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Marie Lloyd : Playing Percy Courtenay

Richard Armitage in Marie Lloyd

Richard Armitage plays Percy Courtenay, first husband of Marie Lloyd and father of her only child.

Percy Charles Courtenay was born in Greenwich in 1862, son of a master mariner, Edwin, who died when Percy was still a child. There is little recorded information about him, so as Richard Armitage said, "It meant the script writers had a bit more free rein with him. I’ve really taken what they’ve given and developed it with my imagination – that’s a cheeky way of saying I’ve done my own thing!” [1]

Percy met Marie when he went back-stage at the theatre where she was performing. "Back then the stage door johnnies were in contact with the doorman and they would frequently pay him money to watch the girls changing backstage. It’s weird to think that Percy, a complete stranger, could just turn up and say: ‘That girl I saw on stage - I’d really like to take her out for a drink’ and then he was given an introduction to her and that’s how their relationship formed.

"Percy’s pretty similar to Marie Lloyd; he’s from the same kind of class and background but when they first meet he’s reinvented himself. In reality he’s an inveterate gambler but he markets himself as someone who invests on the stock market! He’s moving in social circles that he perhaps doesn’t truly belong to, so there’s bit of a façade with him." [1]

A friend of his, George Foster, described him as "a young blood and a racing man with plenty of money and an attractive personality." He was also said to have "the air of a gentleman". [2] He described himself on official documents as a General Dealer or a Commission Agent, but in reality he was a race-course tout. [3]

Richard Armitage explained, "When [Percy and Marie] meet there’s an instant attraction and I think that’s because he recognises himself in her and admires her feistiness and her drive. There’s a balance of him seeing her as an investment he wants to develop but he also recognises something special in her, a real spark, like an untamed wild animal." [1]

Richard Armitage in Marie Lloyd

They married in 1887 when she was only 17 and already pregnant. At first the marriage was a happy one. “It’s actually very good and honest at the start, and once they get together he lets the mask slip a bit and they click and fire off each other. But it starts to go off kilter when she becomes more famous and wealthy and he lives off her success.” [1]

The Courtenays' house was frequently full of her family and friends, and Sundays were open house to her music hall friends. Percy complained that they hardly spent any time alone together. She gave him an allowance of three pounds a week, but he also ran up debts that he expected her to settle.

"For an Edwardian man it was in many ways the ultimate humiliation and as much as he was basking in it and loving it and spending her money, at the same time I think the press ridiculed him as a kept man and his frustration built up and he began to take out his anger on her," said Richard Armitage. [1]

Flo Hastings, a young friend of Marie's who was also in the music halls, remembered Percy Courtenay at this time. He wasn't handsome, she said, but he was smartly dressed. "He was slim, not a big man. He was a racing man, used to hang around the race course - a punter.

"I used to sleep with Marie while he was away in the West End with his racing friends. He was always out with other women. He'd ask her for fifty pounds and swear he'd make it up tomorrow, but she'd never see it again. She hated him. He was a dirty old thing. One night at the Standard [later the Victoria Palace] he came up to me and used filthy language just as I was going on. I flung a drink in his face and the barman nearly killed him - the dirty thing." [3]

Richard Armitage in Marie Lloyd

As the marriage began to break down, Percy turned violent. The first scene that Richard Armitage filmed with Jessie Wallace was a violent one. "I was pinning her up against the wall within half an hour.

“It was quite weird. Percy is quite a tricky character, quite ambiguous, I suppose, because you think he’s one thing and then he turns really unexpectedly and that’s what happens in that moment; she suddenly just doesn’t recognise him anymore, this man who lashes out at her.” [1]

Jessie Wallace felt that Richard Armitage had successfully portrayed that ambiguity. "He captured that combination of a charming, good looking and sexy man who becomes menacing and scary," she said. [1]

As Richard noted, “[Marie Lloyd] was probably the most famous musical singer of the age so her private life was a subject of great fascination for the press." [1] And that included reports of Percy's violence towards her. In January 1892, Punch reported that she had summonsed her husband for assault:

"MARIE, COME UP!"—When Miss MARIE LLOYD, who, unprofessionally, when at home, is known as Mrs. PERCY COURTENAY, which her Christian name is MATILDA, recently appeared at Bow-Street Police Court, having summoned her husband for an assault, the Magistrate, Mr. LUSHINGTON, ought to have called on the Complainant to sing "Whacky, Whacky, Whack!" which would have come in most appropriately. Let us hope that the pair will make it up, and, as the story-books say, "live happily ever afterwards." [4]

Even more sordid details were given in The Times, which reported that Percy had come to Marie's dressing room, accused her of immorality and threatened to cut her throat with a sword that was hanging on the wall of the room. He then kicked her in the leg and the small of her back. He was bound over to keep the peace for six months. [5]

Richard Armitage in Marie LloydBy 1893, Marie and Percy were living apart. But Percy's violence towards her continued. One night in 1894, he came to the stage door of the Empire, Leicester Square, as Marie was leaving to go to another theatre. He threatened her with a hooked stick: "You are not going into that brougham tonight. I will gouge your eyes out and ruin you," he told her. [6] She managed to get away from him, but later that night, he was waiting for her when she arrived at the pub in Wardour St that she had bought for her parents. "I am going to ----- well murder you tonight. I will shoot you stone dead and you will never go on stage any more." [6] Again he was brought before the magistrates, and again he was bound over to keep the peace. Marie was sacked from the Empire, the manager afraid that Percy would make more trouble. [3]

They were finally divorced in 1905, Percy having petitioned on the grounds of her adultery with Alec Hurley, who became her second husband. [7] Richard Armitage said, “I don’t think it was either of their faults exactly, but it was really sad. At the end when the divorce is finalised, there’s a moment when she walks away and there is a tangible sense of regret because I do think he really loved her.” [1]

Little is known of Percy Courtenay's life after his time as 'Mr Marie Lloyd'. It seems likely that he died in Hove in 1933, of an accidental drug overdose. He was 70 years old. [2]

Although Richard Armitage had worked in period costumes before, this was the first time he had played an Edwardian character. “The costumes are surprisingly more restricting than other dramas I’ve done; they make sure every single little hair is in place." [1]

Talking about Marie Lloyd and her legacy, he said, "I’m fascinated with this theatrical world and the contemporary parallels with Marie and what she did for women on stage, not posh stage but real street stage. Marie Lloyd paved the way for women not to be viewed as prostitutes if they trod the boards.

“Before Marie Lloyd helped turn the tide, any woman on stage was associated with prostitution and it was taken for granted that you could be entertained by these women in more ways than one. Marie Lloyd took that concept and actually fed it into her act so it was a kind of titillation, but without the promise of anything else. It was pure entertainment. She paved the way for every other female artist since then, being a woman on stage and owning your sexuality without saying it’s for sale." [1]


[1] Hat Trick Productions press pack
[2] Midge Gillies, 'Marie Lloyd: The One and Only', Orion (1999)
[3] Daniel Farson, 'Marie Lloyd and Music Hall', Tom Stacey (1972)
[4] Punch, 30th January 1892
[5] The Times, 19th January 1892
[6] The Era, 23rd June 1894
[7] Richard Anthony Baker, 'Marie Lloyd: Queen of the Music-halls', Robert Hale (1990)


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