My history hero: Charlie Chaplin

“The world needed cheering up after the First World War. His Little Tramp brought so much joy to so many people – you’d have to be made of stone not to laugh at Chaplin”: Chat show host Michael Parkinson selects a legendary actor and comedian

Charlie Chaplin, in a still from his 1936 film 'Modern Times’. (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)

Charlie Chaplin was a comedian and film-maker whose ‘Little Tramp’ persona helped make him silent cinema’s biggest star. He grew up in London in poverty, began performing in music halls as a boy, and at 18 or 19 joined the Fred Karno troupe, ending up in Hollywood. He was later accused of communist sympathies and forced out of the US, settling in Switzerland, where he died aged 88.

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When did you first hear about Charlie Chaplin?

Through my coal miner dad, John, who took me at the age of five or six to the local cinema to see one of his films. My father – the other great hero in my life – loved the old comics and laughed so much that he fell off his seat into the aisle and was reprimanded by the cinema management. I was in stitches too. That cinema trip was the start of my lifelong love of Chaplin.

What kind of person was he?

Chaplin was the first great film star and the man who practically invented film comedy. He was an extraordinary individual – one of the true giants of the 20th century. He wasn’t a nice man, but most talented geniuses are not. He knew what he wanted, he was a slave-driver in the studio, and he worked people until their legs dropped off. But look where he came from: he was sent to the workhouse at seven, and when he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. So he was more than a genius, he was a survivor.

What made Chaplin a hero?

First and foremost, his ability to make the world laugh. And the world needed cheering up after the horrors of the First World War. His Little Tramp brought so much joy to so many people – you would have to be made of stone not to laugh at Chaplin. He spent years perfecting his craft, and his pratfalls, props (such as his bowler hat and cane) and funny walk were the product of his music hall years. Secondly, the fact that despite growing up in unimaginable poverty, he went to America and achieved so much, helping to create the Hollywood we know and becoming a cinema legend. Comedians since owe so much to him, and his humour endures to this day.

What was his finest hour?

For me The Circus (1928), in which the ringmaster of a struggling circus hires Chaplin’s Little Tramp as a clown, but discovers he can only be funny unintentionally. It earned him Oscar nominations for best actor, best director and best writing, but the Academy gave him a special award for “writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus”. In truth, he had so many finest hours, be it The Goldrush (1925), Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940).

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Nobody is perfect, and Chaplin certainly wasn’t. He liked teenage girls, and today he’d have been driven out of the film business. But I’m not judging him by his private life, I’m judging him by his genius for making people laugh.

Are there parallels between Chaplin’s life and your own?

None at all. My family might have been poor and working class, but I had a happy, safe life, while he had a dreadful childhood.

If you could meet him, what would you ask him?

Sadly, I never got to interview Chaplin. I think he was frightened to appear on a chat show in case his private life came up. Besides, I’d have needed a dozen chats to cover his extraordinary life! If I had met him, I’d have thanked him for making my dad laugh.

Michael Parkinson was talking to York Membery.

Michael Parkinson is a broadcaster, journalist and author who presented the talk show Parkinson from 1971–82 and 1998–2007. His new CD, The Great American Songbook, is out now.

Discover more history heroes through Radio 4’s Great Lives.

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This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine