Famous people in profile: Charlie Chaplin

He is one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces; an icon of the silent film era famed for his screen persona ‘the little Tramp’

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On the 125th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth, Peter Ackroyd has written a new biography exploring the life of the cinema legend. Here, in an interview with History Extra, Ackroyd reveals the man behind the moustache, and explains why he continues to fascinate…

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Q: What was Chaplin’s early life like?

A: He was born in London, and spent most of his childhood in Kennington. He was consigned to the workhouse, the poor house, and even the orphanage, because his mother – who suffered bouts of madness – could not cope with him.

As he grew older he went around the streets of England, taking up ‘odd jobs’. He had very little education, and effectively because a vagrant.

Q: How did he rise to fame?

A: He was employed by a group of clog dancers, ‘the eight Lancashire lads’. He toured with them at the age of 10, and soon became proficient. That was the beginning of his interest in theatre.

He went on to become a child actor, which proved to be a great chance for him to display his skills as a mimic and an entertainer.

He was then taken on by the Fred Karno travelling company as a juvenile act, and he became their key performer. With Karno he went to America, and while on his second tour was spotted by studio manager Mack Sennett [of the Keystone Film Company].

Chaplin was asked to join Keystone, and from there he went on to invent ‘the Tramp’. It’s not quite clear how he managed to create the costume. Some say he modeled it on the English poor, but others say he copied acts he had seen in music halls in 19th-century London.

It was a character to which he stuck, and which proved to be very popular. But he later decided to become a more ‘serious’ actor, which only made him more popular.

Q: While researching your book, have you discovered anything surprising about Chaplin?

A: He had a very bad temper, and was domineering. He was not a very nice person to be around – he was a moody individual.

Q: What inspired you to write a biography of Chaplin?

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A: I was inspired because he is from London, and I have always written about London. I found his story to be in many respects inspiring – his energy, enthusiasm, indomitable will and refusal to give up on anything.