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Old Mother Riley- Arthur Lucan. The Cinema Museum

August 15, 2013


Arthur Lucan – Old Mother Riley


In a couple of months time the London Cinema Museum will dedicate a day to the career and films of Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane.

 A one-day conference celebrating the Life and Films of Arthur Lucan , and the centenary of his marriage to Kitty McShane




Not strictly a “Pantomime” double act, as they rarely appeared in a pantomime, preferring to tour the variety halls with their act, which was pure pantomime in itself. Arthur Lucan was the archetypal dame character, and his wife Kitty the “principal girl” in their “Mother-Daughter” sketches. Their most famous sketch was “Bridget’s Night Out”, which fortunately has survived on film. The sketch involves the long suffering Lucan waiting for “Me Daughter Kitty” to come home. When she does the sketch encompasses double talk comedy, pathos, and a large dose of pure slapstick as a row ensues. Lucan as his washerwoman character destroys every piece of china on the set- hurling plates, cups and jugs until one piece remains intact..until of course he forgets he’s holding it and smashes it. The moment he realises..not daring to look , holding just the handle as he feels for the non existent jug is pure theatrical magic.

On stage Mother Riley and Kitty were constantly rowing. Unfortunately, their off stage rows were bigger than anything they could ever hope to produce on stage. As the undoubted headliners of the Variety Circuit in the 1930’s and ‘40’s they were soon to become film stars. They were to make fifteen films, during which time Mother Riley went to Paris, became an MP, went into the army, ran a circus, was stranded in the jungle, and finally in 1952 scared the life out of Bela Lugosi as “The Vampire”! This last film was without Kitty, by now the on screen/stage relationship had become very bitter indeed.

mr1  kitty1

Their Double act was formed in Ireland . Arthur Lucan was born Arthur Towle in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1887.He toured Ireland as a red nosed baggy trousered clown character, before meeting his subsequent partner, Kitty McShane (born Dublin 1897) in 1913.Arthur created their name “Lucan & McShane” after the Lucan Dairy in Dublin.

It was in a small Dublin pantomime that Lucan first put on the costume of the old Irish washerwoman. It was a character he would continue to play until his death in 1954.

The Dame in that panto was ill, and Lucan stepped into the role as Dame in “Little Jack Horner”. When they began touring their act their characters were simply “Mother” and “Kathleen”. They brought the act to England in 1919, with a “Family Row” sketch called “Come Over”. Arthur’s catchphrase to Kathleen was a constant

“Come over..” An extract goes:

Mother             “And did he kiss you?”

Kathleen:          “Yes, and I liked it, and I kissed him back”

Mother:            “Come over…..WHERE did he kiss you?

Kathleen:          “Between the Post Office and the Railway Station”

Eventually renamed “Old Mother Riley and her Daughter, Kitty” they appeared at the Alhambra in London in 1925. By 1932 they were starring at the London Palladium, with a dishevelled Mother Riley claiming “Every man before wedlock should be padlocked!”

“Bridget’s Night Out” appeared in the Royal Command Performance of 1934. Mother Riley waits for her Daughter to return after a date..”She’s left me all alone and she knows I can only read the clock when it strikes!” The clock strikes….”Oh dear. It’s One O’Clock three times!”

By 1937 Lucan and McShane were top of the bill in every major variety house in the country. The first “Mother Riley” film was made. Lucan and McShane were among the highest paid entertainers in the land. On stage Kitty offers to stay at home with Mother. Mother decides to celebrate..”I’ll give you a party. I’ll open a tin of sardines!” Offstage Arthur was a careful man with his money, with the exception of spending it on alcohol. Kitty made wise investments with her share.


In this bill for Leicester, Roy Rolland can be seen billed as part of their touring company. Roy would understudy Arthur, and later play opposite Kitty when she formed a separate variety bill.

Kitty made certain Willer Neal received second billing- he played her lover both on and off stage in the role of “Danny Boy”.

Lucan and McShane became headliners in every area of Variety- in theatres week after week, on radio and in pantomime. In 1939 they gave Jimmy Clitheroe his major break, casting him in their pantomime « The Old Woman Who Lives In A Shoe » and in the following year in their film « Old Mother Riley in Society ».

Their film career brought fame and fortune. These films, over seventeen of them became favourites with children as well as adults. In the 1960’s, after Arthur had died, and when the films were often over twenty years old, they were still repeated in cinemas in Saturday matinees as an added feature, and on television. The final film in 1952 had Hollywood’s Dracula, Bela Lugosi as guest artiste, before the ailing Hollywood star undertook his own gruelling UK tour in the play and in variety halls.

The Films of Arthur Lucan & Kitty McShane

  • Stars on Parade      (1936)
  • This film      has “Brigit’s Night Out “, Lucan & McShane’s stage sketch, and can be viewed on youtube :

At the time of Lucan’s death he was scheduled to film Old Mother Riley’s Trip to Mars

As the years passed Arthur was to lose control of his money, his act, even his very name as Kitty took the reigns. By the end of his career Lucan didn’t even own the rights to call himself “Old Mother Riley”. Kitty was touring their sketches with Arthur’s former understudy, Roy Rolland. At one point there could be two “Old Mother Riley” shows touring the country- one with Kitty, one with Arthur.

Such was the case when Arthur met his end, collapsing in the wings of the Tivoli Theatre in Hull. His partnership with Kitty had broken up in 1951. By the time of their last film they would each come into the studio to record their shots on separate days to avoid speaking to each other. Kitty’s investments had fallen apart- a Beauty parlour she opened lost £40,000, and Arthur owed the Inland Revenue £15,000. Since 1951 He had paid Kitty three quarters of his income. Arthur began to slide into bankruptcy and the bottle.

During the stage “Pantomime” “Old Mother Riley In Paris” in Hull Tivoli, Arthur died of heart failure, just before his first entrance. Roland Watson, the chief electrician carried Arthur ‘s body to his dressing room, and Frank Seton, Arthur’s cover was told to get into costume immediately. Whilst attempts were made to telephone Kitty to break the news, Ellis Ashton playing the Mayor announced “A slight delay to the programme”. The show went on with the majority of the audience in ignorance. I have a revue from the paper the next day that begins “despite the tragic death of Arthur Lucan, “Old Mother Riley” it was a splendid show.. costumes bright and…” The show indeed must go on!

When Peter Robbins and I played Panto at Hull New Theatre we asked members of the stage crew for information on the site of the Tivoli- now a bakers and cafe, and were shown the plaque, and the memorabilia inside the cafe.

mrbust    lucangrave2

We were taken to where the stage door would have been, and were fortunate that season to meet up with Roland Watson, who told us about Arthur’s funeral, which he attended. We visited the grave with its very modest stone (raised I believe by public subscription) with an epitaph that commended Arthur for the laughter of children everywhere. In recent times this stone has been replaced and a much grander memorial erected in its place, with a quote from one of Arthur’s films.

lucanorginalgrave    lucannewgrave

Arthur was buried in Hull-  at a time of day that made it impossible for most work colleagues to attend- Arthur’s « Ladies » – his front row fans attended, as did Kitty (arriving with one of arthur’s costumes according to Roland, which she placed on the coffin ), and the ceremony was kept short.

Kitty continued to tour with Roy Rolland before retiring.

 Roy Rolland

Roy played the role for a further twenty three years on and off, and brought the character of Mother Riley to a new generation of young people in appearances in Junior Showtime on Television. Sometimes billed as « Old Mother Kelly » he appeared in a sketch alongside Danny La Rue, recreating Lucan and McShane, with Danny La Rue as Kitty.

Roy lived in Rhyl at the end of his touring career, and while I was appearing at the Gaiety Theatre there in the late ‘70’s  he would call in sometimes during the matinees, or between shows, perch in the dressing room and talk about his days with Kitty.

Dennis Gifford wrote the Obituary of Roy Rolland

Following in a film star’s footsteps is not an easy task, even for what today passes for a professional lookalike. But when that star was an old Irish washerwoman in bonnet, shawl and button-boots on the outside, and a man who never showed his private face to the public on the inside, then the substitute performer is a rare one indeed. Such a man was Roy Rolland.

For the younger generation who never saw the famous comedian Arthur Lucan as the original Old Mother Riley, except perhaps in a foggy film re-run on early Channel 4, but instead grew up with Yorkshire Television’s Junior Showtime in the Seventies, the other Old Mother Riley will be an hilarious memory, even if they never knew she was really a man called Rolland.

Rolland was born in 1921 in Oldham, Lancashire, and thus, like his Mrs Riley predecessor, was never Irish: Lucan was born Arthur Towle in Boston, Lincolnshire. Despite being 34 years younger than Lucan, when Rolland was in his Riley make-up, white wig with a bun and a big bump on the end of his nose, the two comedians could have done a perfect twin sister act. Of course, Rolland had a master of make-up to show him how, for he had spent some valuable apprentice time both on stage and in film studio as Lucan’s stand-in, doubled for some active scenes, and gone on stage for his guv’nor when Lucan’s liquor consumption rose to an excess, an occurrence ever more frequent in Lucan’s later life.

The teenage Rolland, always in love with show business, started as a lowly cast member of concert parties and seaside summer shows around the North of England. Never making much of a name for himself, it was not until he happened by chance to meet Lucan around 1950 that he got his big break.

In 1952 Lucan made his final film, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, a horror comic starring Bela Lugosi, the original screen Dracula who was touring England at the time. This was Lucan’s only film without his lifetime co-star, Kitty McShane, who had grown too old and overweight to play Ma Riley’s daughter. Dora Bryan was cast instead, and Rolland was Lucan’s stand-in.

The Lucan and McShane team finally split assunder with Kitty retiring into drunken management and Lucan into drunken performance. On the evening of 17 May 1954, at the Tivoli Theatre, Hull, as the chorus girls cried “Here comes Old Mother Riley!” Lucan dropped dead in the wings. The understudy Frank Seton took over, and McShane soon sent for Rolland.

For a while Rolland topped the touring bills as both Old Mother Riley and Old Mother Kelly, a name-change that seems to have happened after some contretemps with McShane. She died in 1964, after which Rolland moved to Rhyl. Here at the Gaity Theatre he starred in locally popular revues with a pantomime every Christmas. Naturally he played the dame, who naturally was called Old Mother Riley, but now and then he made a change by portraying a fashionably-frocked Old Mother Goose.

In 1974, Jess Yates, then in charge of children’s programmes at Yorkshire Television, was producing a weekly variety show called Junior Showtime. Bobby Bennett, a clever young impressionist (his Hughie Green was especially brilliant), played the host, and tiny Bonnie Langford was his smart little stooge. Inspired perhaps by seeing Rolland at Rhyl, Yates popped him into a regular sketch in the heart of the show. Old Mother Riley, music-hall queen of the Thirties, film star of the Forties, was back in action, a telly star of the Seventies.

Riley entered from her cottage in Paradise Row, waved farewell to Ivy Ginochie, her neighbour, and sang “I’ll Be Your Long Dead Liver From Loverpool” as she made out her shopping list: “Half of best end of duck and three quarters of silverside of goose!”

I was the script-writer, drawing on my many memories of the original. But there was one major difference between Lucan and Rolland, despite the arms that wagged like railway signals and funny flat feet. Rolland was completely unable to manage the proper Riley gabble-talk, much of which I still recall from Lucan’s 1942 radio series. “Good evening, Mr and Mrs Wavelength, long, short and medium, Home and Forces and the cat’s- whisker. It’s me, I’m here and I’m taking the air!”

After the Jess Yates scandals and the disappearance of Junior Show Time, Rolland found himself a guest star in Danny La Rue’s Summer Show at the Blackpool Opera House. Here the two masters of drag played Mother Riley and her daughter Kitty in the remarkable recreation of the first great Lucan and McShane sketch from the 1930s. “Bridget’s Night Out” began with Riley lamenting the lateness of Kitty’s homecoming. The clock strikes three: “One o’clock three times!” The finale is a melee of smashed crockery as a huge dresser full of plates and dishes is reduced to rubble. It was the last laugh of British music-hall and of Rolland.

Roy Rolland, comedian: born Oldham, Lancashire 29 June 1921; died Rhyl, Clwyd 16 August 1997. Frank Seton was the actor called upon to take to the stage as Old Mother Riley as Arthur Lucan’s body was being taken to his dressing room. I had the joy and pleasure of working with Frank in two pantomimes, and he told me that despite everyone asking about “That” night- it had been a small part of a wonderful career, and was, of course a long time ago for a man that very much lived in the present.

Frank Seton- an obituary by Brian Lake. Obit

When Arthur Lucan dropped dead in the wings of the Tivoli Theatre, Hull, on Monday 17 May 1954, Frank Seton stepped into the costume of Old Mother Riley, the music-hall, pantomime, radio and cinema character who had been created by Lucan in 1934. Roy Rolland, chief understudy for the part, was not present on the night and after only a short break Seton took to the boards. He was described in the Hull Daily Mail the next morning as “a repertory and touring actor” who “acquitted himself so well” it was “a miracle”.

Seton himself said afterwards: “You can’t really take over a part like Old Mother Riley. It is entirely [Lucan’s] own characterisation. You just can’t mimic him.”

Frank Seton was born Francis Poupart in 1918, in Walton-on-Thames, south-west of London, into a family of market gardeners who became one of the biggest firms in the old Covent Garden, with impressive premises in Long Acre, turning over £80m in 1995, the company’s centenary year. Attracted to acting rather than an active role in the family business, he took the stage name of Frank Seton from the book that happened to be in his hand in 1937 when he completed his Diploma at Rada.

His first professional performance was later that year in Southampton (where, coincidentally Poupart’s had a branch); his last was in a touring production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1997.

Seton’s career of 60 years spanned music hall, repertory, touring, pantomime, television and film. He was rarely top of the bill – Toad of Toad Hall in 1984 was one exception – but rarely out of work. Well over a hundred appearances in television through the 1950s to 1980s made him a familiar face, without becoming a familiar name. His credits are impressive for viewers of a certain age: Dixon of Dock Green, Quatermass and the Pit, Z Cars, three small parts in Doctor Who (including a Sea Devil), Compact, The Two Ronnies, Rumpole, Ghost Squad, No Hiding Place.

In between times, Frank Seton travelled extensively, “collecting” theatres as football fans sometimes “collect” grounds. A voracious reader, he also collected books – often purchased from bookshops while on provincial tours. By the late 1980s, the collecting became more focused on the women writers of the 19th century – Mrs Braddon, Mrs Oliphant, Fanny Trollope and Mrs Gore being particular favourites – all this well before the burgeoning of modern academic “Women’s Studies”.

Latterly, his interests shifted to obscure male writers such as the long-forgotten G.P.R. James, whose turgid historical romances following in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott received much warmer critical reviews from Seton – no doubt heralding a revival of interest in the not too distant future. Perhaps it is wrong to say he was a “collector”, for his library, from first edition to cheap reprint, contained only books to read.

He was a genuinely nice person, someone who it was always a pleasure to anticipate meeting, always a pleasure to meet – full of generous gestures, jokes and bonhomie.

While undertaking renovations to his house in London, he acted the part of a workman (not so difficult for a man who had played “walk on” parts), looking busy but not fooling a real handyman who commented to one of Seton’s relations: “I don’t know why you employ that bloke – he doesn’t DO anything.”

A recent note sent, by post of course, to Jarndyce bookshop reads:
Advance Warning. An elderly book collector who is in such a low state that he has been reduced to buying NEW books will put his nose round the door . . . in search of a tonic. Can you put a spring in the step of this old party?
Alas, no more.
Brian Lake


 Kitty died  ten years after Arthur in March, 1964. They leave behind a legacy of films and the memorable “Bridget’s Night Out” as an example of comic genius and timing at its zenith. In the 1980’s Maureen Lipman and Brian Murphy appeared as Lucan and McShane in the excellent play ater- “On Your Way Riley!”


Arthur’s Blue Plaque in Forty Lane, Wembley, London.


Recently one of the last living connections with Arthur Lucan’s life in variety theatre dies. Dr Robert Kenny published this obituary of Slim Ingram, Stage Manager:


Many senior members of the profession will learn with sadness of the passing of
Slim Ingram, peacefully at his home in Blackpool on
15 June, aged 88.

Cyril Ingram, always known as Slim, started life in the theatre at the age of
ten, doing odd jobs for his uncle who was the manager of the New Theatre, Northampton.
In the 1940s he embarked on his long career in stage management and direction.
Slim was a gifted all-rounder and during more than half a century in the business
he worked with a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of artists in comedy, variety and
pantomime. In his later years Slim was manager of the St Helens Theatre Royal,
but his involvement in pantomime did not end until the early 1990s when he
appeared in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Bradford Alhambra, with a young Max
Boyce who became a firm friend.  The theatre was Slim’s life, and well
into his seventies he continued to work as company manager both touring and in
the theatres in Blackpool for Brian Connelly, Cannon & Ball, Hale &
Pace and of course Max Boyce, working for International Artistes.

But perhaps Slim’s most abiding claim to fame was as company manager and stage
director for the two Gaston and Andrée touring shows between 1952 and 1954
which starred Arthur Lucan as Old Mother Riley, without his wife Kitty McShane,
from whom he had split acrimoniously. Arthur collapsed in the wings of the
Tivoli Theatre Hull on Monday
17 May 1954 while waiting to go on. Slim carried him to his
dressing room where he died. Slim’s last letter to the stage in June 1997 was
an attempt to correct some erroneous impressions about Arthur’s last years.

I had the good fortune to meet Slim recently while writing a new study of the
lives and films of Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane, and he told me at great
length of his two years as the close friend and confidante of the man critics
have called ‘a comic genius.’ The information Slim gave me has helped me to
revise and correct the story of Lucan’s last years, and I had hoped that Slim
might be well enough to come to ‘A Celebration of the Lives and Films of Lucan
and McShane’ to be held at the London Cinema Museum on 12 October. Instead, we
shall show a filmed interview Slim gave some years ago to the actor Matt

The tribute at Slim’s humanist funeral on 28 June was spoken by his old friend
Bobby Ball of Cannon and Ball. The opening music was the Old Mother Riley jig,
and the large congregation said farewell to the strains of Monty Python’s
‘Always look on the Bright Side of Life.’ Slim was twice married, to Melody and
Jill, both deceased, and he is survived by Jill’s daughter Emma.

Slim was a true theatrical old-timer, and Emma tells me that as he slipped away
he murmured most appropriately, ‘Move those rostra to the back of the stage!’

Robert V Kenny

If you get a chance – go along to the fascinating jewel that is the London Cinema Museum ,

Tucked away in Kennington London, close to the Elephant and Castle, the story of Arthur, Kitty and the magic that was « Old Mother Riley and Her Daughter, Kitty » will be revealed in what looks to be a fascinating in depth event including  talks, discussions and film screenings.

Speakers will include

Dr Anthony Slide

Prof. Jeffrey Richards

Prof. Steven Fielding

and Dr Robert Kenny

author of a forthcoming study, The Man who was Old Mother Riley

for further information contact Robert Kenny

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  1. Jojo permalink

    In my personal view, there is only one Old Mother Riley and that is Arthur Lucan. Just as there can only be one Hinge & Bracket, George Logan & Patrick Fyffe.

  2. Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi permalink

    Thank you for a very interesting article. Regarding Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, it was filmed after Bela Lugosi’s UK tour of Dracula, not before.

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