for the 2020 Polari First Book Prize, the winner of which will be announced on 15 October.

First of all, can you give us a brief introduction to Tell Me I’m Forgiven?

It’s biography of two women, born in the 1890’s, who met each other performing in a First World War concert party. They came from very different socio-economic backgrounds but they were drawn together by a shared sense of humour, a respect for each other’s musicianship and mutual desire. Gwen Farrar was a cellist and Norah a pianist and singer. They fell in love and formed a musical comedy double act, becoming household names in the 1920s and mixing with the era’s most interesting and infamous bohemians and stars.

How did you first find out about Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney, and when did you realise that their story was going to become a major project for you?

Seven years ago I was living in a tiny Dorset village, beginning the lonely process of leaving a conventional marriage and coming out as a lesbian, in my fifties. I was part of an amateur production of “Oh! What a Lovely War!” at Salisbury Playhouse, and the director urged the cast to research the entertainment world of 1914-18. I was excited to discover the male impersonator Ella Shields. Her story inspired me to start writing a one-woman show. At the same time I met Rosie Wakley, a performer and theatre production manager. We got together and the play became a two-hander.  Silent footage I found on Youtube of Gwen and Norah larking about on a golf course intrigued us both. Here were two women, demonstrably in a romantic relationship, who might have served as role models for us both, if their story hadn’t been hidden for decades.  Blaney & Farrar immediately became the prime focus of our research and performance.

In your introduction, you mention attempting to recreate some of Gwen and Norah’s songs yourself – can you tell us how that went?

In 2014 Rosie and I formed a theatre company, Behind The Lines, and we took our first show, ‘All The Nice Girls’ to the Edinburgh Fringe. Our target audience were people who might remember watching re-enactments of musical ‘turns’ on the TV show, ‘The Good Old Days’ in the 1970s. We used sleight of hand to attract older, more conventional-seeming people who might not have chosen to see a lesbian love story. It was part of our mission to make queer work for non queer-identifying audiences. The show told Gwen and Norah’s story, through the eyes of Ella Shields and used well-known songs like, ‘All The Nice Girls Love a Sailor’ and ‘If You Knew Susie’ (originally sung by Shields) to introduce some of Gwen and Norah’s more quirky and romantic repertoire. We tracked down old sheet music and recordings, transcribed the lyrics and musical arranger Sophie Aynsley produced the piano parts. Comedy cellist Kate Shortt, clasically trained, like Gwen, added improvised harmonies and jazz touches in our more recent performances.  The reviewer from the Stage called the show, ‘cheeky, touching, with charm and conviction…a wonderfully vital insight into a different time’. We got some funding and toured ‘All The Nice Girls’. At Epsom Playhouse a local historian, Jeremy Palmer, introduced himself. He became my co-researcher. We later took the show to the King’s Head, Islington and Rosie and I made a CD of the songs. We don’t do justice to how brilliant Gwen and Norah were. They were consummate musicians. Even when impersonating the twanging of ukulele strings for comic effect they were pitch perfect and very, very funny.

They are largely forgotten now, but can you give us a sense of how well-known Gwen and Norah were, in their day?

In 1921 The Sunday Post reported, “Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney are, of course, the premier British double turn at the piano.” This article marked their appearance at the first of the regular Royal Variety Performances in November 1921.  They were very well known throughout the 1920s appearing in numerous West End revues alongside stars such as Gertrude Lawrence, Beatrice Lillie  and Maurice Chevalier. In his 1958 book ‘The Footlights Flickered’ critic W. MacQueen-Pope wrote,

“The team of Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar was to become famous. Norah Blaney, so pretty and accomplished could sing, play the piano, compose and act as well. Gwen Farrar was an eccentric, deep-voiced, a really funny comedienne with a turn for doing the unexpected such as suddenly playing the cello with perfect artistry. They were a tower of strength in any show.”

What light can their story shine on lesbian subcultures of the inter-war years?

If one thinks of Radclyffe Hall and her partner Una Troubridge, the Paris salonnière Natalie Clifford Barney, the speed boat pioneer Jo Carstairs, Gwen Farrar was associated with them all and it was thrilling to explore these links. Visiting an archive in Paris I found correspondence between Gwen and Natalie Barney on the subject of their mutual love, Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s niece). Jo Carstairs (the subject of Kate Summerscale’s excellent biography The Queen of Whale Cay) named an expensive new speed boat after Gwen, but rechristened it ‘Newg’ (Gwen backwards) when it capsized. According to Una Troubridge’s diaries she and Radclyffe Hall were fans of Gwen and they cultivated a friendship with her. In the book, I suggest that the protaganist of Hall’s novel , The Well of Loneliness may even have been partly based on Gwen.

Gwen and Norah’s story illuminates what we already know about that world of fast-living, wealthy, white women with their transatlantic voyages and trust funds, but it also sheds a glimmer of light on the black and sometimes queer artists of the Harlem Renaissance such as Gladys Bentley, Florence Mills, Josephine Baker and Edna Lewis Thomas, whose stories richly merit further exploration.

Many of the stories that Norah tells involve secret body language and repressed languages – as a biographer, how do you go about teasing out these small nuances, and what do they say about Gwen and Norah as a couple, and queer relationships in general?

I’m so glad you’ve picked up on this. I was fortunate to be able to track down a retired actor (now in his eighties), Derek Hunt, who had, in his possession, a set of brittle cassette tapes.  These contained recordings of interviews he conducted with Norah in 1976. By then he had been a friend of Norah for several years and they had developed a rapport built on camp humour and a love of musical theatre history. Of course the 1970s were still a time when queer relationships were unacknowledged or derided in the mainstream and, since the interviews were made in the hope of a wider audience, Derek and Norah were careful to code their language. Having got to know Derek well, I have learned from him what was also said when the tapes were not rolling. These stories come to me, and to the reader, many-layered.

In terms of relationships in general, I think Derek and Norah’s conversations tell us quite a lot about queer kinship and the shared nuances that can be conveyed through body language and face-to-face contact. This was true of Gwen and Norah too. Because of the need to hide their relationship from disapproving family and members of the public not ‘in the know’, there was an added layer of adrenalin that heightened their romance and this becomes evident from hearing Norah’s reminiscences. She is speaking ‘off the cuff’ and her highly expressive voice never seeks to disguise the visceral delight she is feeling as she recalls her adventures with Gwen. There is an added element here; as highly trained musicians, Gwen and Norah were both acutely sensitive to the pitch and pace of each other’s voices and performances. Entwined with this was their shared gift of comic timing and delivery. These attributes were essential components of their on stage and off stage chemistry. In several of their vocal recordings they exchange banter during instrumental breaks. Journalists who interviewed them very often quoted verbatim chunks of their ‘back chat’. Reading and listening to these exchanges was very helpful to me in understanding their interaction and appeal. I’ve discussed this with theatre historian Charles Duff, whose mother Caroline was a great friend of Gwen. He confirms that their conversational style was high camp and suggestive, in the style of their mutual friend Beatrice Lillie (once called ‘the funniest women in the world’).

Throughout the story, we see considerable pressure put on Norah to conform, culminating in her marriage to a very respectable doctor. Do you feel that Gwen was insulated from this to a degree, by her independent wealth? And what were the pressures Gwen faced?

One of the biggest differences between them (apart from what you could describe as Gwen’s more ‘masculine’ demeanour) was the fact that Norah was an only child. Her parents, who had hot-housed her from the start, were still imposing their high expectations on her well into her thirties. In  photographs of her daughter’s wedding to Basil Hughes, Norah’s mother beams with approval.

As one of six girls, Gwen, on the other hand, asserted her independence early, saying she’d do a handstand and a Charlie Chaplin impression if her mother tried presenting her at court. Despite strong early pressure from her nouveau riche mother to conform to conventional notions of femininity, Gwen never did, and both her parents were dead by the time she was 25. You’re quite right, the large inheritance from her father meant she never needed to work or find a husband.

The pressures she faced, after that, stemmed from having been made to feel an outsider as a child and then defensively assuming the ‘clown’ role. In music hall terms her ‘type’ was the ‘feminine grotesque’. She increasingly chose songs with self-deprecating lyrics and made herself the butt of the joke, albeit in a deadpan, haughty way. In real life she was less thick-skinned than her on stage alter ego. She craved love and affection and easily gave in to the temptations of brandy and other spirits when trying to maintain her self-respect. The bohemian world she lived in socially was, in Noel Coward’s words ‘jagged with sophistication’, providing little comfort, while wider society was homophobic, obsessed with her image as a buffoon and, at the end of Gwen’s life, in the throes of the second world war.

The popular perception is that the existence of lesbianism wasn’t acknowledged in the Victorian era and beyond, but what was the public attitude towards female same-sex relationships during Gwen and Norah’s career?

The book charts changing attitudes to female homosexuality during this period in some detail, from the Maud Allan affair in 1918 through to the 1980s when Norah still felt obliged to play down the significance of her affair with Gwen when she was institutionalised in a nursing home.

When Gwen and Norah began their double act the image of plucky women doing their bit in the war met with approval from the press and public. Fashions, too, soon favoured an androgynous look that made cropped hair the norm and helped Blaney & Farrar seem perfectly on trend. When Gwen and Norah sang the popular love songs of the day to each other on stage, their binary presentation; Gwen gruff in a trouser suit, Norah, charming in a dress, audiences thought they were sending up conventional hetero pairings and they laughed as loudly as they did at their topical songs. Few members of the general public would have considered their offstage partnership anything more than a jolly friendship.

Towards the end of the 1920s the press became more suspicious and censorious, with the banning for obscenity of The Well of Loneliness. The Wall Street crash meant bohemianism in general was regarded with disdain. Fashions changed. Homosexuality, which had never before been a widely understood concept, started to be whispered about, but in terms of a disease.

In some ways, the fate of Gwen and Norah in their later years – respectability on the one hand, and dissolution on the other – is a forerunner for many fictional and non-fictional lesbian couples. Do you see much having changed in terms of opportunities for lesbians to carve out their own space in the world since Gwen and Norah’s day, or are we still seeing these stories repeated?

There have been enormous positive changes in the past thirty years, but it would be wrong to become complacent. It’s important that young people and future generations understand that today’s freedoms were hard-won. Dedicated queer spaces are sadly being lost as mainstream society becomes more inclusive.  In the world of queer performance I would like to see drag kings celebrated and fully included in the increasingly popular and mainstream drag scene. Butch lesbians should be more visible, not least so that gender-questioning young people don’t feel under automatic pressure to change their bodies. It’s great that Nicola Adams will be appearing on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ – a real break through. It’s also been very heartening to see Hannah Gadsby become a Netflix sensation and I hope she continues to new heights. She has some interesting things to say about the perils of self-deprecating humour that pertain to Gwen’s experience.

What does the inclusion of Tell Me I’m Forgiven on the Polari Prize shortlist mean for you? 

Over the past 6 years I’ve been along to some of the afternoon writing workshops that precede Polari events. One or two participants are always chosen to perform a short piece at the evening show. Although I learned a lot from the workshops, I was never picked to perform in the evening. I’d feel disheartened, but I remember the point where I made a conscious choice to get on with the book anyway, using what I’d learned, and just write, as if Gwen and Norah were spurring me on.  So it feels extra marvellous that the book has been shortlisted; the best kind of reward for my resilience. Of course I share the credit with my outstanding editor, Helen Sandler from Tollington Press, with my partner Rosie and, the wonderful, forgotten no longer, Gwen and Norah.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?

I’d like to adapt Gwen and Norah’s story for TV. It’s naturally episodic and there’s enough material for several seasons, don’t you agree?

There are also fascinating figures like Teddie Gerard, Gabrielle Enthoven and Gladys Bentley whose biographies have never been written as far as I know.

Alison Child holds a degree in history from Cambridge University and a Masters in Research from the University of Brighton. She is the creative director of Behind The Lines Theatre Company and for them has devised three plays, All the Nice Girls, Deep in the Heart of Me and Fall of Duty. As a member of the Cambridge Footlights she co-wrote and performed in two revues, touring nationally. In 2014 she took part in the Royal Court Playwriting Scheme. Her most recent acting role was as Sappho in Sappho Singing, a film shot in Skala Eressos, Lesvos,where Alison lives with her partner, Rosie, when they are not at home in Brighton.

Tell Me I’m Forgiven: The Story of Forgotten Stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney by Alison Child has been shortlisted for the 2020 Polari First Book Prize, the winner of which will be announced on 15 October.