Paul Robeson, the Gentle Gentleman

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson last visited North Staffordshire on October 31, 1958 when he appeared at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, as part of his final British tour.

Accompanied onstage by his longtime friend and associate Lawrence Brown, Robeson had a programme for the evening that was, as usual, extremely varied.

Over the years he had extended his repertoire to include spirituals, songs from his films and show, together with folk songs and popular ballads collected during his extensive tours from countries around the world.

These words were then arranged by Brown to suit Robeson’s rich deep voice. This was reflected at Hanley where, in front of a packed house, he entertained his audience with items by Handel, Bach, Smetana, Mussorgsky, Dvorak and a number of English folk songs and negro spirituals.

In addition, he gave an informal talk on the relationship between speech and song and a “dignified reclamation” of Othello’s farewell.

On the following evening the Sentinel’s at music critic, Jack Oliver (JO), wrote that to Brooks is magnificent voice was “as sonorous as one remembers it to be flexible, rich in tone and value,” adding that he held the audience “completely in school.” After the concert, he welcomed admirers into his dressing room where he sat at the small table autographing photographs and programmes.

Merely sitting there, it was as if he had a special presence about him. As he signed my own program I informed him of my fathers minor involvement as a extra in his film “The proud valley”.

At this, Robeson’s face broke into a broad smile. He rose, shook hands with my mother and greeted us most warmly.Towering above us, he explained in a soft voice that he was wholly proud of having made the film. Of all those he had stared in, he said, it was his favourite.

We both found him charming and my mother later referred to him as a “gentle gentleman” paragraph like many other artistes, Robeson spoke of the welcome here received in the area and how much he enjoyed the concert. He always enjoyed performing before working class people. He could relate to them and generally, they were the most appreciative. Having talk to us for what seemed like several minutes, he then met other admirers who were queueing along the corridors of the Victoria Hall, patiently awaiting an audience with the gentle giant. In later years I learned that Robeson was not merely being polite in his comments about “the proud of valley.” They are, in fact, documented.

The idea for the film was initially presented to him by film producer, David Marshall. The role he was offered of the hero-an ordinary worker-appealed to him from the beginning. Martial’s story was set in the coal mining Rhonda Valley and Robeson played the part of the aptly named David Goliath, a ships Stoker, who obtains work in the local mine.

But as the late Benny Green observed, “instead of playing a stereotype role as in earlier films, for the first time you played a normal human being living along with other human beings and coming to terms with the same problems which faced all men, irrespective of their pigmentation.” There was a whole lot of singing, naturally, and the film ended with a realistic underground disaster and a  hero’s death for Robeson’s character.

“The Proud Valley” was as close to a documentary as a film of the period could be. It put the real people of the Rhonda Valley on the screen and much of it was shot in the mining villages with real houses, streets and people. As it happened, there had been difficulty in finding a pit which would allow location filming, but this situation was resolved when the locally based Shelton Coal, Iron and Steel Co  Ltd gave permission for it to use of it’s Silverdale Colliery. Filming was carried out using many of the colliery employees as extras including my late father Syd Bebbington. Yet filmmaking being the deceptive trade that it is, Robeson acted out his role without ever visiting Silverdale. In the scenes there, his part was undertaken by local miners in long distance shops that film was Premier Leicester Square theatre, London, on March 8, 1940, by which time Robeson had returned to America.

In later years, despite being regarded in his own country as I’m “enemy of the people” because of his political views, he nevertheless went on to have a highly successful concert career. He died in 1976.


Original Article: The way we were supplement NO 37. the Sentinel, Sat.Jul.1998

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