BOOK REVIEWS: The First Showbiz Superstar

Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England), November 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEWS: The First Showbiz Superstar


Byline: RICHARD WILLIAMSON

DAVID Garrick was the first showbusiness superstar - an A-list celebrity 200 YEARS before the likes of Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Tom Cruise turned up.

Great actors like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness are all 'Garrick's children'.

He was also an impresario on a par with Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and every actor, from soap stars to Hollywood heroes, owes him something.

So how did a lad from Lichfield come to be so important?

Jean Benedetti, author of David Garrick And The Birth of Modern Theatre (Methuen, pounds 20) puts it down to 'the Mozart factor' which is to say 'Garrick was a genius'.

It makes you wonder if London realised what was heading its way when two shabby and penniless young men, sharing one horse between them, left Lichfield in 1737.

One was Dr Samuel Johnson and the other David Garrick - two giants of the 18th century whose influence is felt to this day.

Garrick was the son of an army officer based in Lichfield, although he was actually born in Hereford in 1717 where his heavily-pregnant mother had joined her husband on a recruiting drive.

Poverty

David grew up in genteel poverty next door to Lichfield Cathedral and seemed destined for a career in either the army or the church.

He attended the grammar school and befriended Johnson, who was eight years his senior and referred to him always as 'little Davy'.

They must have made an odd couple. Johnson was large, lumbering, awkward and uncouth while Garrick was small, sharp, lithe and quick.

David found he had a gift for mimicry - he often sent up Johnson - and fell in love with the theatre after watching the touring companies at Lichfield's Guildhall.

While still only 10, he staged his own production of The Recruiting Officer to great acclaim.

He wanted to attend university and enrolled at the school Johnson had founded at Edial in Staffordshire. But lack of money saw Garrick's hopes fade, a disappointment that coincided with Johnson's inevitable failure as a schoolmaster.

So the two of them went to seek their fortunes in London.

As the stage was no profession for the son of an officer and a gentleman - even a poor one - Garrick first set out to be a lawyer and then switched to the wine trade. But he was also making friends among the theatrical folk at Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

His first involvement came as a writer but then, in classic theatre tradition, he was asked to go on stage when an actor fell ill.

In 1741, after the briefest of tours, he took the plunge and played Richard III, listed in the programme as 'a young gentleman' rather than under his own name.

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