Where Are They Now? Tad Wensleydale

Key's Cupboard

This week Frank Key recalls one of the great child actors, and asks: “Whatever happened to Tad Wensleydale?”…

A haggard, wizened old man, impossibly ancient, creaks across the stage, barely able to support himself on his battered crutches, which give off a powerful stench of linseed oil and dubbin. One of his eyes is dull, even dead. The other gleams with ferocity. The lights dim, and he crumples to the floor. Curtain.

This is, of course, the end of I Was Puny Vercingetorix, a play forever associated with the great child Method actor Tad Wensleydale. Some still find it hard to credit that a tiny tot of six could be so convincing as the one-hundred-and-forty year old antihero.

But whatever happened to Tad? Did he, like so many child actors, succumb to booze and pills before taking up an important post in the diplomatic service or the United Nations? Did he attempt to revitalise his acting career later in life by accepting cameo roles in witless films? Did he get a ghost to write a confessional autobiography freighted with implausible scenes of childhood misery?

Tad did none of these things. It is well known that he retired from stage and screen at the age of nine, after his barnstorming appearance as the demimondaine flapper in The Barn In The Storm, an award-winning drama about an old barn reduced to matchwood after being engulfed by a violent storm. As he took his umpteenth curtain call, the diminutive thespian announced that he would never appear in public again, and swept melodramatically off the stage. And indeed, it was as if he had vanished forevermore. As days turned to weeks turned to years with not a jot of news of the mighty stage-mite, so inevitably did speculative stories begin to circulate.

It was said that Tad had become a full-time Buzz Aldrin impersonator, in a scheme cooked up by the astronaut himself, a rumour regularly scotched by Aldrin, who socked more than one inquiring busybody on the jaw. Another tale had Tad grown mad and bad, filleting his foes with a shiv in a dive, a master of disguise with murderous eyes and mustard breath. Some said he had fallen in with goblins, and lived among them as their King, in a sort of goblin-pod, now underground, now high in the sky, but this was clearly codswallop.

The truth was more prosaic. Tad changed his name to Gus Ditch, opened a pie shop in Pang Hill, and lived out the rest of his days baking and selling Pang Hill pies to the pie-eating people of Pang Hill. It was an unremarkable and irreproachable life, banal even, a life filled with pies and pie-fillings. Tad – or Gus – rarely alluded to the meteor that was those first nine years, an infant actorly glory comparable only to the career of William Betty, “the Young Roscius”, whose grave in Highgate Cemetery is now sadly overgrown.

Tad Wensleydale’s own tomb, on which a solitary chaffinch is always perched, is, as he wished, a “baroque excrescence in questionable taste”, in the words of his own last will and testament, a remarkable document baked in pastry letters, filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd, and put into a pie.

William Betty (1791-1874), the proto-Tad, “not yet mature, but matchless”, a “British tragedian with feeling and propriety, he astonishes the judicious observers of human nature”.

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

5 thoughts on “Where Are They Now? Tad Wensleydale

  1. Worm
    October 7, 2011 at 12:16

    of course in victorian times with no child protection act or human rights, it was quite normal to send children as young as three to work down the mimes.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    October 7, 2011 at 13:00

    Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington
    Don’t put your daughter on the stage
    The profession is overcrowded
    The struggle’s pretty tough
    And admitting the fact she’s burning to act
    That isn’t quite enough
    She’s a nice girl and though her teeth are fairly good
    She’s not the type I ever would be eager to engage
    I repeat, Mrs. Worthington, sweet Mrs. Worthington
    Don’t put your daughter on the stage

    Regarding yours, dear Mrs. Worthington
    Of Wednesday, the 23rd.
    Although your baby may be keen on a stage career
    How can I make it clear that this is not a good idea
    For her to hope and appear, Mrs. Worthington
    Is on the face of it absurd
    Her personality is not in reality quite big enough, inviting enough
    For this particular sphere

    Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington
    Don’t put your daughter on the stage
    She’s a bit of an ugly duckling, you must honestly confess
    And the width of her seat would surely defeat
    Her chances of her success
    It’s – it’s a loud voice, and though it’s not exactly flat
    She’ll need a little more than that to earn a living wage
    On my knees, Mrs. Worthington, please Mrs. Worthington
    Don’t put your daughter on the stage

    Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington
    Don’t put your daughter on the stage
    Though they said at the school of acting
    She was lovely as Peer Gynt
    I’m afraid, on the whole, an ingenue role might emphasize her squint
    She has nice hands, to give the wretched girl her due
    But don’t you think her bust is too developed for her age
    No more buts, Mrs. Worthington, nuts! Mrs. Worthington
    Don’t put your daughter on the stage

    She ignored the advice, they all do, the smell of the greasepaint etc. If you happen, at this very moment, to be loading the car boot in Tesco’s car park the lassie who served you at the checkout was that very daughter.

  3. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    October 7, 2011 at 13:57

    Unaccountably, the really quite good Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2011, editor: J. Law) makes no mention of Master Wensleydale but there is a decent piece on young Betty and indeed this:

    Theatrical Phenomenon, the

    Billing for the 8-year-old actress Miss Mudie, whose 1805 performance at Covent Garden in the adult role of Miss Peggy in The Country Girl has been called “the most imperfect performance ever witnessed on a London stage”.

    The precocious Miss Mudie, who had received rave reviews in the provinces, enraged a tough London audience when she attempted to play the ludicrously inappropriate role of wife and mistress with the otherwise adult cast. She was tiny for her age and theatregoers found the love scenes she played with the actor John Brunton either absurd or distasteful. Hissing and cries of “Off! Off!” resulted in Miss Mudie stopping the play, coming forward to confront the audience, and complaining: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have done nothing to
    offend you, and as for those who are sent here to hiss me, I will be much obliged to you to turn them out.” When a further plea from the manager, Charles Kemble, fell on deaf ears, an adult actress, Miss Searle,was substituted; nevertheless the uproar continued and the evening ended in chaos.

    Kemble was not above enjoying the furore generated by the small girl. When asked if she was really a child, and not, as some alleged, a midget he replied:

    Child! Why, Sir, when I was a very young actor in the York company, that little creature kept an inn at Tadcaster and had a large family of children.

  4. rory@peritussolutions.com'
    October 7, 2011 at 16:55

    I sometimes think Frank must be a reincarnation of Brian O’Nolan (whose birth centenary fell this week). An agreeable cocktail of satire and fantasy.

    “You told me what the first rule of wisdom is,” I said. “What is the second rule?”
    “That can be answered,” he said. “There are five in all. Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any. Turn everything you hear to your own advantage. Always carry a repair outfit. Take left turns as much as possible. Never apply your front brake first…If you follow them,” said the Sergeant, “you will save your soul and you will never get a fall on a slippy road.”
    The Third Policeman

Comments are closed.