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Jack Buchanan

Buchanan, Walter John [Jack] (1890–1957), actor and theatre manager, was born on 2 April 1890 at Helensburgh, near Glasgow, the son of Walter John Buchanan (d. 1902), auctioneer, and his wife, Patricia Purves McWatt (d. 1936). When his father died leaving little provision, the family, including Jack's elder sister, Jessie, moved to Glasgow where his mother took in boarders. Educated at Glasgow Academy, Buchanan tried his father's old profession, but his failure encouraged dreams of a theatrical career. He had a hard professional apprenticeship in the rough world of the northern music-hall as Chump Buchanan, patter comedian, adopting his schoolboy nickname; the rowdy hostility of the audiences remained engraved on his memory. But he persisted, finally making his West End début, in September 1912, as a dancing master in Lausi Wylie's comic opera, The Grass Widow.


Buchanan was declared unfit for military service, his health damaged by years of malnutrition. He began to attract notice for his immaculate attire and languid elegance, and emerged as a possible successor to George Grossmith when he appeared in Fred Thompson's Tonight's the Night at the Gaiety Theatre in April 1915. Stardom came in André Charlot's revues, beginning with Bubbly in 1917. Buchanan starred opposite Gertrude Lawrence in Charlot's most successful revue, A to Z (1921), where he first performed what became his signature song, ‘And her mother came too’. Transferred to Broadway as André Charlot's Revue of 1924, the show successfully introduced the American public to the distinctive charms of the intimate revue as opposed to the Ziegfeld spectaculars.


On his return to Britain Buchanan established himself as London's pre-eminent actor–manager of musical comedy. From the Ruritanian antics of Douglas Furber and Harry Graham's Toni (1924) through to Furber and L. Arthur Rose's It's Time to Dance (1943), his shows followed a set pattern, designed to demonstrate his versatility as a comedian, singer, and dancer. He performed with several glamorous ingénues, including Binnie Hale, but his long-term partner was Elsie Randolph, starting with Furber's That's a Good Girl in 1928. His throwaway nonchalance was complemented superbly by her spirited vivacity. Theirs was a world of light-hearted facetiousness played out in glamorous modern settings created by leading designers such as Ernest Stern. Buchanan rarely strayed from this milieu. When he played the romantic lead in The King's Rhapsody after the sudden death of Ivor Novello in 1951, it was from duty not choice.


Buchanan starred in two early Hollywood talkies, Paris (1929), and Monte Carlo (1930) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. However, he was supplanted by the Gallic charms of Maurice Chevalier and reverted to British films, which were usually straightforward adaptations of his stage successes, including That's a Good Girl (1933) and This'll Make you Whistle (1936) for Herbert Wilcox's British and Dominion. His romantic lead in Wilcox's Goodnight Vienna (1932) opposite Anna Neagle was an exception. Brewster's Millions and Come out of the Pantry (both 1935) were better tailored to his image as the affable playboy. He made a late return to Hollywood in MGM's The Band Wagon (1953). His duet with Fred Astaire showed the profound differences between American pep and English aristocratic nonchalance.


Buchanan's popularity was augmented by sales of sheet music, records, and his frequent performances on radio especially during the Second World War, including The Jack Buchanan Programme. The eight-part series Man about Town (1955) was a huge success, recreating many of his most famous sketches and numbers. He also compèred many variety shows on radio and subsequently television and made guest appearances on both sides of the Atlantic.


Buchanan had extensive business interests. In various partnerships he built and owned the Leicester Square Theatre and the Imperial in Brighton and also controlled the Garrick and the King's Theatre in Hammersmith. In partnership with J. Arthur Rank and Charles Woolf, in 1937 he formed Jack Buchanan Productions which owned Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. He jointly owned, with his schoolfriend John Logie Baird, Television Limited, an innovative manufacturing and rental company. His ambitious plans were often beset with financial difficulties, but among his fellow professionals Buchanan was known for his probity, generosity, and loyalty.


Buchanan's reputation as the ‘eternal bachelor’ was maintained by guarding the secret of his marriage, on 25 November 1915, to Saffo Arnau (b. 1893), a singer known professionally as Drageva; it was annulled in 1920 and the Daily Mail, at the time of Buchanan's death, suggested that it had been a marriage of convenience to allow Saffo Arnau British citizenship. In 1947 he met the American Susan Bassett, twenty-five years his junior. They were married on 14 January 1949 and lived with Theo, the daughter from her previous marriage. Buchanan also kept secret that he was suffering from cancer and he continued performing on stage, films, radio, and television right to the end. His last professional appearance was at the opening of Scottish ITV at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, in August 1957. His final film, The Diaries of Major Thompson, writer–director Preston Sturges's satire of the English gentleman, was released posthumously. Jack Buchanan died in the Middlesex Hospital, London, on 20 October 1957. His property ventures had depleted his estate, which was relatively modest. A private memorial service was held on board the Queen Mary, his ashes scattered on Southampton Water. An official service followed, at St Columba's, the foremost Scottish church in London.


Buchanan's achievement was to become an international male icon. He incarnated the urbane, fashionably elegant man about town, Mr Mayfair, able to overcome any obstacle in an easy-going manner. As his generation's Beau Brummell, in 1924 he introduced the prince of Wales to the American-style double-breasted dinner jacket, which rapidly became the modern norm. On stage or screen his tall, slim figure was always immaculately clothed, most often in midnight-blue tails, white tie, and silk top hat, with a black malacca cane. His limber dancing, apparently casual and spontaneous, was complemented by a slightly husky light tenor voice considered both pleasant and alluring. His whole style was especially notable for a relaxed, affable grace and charm which gave him tremendous sex appeal, but he was also admired by men who envied and hoped to emulate his insouciant savoir faire. It was a particularly British form of male display: understated, apparently effortless, the quintessence of ‘good form’ that refused to take itself too seriously.


Andrew H. Spicer Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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Taken on August 27, 2011