Last Wednesday the Scottish Studies Research Group met for a fascinating presentation by PhD candidate John Ritchie
on ‘Sir Harry Lauder and Will Fyffe: Being Scottish in Early Sound Cinema’. John’s talk was based on his wider research, which focuses on how Scottishness is represented in films produced during the Transition to Sound period, from 1927 to 1933.
John started by introducing the twin figures of Sir Henry “Harry” Lauder (1870 –1950) and Will Fyffe (1885 –1947). Both were music hall artists that became international stars in the first decades of the twentieth century, as suggested by how American tribute acts to the former preceded his arrival in the United States. John gave examples of how Lauder and Fyffe were encouraged to record their music hall acts and stage routines for early sound films.
John then explored the performance of Scottishness as central to Lauder’s and Fyffe’s theatre practice. Although Lauder’s personification of Scottishness was more convincing, Fyffe’s too made a point of being identifiable as Scottish. In particular, costume and accent were used to signify Scottishness in music hall and sound film alike. Against a backdrop in which tartan costume became the signifier for nationality,the kilt was the most important element of the mise en scène. As for language, while Lauder’s voice came to represent Scottish language abroad, Fyffe too strove to realise Scottishness through language, but drawing on the east coast vernacular. The ways in which Lauder’s and Fyffe’s personification of Scottishness played to stereotype explains how the former could easily become a target of criticism for Hugh MacDiarmid, who resented how Lauder’s (hugely popular) performances provided an inaccurate, simplistic and derogatory representation of Scotland.
Sir Harry Lauder
A very interesting interdisciplinary discussion was sparked by John’s presentation, in which we were able to discuss parallels between film critics’ take on Lauder, still influenced by MacDiarmid’s loathing of his performances, and literary critics’ approach to the Kailyard school of Scottish fiction, similarly informed by MacDiarmid’s caustic rejection. We also enjoyed learning more from John about the transition to sound film in Scotland and the state of archival resources around the topic, while hearing some fascinating anecdotes about his research journey and findings.
Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday the 1st of June, at 5pm, Room A7, Pathfoot Building. We will hear from Dr Barbara Leonardi, a post-doctoral researcher here at Stirling, about ‘James Hogg’s The Brownie of Bodsbeck; An Unconventional National Tale’. All members of the Stirling research community, as well as Scottish studies enthusiasts from beyond, are very welcome to attend.