Gwen Farrar and Norah BlaneyGwen Farrar (1897-1944) and Norah Blaney (1893-1983) were well-known music hall performers of the 1920s and 1930s. They met whilst working as wartime entertainers for Lena Ashwell’s pioneering concert parties, touring behind the lines in Northern France during the First World War. As well as their on-stage relationship, the two were also lovers, of which they made no secret. Defying convention, they lived together, and at one time Gwen leased a property in Effingham, Surrey.
In 2014, a theatre company set up by partners Alison Child and Rosie Wakley to put lesbians centre stage and tell their stories, performed their first show partly based on Gwen and Norah’s lives. The play, called ‘All The Nice Girls’ has now been performed throughout the UK in theatres, community halls, pubs and care homes. Alison Child carried out extensive research into Gwen and Norah’s lives and work and in the process came across research by Jeremy Palmer of Effingham Local History Group, who was researching Effingham’s Bohemian set.
Alison Child published her biography of Gwen and Norah in December 2019, called ‘Tell me I’m forgiven: the story of forgotten stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney’. More details of the book are at Behind the Lines Theatre Company https://www.behindthelines.info/tell-me-i-m-forgiven-gwen-farrar-norah-blaney/.
We are grateful to Alison Child for the following text:
Gwen Farrar (1897-1944) and Norah Blaney (1893-1983)
Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney were recruited as classically trained musicians to be members of Lena Ashwell’s pioneering World War One concert parties. They were expected to perform highbrow repertoire but they quickly adapted their act to include popular songs, repartee and physical humour. Their on and offstage partnership was no secret and they lived together in the early 1920s while appearing in several West End Revues. In an interview with Norah in ‘Popular Music and Dancing Weekly’ March 8th 1924 she says, ‘we came back to England, and Gwen and I were such good pals that the thought of parting from each other was almost unbearable.’Gwen had spent much of her childhood in South Africa where her father had made a fortune in mining. Her family strongly disapproved of her decision to go on the stage. Her five sisters were all presented at court as debutantes but Gwen said, if she was made to do that, she would approach the dais walking like Charlie Chaplin and do a handstand in front of the Queen. The photograph from The Sunday Post May 9th 1920 shows her dressed very unconventionally for the time and the accompanying interview points out that she wanted to earn her own living, which was most unusual for a girl of her class and wealth.
She and Norah set about touring all over Britain with their variety act. Gwen’s role was to play the cello, sing and make ludicrously entertaining noises while Norah also sang and played the piano. Gwen would drive, with Norah as the passenger and all their stage props and costumes stacked in the back seats when they went on tour. The Victoria and Albert Museum holds programmes for the Revues they starred in and reveals they were versatile actors as well as singers and musicians.
West End success
In the West End they appeared in Pot Luck! (24 December 1921) Rats (21 February 1923), starring Alfred Lester and Gertrude Lawrence; and Yes! (29 September 1923), all of which were presented by André Charlot at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London. On 21 May 1924 they opened in another Charlot revue, The Punch Bowl, at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, with Alfred Lester, Billy Leonard, Sonnie Hale, Ralph Coram, Hermione Baddeley and Marjorie Spiers. Pamela Travers, who later created ‘Mary Poppins’, visited Gwen and Norah backstage and at home in the King’s Road, Chelsea in 1925 and wrote a highly enthusiastic article about them, ‘“Blaney and Farrar.” Once those two words would not have conveyed much to the public at large, but now they conjure up sounds of a ‘cello that sings divinely even when it’s playing rag-time and ridiculous mirth-catching topical songs that swing up to tumultuous applause. They have got their public these two – got it tightly in their hands.’
Gwen and Norah were friends with Radclyffe Hall, the author of the famous lesbian novel ‘The Well of Loneliness’. When the High Court banned the book for obscenity Norah said in a newspaper article, ‘I detest any form of censorship and having read the book I do say it is beautifully written and the style is delicate and restrained in the extreme.’ (7th November 1928 The South Wales Echo). After the controversy around the book lesbians were hounded by the press and the general public became suspicious of ‘mannish women’.
Perhaps under pressure from her parents, Norah married a Bradford surgeon who she met when he had treated an injury to her foot while she was in pantomime. She retired from the stage but on the eve of her wedding gave a farewell performance with Gwen at the London Palladium. On 15th February 1932 the Yorkshire Post reported, “The couple, who presented one of their distinctive double musical turns, were given a tremendous ovation, and Miss Blaney had to make a speech. The house was thronged, and every item by the pair, who were making the last of thousands of joint appearances, was cheered to the echo. They received many curtain calls and finally came through the tabs to receive handsome bouquets. When silence fell Miss Blaney’s speech was short but to the point: “I want to thank you for the wonderful way we have been treated all these years. I now want to say ‘Goodbye’ and give my love to you all. Bless you, and be as sweet to Gwen as you have been to us both.” Miss Farrar, it should be explained is remaining on the variety stage as a single turn.’
In fact Gwen had already established a successful performing partnership with pianist and entertainer Billy Mayerl. It was with him that she performed ‘Masculine Women, Feminine Men’ as well as George Gershwin’s ‘He loves and She Loves’. Some recordings of Mayerl and Farrar survive, as do audio recordings of Blaney and Farrar singing such titles as Cole Porter’s ‘They All Fall in Love’ and Jack Bennett and Jo Trent’s ‘Maybe I’m Wrong Again’. Several of their duets can be found on the 2002 audio CD conceived to accompany Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet.
The end of an era
For Gwen and Norah, 1932 marked an end to their professional partnership though they remained acquainted and performed together very occasionally, notably, as they had begun, for troops, this time in the Second World War. Gwen appeared in three British films, She Shall Have Music with Jack Hylton; Beloved Imposter with the popular Grenadian pianist Leslie Hutchinson; and Take a Chance in 1937, with Binnie Hale.
Gwen was at one time was romantically linked with Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead. She also had a relationship with Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly Wilde, and a close friendship with David Niven’s sister, Grizel, who was with her when she died of a stroke on Christmas Day 1944.After years farming in Cornwall with her husband, Norah went back to performing when she was widowed in the early 1950s and took on roles as diverse as a witch in ‘Macbeth’ for the RSC in Stratford to ‘Miss Leopold’ in the soap opera ‘Crossroads’. She died in 1983 aged 90.
Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney made a unique contribution to popular culture in the 1920s and 1930s. Their act was original, quirky and musically extremely accomplished. For many years they were fearless in their refusal to conform to social expectations. They were independent, talented and ambitious and it is fitting that they should be remembered and celebrated as LGBTQ+ icons.
Gwen and Norah featured in the LGBT+ History Month display at Surrey History Centre in February 2018. At an LGBTQ+ coffee evening ThatsTV Surrey recorded Ali Child (Behind the Lines theatre company) and Jeremy Palmer (Effingham Local History Group) talking about their research into Gwen and Norah. ThatsTV Surrey also filmed Di Stiff (Archivist) talking about the LGBTQ+ collections at Surrey History Centre. Watch the interviews on Youtube:
Watch a video by Alison Child about Gwen and Norah on You Tube
Winifride Elwes and Richard Elwes, Gervase Elwes: The Story of His Life, Grayson and Grayson, 1935
Audio tracks featuring interview recordings with Norah Blaney were made by Derek Hunt in 1977. Alison Childs worked on the interviews whilst a volunteer at London Metropolitan Archives (with permission of Derek Hunt and London Metropolitan Archives):
Norah recalls visiting Teddie Gerard with Gwen in Effingham (courtesy of Derek Hunt and London Metropolitan Archives)
Norah talks about performing at Polesden Lacy, Great Bookham, Surrey (courtesy of Derek Hunt and London Metropolitan Archives)
Rare silent film footage of Gwen and Norah performing can be seen on Youtube.
Further silent footage shows Gwen and Norah crossing the stage, Gwen in typically eccentric fashion.
The British Pathé website hosts the only substantial footage discovered of Gwen Farrar, dating from 1924 http://www.britishpathe.com/video/the-stars-off-stage-miss-norah-blaney-and-miss-gwe
Read more about Behind the Lines theatre company and their work. Details of All the Nice Girls can be found at http://www.behindthelines.info/all-the-nice-girls/ and a local review of can be seen at http://www.epsomguardian.co.uk/news/11778043.Play_to_bring_to_life_performing_duo_from_World_War_One/
For Effingham Local History Group see https://elhg.org.uk/. See their online exhibition, ‘All Sorts of Peculiar Things’ telling the story of the many fascinating artists and entertainers that came to Effingham, including Gwen Farrar, Norah Blaney and Teddy Gerrard https://elhg.org.uk/elhg-exhibition-2020/
Several blogs feature Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney and their social circles, including:
Footlight Notes blog http://footlightnotes.tumblr.com/post/55400116649/gwen-farrar-1899-1944-english-duettist;
The Malcolm Lowry commemorative blog http://malcolmlowryatthe19thhole.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/miss-gwen-farrar.html; and
the Elvira Barney blog https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/gwen-farrar/, which states that Surrey gay icon Beverley Nichols, visited Gwen at her Chelsea residence and described her as “grotesque but endearing”! Find out more about Beverley Nichols here.
The following images have been kindly supplied by Jeremy Palmer, Effingham Local History Group.
Click on the following links to download a pdf ( ) copy of the above articles:
Feature from Punch, 5 July 1924, showing Norah Blaney in a scene from The Punch Bowl revue. (Courtesy of the Illustrated London News Group)
Feature on ‘New Revues in London and Paris’ including ‘Two inimitable revue artists – Miss Norah Blaney (at the piano) and her droll friend, Miss Gwen Farrar’, from The Sphere from 25 April 1925 (Courtesy of the Illustrated London News Group)
Feature from The Sketch, 5 January 1927, showing Gwen Farrar, ‘popular variety artist’ drawing a caricature of herself to be sold for charity with other sketches. (Courtesy of the Illustrated London News Group)
Promotional feature from The Graphic, 15 October 1927, showing Norah Blaney handing out tea on an Imperial Airways flight ‘Silver Wing’. (Courtesy of the Illustrated London News Group)
Feature from The Sketch, 13 June 1928, showing Norah Blaney as ‘Mademoiselle Yvonne’ in Out of the Blue (Courtesy of the Illustrated London News Group)
Feature from The Sketch, 8 April 1931, showing Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney, and referring to Norah’s marriage. (Courtesy of the Illustrated London News Group)