A comedy of errors - Chaplin's Scots villain wasn't a Scot after all

HE WAS hailed as Scotland's first film star, a burly presence on the silver screen who achieved worldwide fame by providing the perfect foil for Charlie Chaplin.

But in an elaborate farce worthy of the Little Tramp himself, a commemorative plaque dedicated to Eric Campbell is to be removed from his supposed Argyllshire hometown after it emerged he was not Scottish after all.

Residents in the seaside town of Dunoon have long claimed Campbell as one of their own, and a plaque to their famous son was erected in the mid 1990s.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The truth only came to light earlier this year when one of his descendants contacted officials at Argyll and Bute Council to disavow them of their notion, pointing out that Campbell actually hailed from Cheshire.

Quite how one of the most enduring myths in the history of Scottish showbusiness came into being may never be known, but it is suspected Campbell or his agent may have invented his Caledonian roots to appear more romantic to US filmgoers.

Silent cinema experts suggested the invention of Campbell's Caledonian roots may have been the work of Chaplin as he tried to build a cast of supporting actors to bolster his career.

While his name may be largely unfamiliar to modern audiences, Campbell was one of the biggest stars in the first tentative years of cinema and he featured in 11 films opposite Chaplin.

After learning his trade acting in melodramas in small-town theatres in Britain, Campbell was spotted by Chaplin on Broadway, and joined the ranks of the Mutual Film Corporation, which would go on to produce some of Chaplin's most famous comedies.

His character of the hairy, leering nemesis to Chaplin's clown captivated audiences.

The commemorative plaque to Campbell, which was installed in 1996 in Dunoon's Castle Gardens by the former Scottish Film Council, claimed the actor was born in the town in 1878.

While the council believes Campbell alone invented his Scottishness, it is unclear where the claim originated.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Dr Michael Hammond - a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Southampton who specialises in silent cinema - said: "It's not clear why Campbell has been thought of as Scottish. It could have been to do with his name, or it could have been invented to give him a background. Campbell or Chaplin may have made it up, or the press could have."

A spokeswoman for Argyll and Bute Council said the plaque will be removed in the coming weeks. She said: "Eric Campbell's relative contacted the council to say he was not born in Dunoon but in England. She provided a copy of Mr Campbell's birth certificate to prove this.

"The misunderstanding seems to have come from Campbell himself. He had an affinity with the town, and when he travelled to America he said that his birth place was Dunoon. This seems to be where the confusion has come from."

Related topics: