Ralph Lynn

Ralph Lynn was born in 1882 in Salford and became one of the most popular comic actors in interwar Britain. Together with Tom Walls, Ralph Lynn formed the heart of a comedy ensemble that put on 10 plays and adapted 9 of those into films. The plays were put on in the Aldwych theatre, which Walls co-owned. During the interwar period, the term ‘Aldwych farce’ signified a very specific type of comedy production.

A version of Lynn’s performances in these shows are still available to us through his film work, which in addition to the nine adaptations of stage productions also include another eight films with Walls, not based on an existing stage production. These seventeen films were all made in the period 1930-1937, during which Lynn was also still acting on stage productions. After this enormously productive period Lynn mostly turned his back on film work, although he continued to appear on the London stage until 1958.[1]

The celebrity power that ‘Lynn and Walls’ had during the interwar period is still evident, for example in A Night Like This (1932), where the song that plays over the opening credits repeatedly reminds the audience “It’s Lynn and Walls.” There is also a newsreel of Ralph Lynn crowning the winner of an international beauty contest in 1935. This shows he was well-known enough to be asked to perform such minor public duties; the clip also gives a flavour of his comic talents:

This British Pathé newsreel of 1927, which shows clips from the stage production of Thark at the Aldwych, quickly dispenses with character names and refers to the characters as “Tom and Ralph”. Coincidentally, the clip also demonstrates why the Aldwych crew waited until 1930, when sound film started to become available, before they made their first film: the plays’ reliance on witty dialogue does not translate to silent film.

Modern audiences, then, can best experience Lynn as an actor through the film work he produced in interwar London. His character is invariably the ‘silly ass’, a foppish, hapless man who never tries to get into problems, but always ends up there. Ben Travers, the Aldwych’s regular script writer, remembers Lynn saying of one of his characters “[he] didn’t try to be funny but just walked rationally and naturally into trouble.”[2]

In A Night Like This (1932) for example, Lynn plays the upper-class, dim Clifford Tope, who decides to visit a nightclub in London. On the same evening, undercover police officer Michael Mahoney, played by Tom Walls, is undertaking an observation of the club because he suspects that the (legal) nightclub is a front for an illegal gambling club. Once inside, Tope gets inadvertently caught up in Mahoney’s investigation, primarily by physically getting in his way. In his apparent incompetence and naivete, Tope keeps unintentionally assisting Mahoney. In the end, of course, the men manage to bust the illegal gambling operation that is running upstairs. Mahoney is rewarded with praise from his superior officer; Tope has made an impression on nightclub dancer Cora (Winnifred Shotter).  

The stage production of A Night Like This, which had been put on in 1930, had benefited from a comfortable budget, which shows in the use of the elaborate nightclub setting. It had even been planned to use a real horse on stage.[3] The film version confidently uses the attractive nightclub setting and uses the cinematic medium to its advantage, for example through the insertion of lengthy sequences of Cora’s dance performances (which was a common trope in interwar films set in nightclubs) and in its focus on action over dialogue.

In other films that were adapted from stage plays, the action is more static and much of the enjoyment derives from the quick dialogue. Take for example this clip from Dirty Work (1934) which had been performed at the Aldwych Theatre in 1932:

Here, Jimmy Milligan (played by Lynn, on the right) and Nettle (played by Gordon Harker, on the left) are trying to convince Clement Peck (Robertson Hare) to don a disguise, in order to stage a fake burglary in the jewellery shop in which Milligan and Peck work. This short description adequately captures the absurdity of the plot, which, like many of the Aldwych farces, hinges on deception, disguise, and misunderstanding.

The pleasure of these films is not in their intricate narratives, well-developed characters or their ability to transport audiences to fantasy worlds. Instead, they provide a constant stream of witty gags, mix-ups and farcical situations right up until the happy resolution of the narrative. Ralph Lynn’s talents were strongly geared towards improvised comedy and wordplay, and in the Aldwych farces he had a perfect medium to display his craft. However, the historic and cultural specificity of comedy, as well as its perceived lower cultural value, has meant that the films have been relegated to relative obscurity. Because Lynn did not work in any other genre, he, too, has been largely forgotten; but his comic instinct and timing still work for twenty-first century audiences.

Most of the Aldwych farces are available on DVD via Network On Air.


[1] Morley, S.  (2020, November 12), ‘Lynn, Ralph Clifford (1882–1962), actor’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37702

[2] Ben Travers, A-Sitting on a Gate (London: WH Allen, 1978), p. 90

[3] Ibid., p. 110