Funny Islington: Guide walks punters through Angel’s comedy history
- Credit: Archant
George Baddeley, 62, of Islington Guided Walks, charts how the Angel grew from a rural settlement just outside London into the home of clowning kings, pleasure gardens, music halls and more.
His Funny Islington tour starts in the 18th century and ends with attendees being ushered into The Bill Murray pub, a comedy club, in Queen’s Head Street, for one of its world-renowned free shows – evidencing the area’s enduring status as a comedy-hub.
“You follow through 300 years of ‘Merry Islington’,” said George. “Learning how it [Angel] has always been a centre of comedy and popular entertainment.
“So it’s a story a story that hasn’t really been told before.
“And I always look at different types of comedy from clowning to slapstick, comedy and great musical performances like Champagne Charlie [a popular music hall number].
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“In the medieval times Angel and Islington were popular areas overlooking and, most notably, having fresh water.
“People would come out for cream buns and also to soak in the therapeutic waters, as they thought it could cure all sorts of ailments, like women’s hysteria.
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“That’s how it developed in the 18th century to be known as ‘Merry Islington’ with places like Sadler’s Wells and Islington Spa and Higbury Barn [among] the many places for leisure and pleasure.”
Joseph Grimaldi, the “patron saint of clowns” who later had a Pentonville park named after him, was two years old when he first appeared at Sadler’s Wells in 1781.
Grimaldi was renowned for his physical comedy and playful interactions with the audience.
The clown, who lived in Islington and died in 1837, was a master of the pantomime tradition whose ideas continue to influence modern clowning.
“After that you had years of pubs with saloon bars and these often developed into music halls,” added George. “One particular example, Collins’ Music Hall, which was very significant in its time: Tommy Trinder, Tommy Cooper and Norman Wisdom all played there. Before that you had acts like Max Miller and Charlie Chaplin.”
The Gazette learnt that the actor and comedian Mr Wisdom was a cult figure in the Balkan state of Albania because his films were the only western films dictator, Enver Hoxha, would allow to be screened.
Sam Collins opened Collins’ Music Hall in 1836. The venue closed in 1958 and its Islington Green plot is now occupied by a Waterstones – although plans are in place to reopen it underground.
The tour also touches on the rise of cinema for popular entertainment, as George says 10 cinemas opened between 1909 and 1913 in Angel – and even Sadler’s Wells, now famous for its contemporary dance, opened a cinema on site in 1914.
“Salons developed in the 18th century and even more so in the 19th century,” said George.
“You might pay premium for your drinks, pieces of music, performance or comedy.
“And that continued into modern times with venues like the Camden Head [in Camden Walk, Angel] and the Market Tavern [which is now the Winchester pub in Essex Road] and both of them did stand-up with the likes of Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey and Jo Brand being on the list of people who started off there.”
“Eddie Izzard made his debut as a transvestite, as he called himself in those days, when he appeared at the Market Tavern [which stood in York Way].”
George was reluctant to give too much more away, saying anyone interested in his jaunt through Islington’s entertainment history can join his next tour on May 11,
“I would love to share what I have learnt with others,” he said. “Because there is so much to tell about Islington, and in particular the Angel’s history of entertainment and comedy.
“I would say humour is one of the things the British are most proud of. It’s one of our greatest achievements.”
George previously ran a social enterprise called Silver Comedy, where he collaborated with comedians such as Barry Ferns, who now runs the Angel Comedy Club, offering courses to “vulnerable and older people”.
Those joining his May 11 Funny Islington walk are asked to assemble outside Angel Station at 2pm.
Tickets cost £12 per head or £10 at concession rates and can be bought at eventbrite.co.uk.
Find out more about the Mayor of Islington’s official walking tours of the borough at islingtonguidedwalks.com.