You really couldn’t make this story up. Young man in prison writes a best seller about the gruesome murder of one of his mad uncles by another uncle, who is then hanged for the crime. Suddenly famous, the young man turns to acting as well as writing and becomes a brilliantly successful celebrity impressionist, flouting convention and good taste in equal measure in his transvestite comedy roles and biting satires. At the height of his fame a practical joke goes badly wrong and, following a fall, the no longer young man has a leg amputated without anaesthetic. But following recovery, the now suddenly old man, enjoying royal favour, becomes increasingly reckless and is involved in two trials encompassing bigamy, buggery and defamation. In spite of lurid accusations by his young coachman of an attempted violent homosexual rape, testimony so shocking the judge decides it cannot be published, he is found not guilty but dies soon after, more notorious than famous.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg, which tells this extraordinary true story, is much more than a biography. It’s partly a play in three acts (there is a dramatis personae, or helpful ‘programme’ note on characters), partly a Greek drama full of hubris and nemesis with the author as chorus, and part medical history (medicine has long been a different kind of theatre). Ian Kelly sees the life of the unhappily named Samuel Foote as a constantly developing stage drama with plots and sub plots, characters retreating into the wings or appearing as a deus ex machina. He believes that in Foote it is possible to trace a long British comic tradition that stretches back before Shakespeare and forward to modern British pantomime and the cross dressing of contemporary comic Eddie Izzard. At one point he writes of a celebrated Foote sketch: “it was, simply put, stand up and was a stand-out success.”
The book benefits hugely from Kelly being a successful actor himself – Pitmen Painters, Harry Potter – not merely because it is peppered with so many theatrical anecdotes but because Kelly shows real insight into the highs and lows of theatrical life, explains why insecurity and acclaim are two sides of the same coin and explores the pain at the centre of the best comedy. Foote used his own as well as other people’s lives and eccentricities for material, mercilessly satirising the foibles and vulnerabilities of others but finding comedy in his life as a cripple, “a limping icon of pain and accident.”
Kelly is good on the fashions, sounds and smells of Georgian London and if the book smells of greasepaint that must be because much of it was written, as the author admits, in a theatre dressing room. Engagingly, he relates how he nearly missed his curtain call several times.
The best part of the book (for me) – assuming you can get through the grizzly details of his amputation – is Kelly’s examination of new evidence in the notes of surgeon, John Hunter, whom Foote consulted the year before he died and who wrote notes on ‘the strange case of Mr Foote’s nerves’. Hunter apparently believed that Foote’s 1766 head injury, resulting from the fall, affected the comedian’s psychological state and lack of inhibition. “It is an arrestingly forward-thinking diagnosis,” according to Kelly. Hunter’s private notes appear to forecast a full century before the discipline of psychology that behaviour and brain trauma might be related in the way that, for instance, it is now widely acknowledged that professional boxers can suffer neurological disorders years after their bouts in the ring.
In a book full of puns and witticisms, some Kelly’s some Foote’s, and not short of either violence or sex, I cannot resist describing the author as ‘sure-footed,’ which by the end, relying on crutches on a raked stage, his hero was not.
“On balance,” as the one-legged actor and comedy superstar of Georgian England should have said since that was one thing lacking in his life, this is a stunningly good and long overdue biography of a man largely forgotten today. Why he has been out of the limelight for so long remains a puzzle. His plays may be dated, although Kelly makes the case that they are important for the way they ridiculed vanity and class pretension. But his real claims on posterity come from his courageous refusal to bow to convention or artistic safety, which, in the end, destroyed him. This makes him still commanding of our attention, Kelly insists. It is hard to think of anyone who could have written his life story with greater sympathy, understanding of his talent and of the difficulties he faced. It’s been well worth the wait for this multi-layered book and Foote’s return to centre stage must now be assured, with or without his embalmed, fractured, other leg.
Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman The life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor (Phoenix £7.99)