Puppydog tails — 20 November 2012

A one-legged transvestite female impersonator could have lost England the American Colonies in a scandal that rocked Georgian society.

It was possibly the extraordinary life of Samuel Foote that provided the material for Peter Cook’s ‘One leg too few’ sketch, when Cook turns to Dudley Moore portraying a ‘unidexter’ Tarzan “I’ve got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is, neither have you”.

Born into what at one time had been one of the most illustrious families in England, a long running dispute – reminiscent of Dicken’s Bleak House – over his mother’s inheritance, had left the family impoverished. Later send down from Oxford for idleness and ill-behaviour Foote was to spend time in a debtor’s prison.

He would become the first person to write a true-crime novel recounting the murder at sea of one of his uncles by another uncle. He then went on to write some immensely popular plays, but if this had been the sum total of his success little be known about him today.

But in 1776 his life would change when the brother of King George III, the Duke of York played a practical joke on Foote to ride a horse. He was thrown off the animal and suffered a compound fracture of his leg. With medicine in its formative years the only recourse for this kind of injury was to have the leg amputated.

A little remorseful for Foote’s lost leg the Duke persuaded his brother to give Foote’s fledgling Hay Market Theatre a Royal warrant. This is why today it is known as the Theatre Royal Haymarket, it is also the reason actors say ‘break a leg’ to wish fellow thespians good luck.

Foote turned the leg amputation to his advantage by writing many highly successful one-legged comedies with him in the starring role. A route that Peter Cook avoided when he penned the famous ‘Tarzan Sketch’, giving Dudley Moore the one-legged part.

The ever resourceful Foote circumvented the censorship laws which forbade imitation of other people at that time. Any work written directly for a show had to be submitted to The Lord Chancellor. As much of his work was satirical Foote invented the tea party, which he charged its members for a dish of tea and they got a topical comedy on the side. This is why the Boston Harbour Riot was called the Boston Tea Party.

In 1776 his life would be turned upside down. By now one-legged Foote was Georgian London’s top celebrity, but his footman (presumably he only needed one footman) accused him of ‘sodomitical assault’. The press then erroneously named Foote’s accuser as Roger.

This gave the news periodicals the copy of a one-legged Foote ‘rogering’ a footman named Roger. To which retorted Foote “Sodomite? I’ll not stand for it”.

All this set Georgian society alight and as the coffee houses were discussing Foote’s predicament most failed to notice a certain Thomas Jefferson had written a rather good document declaring independence for his country, which had been ratified by 56 delegates to the Continental Congress.

The greatest lost figure of Georgian has now been the subject of an autobiography written by Ian Kelly who goes out on a limb to redress this oversight. Mr. Foote’s Other Leg.

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