Bettymania: how actor became ‘the first modern celebrity’

Michael Arditti tells Lucy Popescu how the life of a now obscure 19th-century actor inspired his latest novel

Thursday, 21st April — By Lucy Popescu

Arditti

WILLIAM Betty, nicknamed Master Betty, was a popular child actor of the early 19th century whose celebrity status was exploited by his father. He became known as “the Young Roscius” and as a teenager was celebrated by theatre lovers up and down the country.

Local author, Michael Arditti’s 12th novel, The Young Pretender, explores the Master Betty phenomenon. Arditti was inspired by an exhibition about the Georgian Playhouse at the Hayward Gallery.

He told Review: “There was a small section, Bettymania, about the extraordinary boy actor who dominated both the London stage and London society for two years from 1804 to 1806.

“Like many people then and now, I’d never heard of him (though of course I hope that will change!) even though Kemble and Mrs Siddons (the Ian McKellen and Judi Dench of the age) retired for 18 months rather than compete with him.”

The novel is written as a memoir, narrated by 20-year-old William, who is planning his stage comeback.

His past, and the reasons for his demise, remain something of a blank until he starts reconnecting with the fellow actors, managers and prompters he worked with in the past.

“I am Mister Betty now,” he has to constantly remind them.

We learn that Betty’s recently deceased father, whose drinking, “gallantries” and gaming were well known, exploited his son’s youth, naivety and beauty for his own ends.

Master Betty was celebrated for his energetic portrayals of Osman in Voltaire’s Zair, Young Norval in John Home’s Douglas, Selim in John Brown’s Barbarossa and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As he recalls: “The Prince of Wales received me at Carlton House and presented me with a coach and four. The greatest lords and statesmen of the day attended my performances and invited me to fetes and banquets. Painters painted me and poets eulogised me. Duchesses vied to drive with me in the park.

“All this before I had attained my 14th birthday.”

Tutored by the prompter Mr Hough, it was Betty’s youth, his talent for flawless recitation, that seemed to fascinate, rather than his rudimentary understanding of Shakespeare and stage craft. When Betty’s voice broke, “his cheeks filled out and his upper lip bristled, amid other palpable signs of manhood”, his popularity waned.

Arditti’s account reminds us how quickly careers can be made and broken.

He says: “Master Betty’s story speaks powerfully to us today about both the treatment of children and the nature of celebrity. Betty was, arguably, the first modern celebrity. He was mobbed whenever he stepped into the street; people died in stampedes to see him.

“As a novelist, I’m particularly interested in the effect of such early adulation on a person’s psyche, which is why I’ve set the story during his comeback at the grand old age of 20.”

At the height of his celebrity, Master Betty was paid the unprecedented salary of 75 guineas a night at Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden.

Arditti is best known for his 12 acclaimed novels but, in his early career, he wrote for the stage and radio and later reviewed theatre for a host of publications. He also had a short directing career – at university and then for a year on the London fringe. He had several plays performed on the stage and on radio, but claims, “thankfully, I realised that such talents as I had were better suited to the more discursive form of fiction.”

Nevertheless, Arditti’s interest in theatre and long career as a critic clearly coloured his novel and his descriptions of the stage business are particularly fun.

It’s an impeccably researched novel and a compelling read about the fickle nature of fashion. Arditti transports us to another time and reminds us that the perils of early fame and fortune are nothing new.

The Young Pretender. By Michael Arditti, Arcadia Books, £12.99.

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