Outclassed By Jack The Ripper

The Dundee Evening Telegraph, on Wednesday, 2nd January 1924, published an interview with the actor Gilbert Payne.

In the course of the interview, the actor looked back on the highs and lows of his career in the theatre, and revealed, amongst other things, how his acting troupe were once rescued from a highly critical audience by none other than Jack the Ripper!


“On the first day of the year one can scarcely be expected to be on very good form for telling reminiscences. Can one, now?”

Mr Gilbert Payne glanced up quizzingly me when I approached him in his dressing-room at the King’s Theatre, Dundee.

“Of course not,” he continued.” Still one can always try.”

So Mr Payne tried and succeeded, for within half-an-hour he had told quite a number of interesting reminiscences.


Mr Payne’s appearance at the King’s Theatre as Idle Jack, in “Dick Whittington and His Cat,” is by no means his first in Dundee. He has, in fact, many associations with Dundee and district.

“I first came to Dundee, or, at least, to Broughty Ferry,” he said, ” in 1903. From then till 1915 I had the al fresco entertainments at Broughty Ferry, Carnoustie, Andrews, Perth, Forfar, and Arbroath, so you see you can hardly call me a stranger to Dundee.”


Successful as his ventures in entertainments of that kind have been, Mr Payne’s proudest record is one connected with pantomimes. His record is one that is probably unique, for though he has appeared in twenty-two pantomimes he has never missed a performance.

“There have been times,” he said, when I was not as fit I might have been. However, a touch of cold or influenza keeps one humble, and the satisfaction I’ve had in carrying on has been worth the trouble.”


Had there been such things as picture-houses when Mr Payne first went on the stage at the age of twelve, he might have become a child actor for the movies instead, and have received a fabulous salary.

As it was he received what he calls an “enormous” salary of two shillings and sixpence a week, living in.

The great Louie Freer was a young member of the same troupe, and received a salary just a trifle more “enormous” than Mr Payne’s.


After another short’ engagement, Mr Payne had about four years in the “fit ups.”

The company travelled about the country, visiting six towns a week, and playing dramas such “The Streets of London,” “The Two Little Sailor Boys,” “The Two Little Drummer Boys,” and “Is Life Worth Living?” ”

“The salary in that company was 35s a week,” said Payne, ” and when pay day came we often asked each other, with a rather bitter smile, “Is Life Worth Living?’ ” I can laugh at the memory of it now,” said Mr Payne, “but the life of playing drama in the ‘fit-ups’ was a hard one. Yet even then it had its lighter side.”


“I can still remember what happened when we were stranded in an English mining village. Things looked black, and the only way out of our almost desperate position was to run a ‘stock season ‘ in the Public Hall.

We opened our season on Monday slight, and for two nights we played that fine old drama, “The Lady of Lyons.

The company was a capable one, but not even the most capable actors in the country could have succeeded there. The miners simply were not having any, and they did not conceal their disapproval. “where’s the lions?”, was the favourite witticism, and they never seemed to tire of it.

On the Wednesday night we dropped “Lady of Lyons,” and played “Macbeth” instead. But our success was no better, for “Macbeth” was even more unpopular than its predecessor.


Our despair grew deeper and deeper, till one of the company hit upon a brilliant idea.

None of the existing plays, he said, seemed to suit the miners, so our best plan was to write a piece for them.

He looked up a number of old plays like “Dick Turpin,” “Charles Peace,” and “The Grip of Iron,” and, by dint of ingenious patching, produced masterpiece – Jack the Ripper.

Fortunately our company was suited for that production, for we had with us a quartet of girl dancers, who made admirable victims for Jack.


Though you can hardly describe the show as “going like hot cakes”, that was how Jack the Ripper was received. The miners hailed it as a “masterpiece”, and when the show was over one of the men invited us into the inn.

“Them’s the pieces you want to play, and you’ll be full every night,” said one of the miners to our leading man.

“What,” said our leading man, “do you mean that you would rather have “Jack the Ripper” than “Macbeth?””

“Of course I would,” said the miner. “And the man that wrote “Jack the Ripper” is a better playwright than Shakespeare.”

“Look here, mate,” said the miner, “what did Shakespeare know about drama?” The man that wrote “Jack the Ripper” was a hero.”

“He was a hero to us,” said Mr. Payne, “for he kept us going for two weeks there.

Unfortunately we could not find enough plays of that type, and we had no choice but to close down.”