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02 April 1930: Charles Laughton is On The Spot

Published 23 April 2008

Edgar Wallace is one of the world’s most prolific crime writers, with 175 books, 24 plays, and many more poems and articles to his name. On 2 April 1930, one of his most popular plays, On The Spot, premiered at the Wyndham’s with Charles Laughton and Emlyn Williams in the lead roles. The story of the play’s existence may well be as fascinating as the piece itself.

While on a 1929 publicity tour of America arranged by his American publisher, Wallace passed through Chicago at a time when the windy city was firmly in the grip of seemingly untouchable mafia crime lord Al Capone, a figure who fascinated the crime writer.

On returning home to England, Wallace told his secretary Jeina Reissar that he had a new play complete in his head. In just three days On The Spot was dictated for Reissar to copy out. Only the initial scenes took a further day to complete.

The play, a tale of gang warfare, starred Laughton as Tony Perelli, the Al Capone character of the piece. Coming towards the beginning of an illustrious acting career, it was one of many roles Laughton played portraying a larger-than-life character with a distinctly dark side. Secretly homosexual, though married from 1929 until his death in 1962, Laughton was one of the first performers to make the step from West End notoriety to Hollywood stardom, winning an Oscar for his performance in The Private Life Of Henry VIII.

Williams’s performance came at the start of a career that would see him emerge as both a talented actor and playwright. Who can say how much he was influenced by working with Wallace – he performed in more Wallace plays later in his career – but his breakthrough play, Night Must Fall, was also a thriller. His other most-lauded play, The Corn Is Green, was very different; a semi-autobiographical tale of a teenager struggling in a small Welsh mining town and the effect on him of a strong-willed teacher.

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