www.jacquialexander.co.uk

 

A tribute in words and pictures to Jacqui's father, a star during the golden era of Music Hall entertainment, in pantomime, on radio and the big screen, the celebrated impersonator and singer 'Afrique'.


'To Bill, a grand stage manager. Happy memories of a most
pleasant week, 13/18 Nov 1939. Au revoir, Afrique'

'Born Alexander Witkin in Johannesburg in 1907, Afrique was originally trained as an opera singer... Indeed, in the 1930s, he was a member of the Old Vic Wells Opera Company. Discovering a talent for impersonation, he got a single act together and rapidly became a headliner both in the UK and abroad. Famed for his impression of the then Prince of Wales, he was a much-in-demand 'Abanazer' in panto and constantly employed in West End revue and Variety.'

Excerpt from "Roy Hudd's Cavalcade of Variety Acts"

 

 'I picked Afrique at an audition because of his stage presence. That was really all he had then, and he had no act at all, no set routine. He came on dressed in a leopard skin, carrying a spear, and made terrifying Zulu noises deep in his throat. From those small beginnings we built up an act for him, and very soon he had a ten-minute spot in each show and was avery big attraction.

In those days Afrique did not do the impersonations which later brought him into headline prominence. He did a successful season in cabaret, and of course the Lord Chamberlain had no jurisdiction at all over vaudeville acts in night-clubs and places of that sort. Afrique did a very clever impersonation in the middle of his act, and it might have been possible to imagine that this was a good-humoured characterization of the Duke of Windsor (then the Prince of Wales), with mannerisms that had endeared the Prince to the people. Afrique eventually dropped this part of his act when he realized that it was becoming controversial.'

From Vivian Van Damme's "Tonight And Every Night" the story of London's Windmill Theatre'



Advertisement announcing Afrique's return from touring overseas,
taken from 'The Stage' magazine, 24th September 1942

'Afrique could also he seen at Olivelli's, and he is the only mimic or impressionist I can think of who occupied and held a major position. He became most famous for his uncannily effective impression of the late Duke of Windsor, who was then the Prince of Wales before he briefly became Edward VIII. In fact, Afrique was a large well built man who hailed from South Africa and was as much like the Prince of Wales as I am like Tessie Moshe. But by sheer facial expression and a few mannerisms captured by observation, he literally became the Prince of Wales on stage. A marvelous artiste was Afrique, who also included a terrific range of singing impressions, imitating Paul Robeson one minute and Richard Tauber the next. He was certainly one of the best impressionists that I have ever seen, but his career did not last long and he failed out of the picture to die, 1 believe, in particularly sad circumstances - another one who was his own worst enemy.'

From Max Wall's Autobiography "Max Wall - The Fool on the Hill"


New Year greetings from Afrique and family taken from 
'The Performer' magazine, December 1950

'Encouraged by the box-office success of Haw Haw, George Black set about staging a more ambitious revue for Max called Apple Sauce which opened at the Holborn Empire in August 1940. It was well up to the boisterous, roystering, make-and-keep-it-snappy standard of its predecessor. Max, who appeared in several sketches, was the clown in chief, with clever impersonations from Doris Hare as Mistinguctt and Afrique as Churchill and Caruso singing 'The Lost Chord'.'

From John East's "Max Miller, the Cheeky Chappie"


An article by Afrique taken from 'The Stage' magazine, 2nd August 1945

AFRIQUE (1907-61) Impersonator of Celebrities: Alexander Witkins was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, hence his stage cognomen. A head-liner in his day this entry was intended initially for the law but then trained for the operatic stage. In London the young colonial first appeared with the Old Vic-Wells Opera Company for the redoubtable Miss Lilian Baylis (1874-1937). By 1934 opera had been abandoned and the 6ft 4ins artiste was making his West End debut as an impressionist at the Windmill Theatre. Was the notoriously out-spoken Miss Baylis behind this curious career switch, we wonder? Whatever the truth of the matter, Mr Afrique's impression of the then Prince of Wales was particularly admired.'

From Michael Kilgarriff's 'Grace, Beauty & Banjos'


Illustration of the Bedford Music Hall featuring Afrique on the billboards

'Impersonators have always been of a high quality,especially among the men, and rated among the best was Afrique. He never left apublished song to be remembered by as did the older stars; his great claim tofame was his brilliance at impersonating the walk and handshake of the thenPrince of Wales, later King Edward VIII. Afrique did not intend to include thisimpression of the royal personage at a particular Command Performance in caseit should embarrass him. The Prince however had heard about the impression andexpressly asked if Afrique would include it. He did, and no one applauded moreheartily than His Royal Highness.'

From Charlie Chester's "The Grand Order of Water Rats - a Legend of Laughter"


Contract for five appearances at Winter Gardens, Eastbourne in June 1950

'Afrique, vocalist and impressionist of variety and revue. BornAlexander Witkins in Johannesburg on 2 February 1907. He gave up the study oflaw for a stage career and trained as a singer for five years, making his debutin 1928. He came to London in December 1930 and became a member of theVic-Wells Opera Company in March 1931. He made his first variety appearance atthe Windmill in 1934 and appeared at the London Palladium in 1936. As thepopular pantomime character Abanazer, he appeared in six consecutive Tom Arnoldproductions of Aladdin. In cabaret he appeared at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, NewYork in 1937-38 and then teamed with Larry Adler to lour South Africa. On hisreturn to London he appeared in revues for George Black, including BlackVanities and Black Velvet.'

From Roy Busby's "British Music Hall"


Afrique with his wife and a family friend

'The first to join me was Afrique. He had been a big star in his daybut had fallen by the wayside, not through lack of talent but through gambling. So, as he was still a great impressionist, I set about the challenge of getting him back on top. Unfortunately, his act had dated somewhat, but I suggested he leave his magnificent Richard Tauber in the act and get a few newer and more up-to-date ones to go with it. He duly turned up in the rehearsal rooms to show me and I was impressed with his Danny Kaye and other current celebrities which he successfully imitated. I cut his act to twenty minutes and then came the arduous task of getting him a booking.

As I had been quite a favourite with Cissie Williams, the booker for Moss Empires, and had heard she was looking for a second top for the Hackney Empire, I coaxed her into trying Afrique. She did so and on the Monday's opening he did fantastically, closing the first half. She was impressed and promised him more work and, needless to say, I was extremely pleased, for both Afrique and myself. Imagine my horror when Cissie phoned me on the Thursday morning, shouting: 'Get down to Hackney and tell your artiste he'll get no more work if he carries on behaving like this!' I couldn't understand it but slipped down to the second house unheralded.

There he was, drunk with success, doing almost forty minutes instead of twenty. One thing about Moss Empires in those days - and even today; you only ever do your allotted time. But Alex was really just a ham and completely stagestruck, ignoring all the public repercussions, so he got no more dates with Moss and I was livid. However, I did manage to get him into pantomime as Abanazar and he was terrific in that role, but his box-office appeal had unfortunately gone and I had no alternative but to let him go. He was still gambling heavily and put far more effort into that foolish game than he ever did to his business.'

From George Elrick's "Housewives' Choice, the George Elrick story"


Christmas greetings from Afrique and family taken from
'The Performer' magazine, December 1951

'Jack Hylton has assembled a great cast of radio favourites for the delight of Oxford theatre goers during the week of December 9th, 1946.

Afrique, radio's greatest impersonator, heads the cast. By birth a South African, Afrique has been a favourite of the British people for many years for his realistic impressions of the famous. He was trained as an operatic singer and has a wonderful vocal range, he often impersonates tenor Richard Tauber and bass Paul Robeson in the same programme. Afrique's art in conveying personalities does not, however, depend solely on his voice. He can by a silent impression of the famous or infamous convey their personalities so well that announcement of his 'victim' to the audience is unnecessary.'

From 'Jack Hylton presents Radio Oxford'


Afrique at Woodlands, 1939

Afrique on film:

'Discoveries' (1939) 

Afrique's feature film debut. A burlesque, vaudeville revue, where famed talent scout Carroll Levis (appearing as himself) attempts to unearth new acts in order to propel them to stardom on the big screen. The film consists of a number of music hall turns attempting to impress Levis in a variety of comedic circumstances. Directed by Redd Davis and produced by the British Grand National Film Productions (not to be confused with the later, American, Grand National Films Inc.). Starring Carroll Levis, Afrique, Issy Bonn, Doris Hare, Ronald Shiner...and many more.

 
Stills from 'Discoveries'

Links to footage on www.YouTube.com: Part 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

British Pathe Footage

Fortunately a handful of clips of Afrique performing various routines from his stage act have also been preserved, among the British Pathe archives, a fascinating historical insight into a top performer plying his trade at the height of the Music Hall era:

Pathe Pictorial has pleasure in presenting - AFRIQUE - famous "on the air" and in variety... "The man with a thousand voices" (1935)

Pathe Presents - AFRIQUE - Views of variety (1936)

Now Pathetone Presents - AFRIQUE Of Radio and Variety Fame (1940) 

 


Programme from the Metropolitan Theatre, Edgeware, April 1955