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Master showman was the Simon Cowell of his day

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: January 19, 2010

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COMEDIAN Tim Brooke- Taylor will be leading a tribute to the Exeter-born master showman and talent spotter Fred Karno during Britain's biggest festival of visual film comedy, Slapstick, which opens on Thursday.

Karno was the Simon Cowell of his day and the event is seen as a long overdue acknowledgement of his ongoing contribution to silent humour, according to Slapstick director Chris Daniels.

He said: "The comic forces he mustered and nurtured, including Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, not only became giants of the silent screen, but pioneered a style of physical comedy which still flourishes today.

"The fact is that Karno was the star-making Simon Cowell of his day."

During the tribute event, on Saturday at Watershed, Bristol, Tim Brooke-Taylor and author Tony Staveacre will explain how a Devon cabinet-maker became a show business leader.

Their banter will be illustrated by rare archive footage of Fred Karno's work, and clips featuring many of the comics he encouraged, including Chaplin, Sandy Powell, Flanagan & Allen and Will Hay.

Born Frederick John Westcott in Exeter's Paul Street in 1866, Karno started out as a trainee plumber, but was soon attracted by the circus and pantomime. He created opportunities for new stage talent and became a well-known music hall comedian and later an impresario.

He took over the Royal Public Rooms, in London Inn Square, Exeter —where Boots stands today — in 1908 and created the Hippodrome.

Karno, who died in 1941 aged 75, started his career as an acrobat but became a producer of vaudeville acts, and opened theatres in several towns.

He brought to Exeter his own show, The Mumming Birds, with the then little-known Charlie Chaplin in the cast. He also started Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame, on the road to stardom. His name was also immortalised in a soldiers' marching song from the Great War called We Are Fred Karno's Army.

For details about The Real Fred Karno show, visit www.watershed.co.uk.

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