As a boy, William Betty was the greatest actor of the age. When he was 15, though, his novelty value began to wear off. By Michael Arditti
When Daniel Radcliffe was cast as Harry Potter, Jack Wild, who had known similar instant, international celebrity as the Artful Dodger in Carol Reed’s film of Oliver! (1968), wrote him a heartfelt letter:
‘Steer clear of temptations. Keep your feet on the ground. Don’t believe the hype. And, above all, enjoy fame and fortune while they last, for they can be fickle. I know; I learned the hard way.’
A child actor who learned an even harder way was William Betty (1791-1874), known as the Young Roscius. The original Roscius (died 62 BC) was a celebrated Roman actor.
In 1804, aged 13, he played a range of adult roles, including Romeo and Hamlet, at both London’s Theatre Royals of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, to unprecedented acclaim. Also in 1804, he was Young Norval in Douglas (pictured).
Over the next two years, he eclipsed all other actors on the British stage. John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons – the Ian McKellen and Judi Dench of their day – retired for 18 months rather than compete with him.
Then the bubble burst and he sank into obscurity, where he has languished for 200 years.
My new novel, The Young Pretender, set at the time of Betty’s attempted comeback at the age of 20, seeks to give this unjustly forgotten figure his due. It explores the nature of his youthful success, the roots of his appeal and the toll that such immoderate adulation and its abrupt withdrawal had on his psyche.
Betty was, in many ways, the first modern celebrity. He combined the allure of a pop star with the credibility of a great classical actor. As he made his triumphant progress from his native Ireland, through Scotland and the English provinces, to London, Bettymania swept the country.
Crowds lined the roads to watch his carriage pass; troops were called to control audiences inside and outside theatres. He was ruthlessly merchandised: men had their Master Betty snuffboxes; women their Master Betty fans; girls their Master Betty cut-out dolls.
His arrival in London provoked a deluge of press coverage. The Daily Advertiser’s headline ‘ARRIVED YESTERDAY – Young Roscius – The Wonder of the Age’ was typical. The frenzy that greeted his first visit to Covent Garden was as nothing to what greeted his first appearance on its stage.
The Prince of Wales led fashionable society in lionising him. Prime Minister William Pitt adjourned the House of Commons early so that members could attend his debut as Hamlet.
There was, however, a more sinister ingredient to both Master Betty’s promotion and appeal. He achieved his greatest success in roles such as Young Norval, Romeo and Hamlet, in which his youth and innocence were a virtue. Indeed, Charles James Fox held his Hamlet to be superior to Garrick’s.
But, quite apart from the element of credibility (which was patently lacking when he was later encouraged to play Richard III and Macbeth), the youthful roles enabled him to wear costumes and make-up that emphasised his beauty.
His father further traded on this by allowing select men of fashion into his dressing room to watch him change. A scurrilous advertisement for his tutor ended, ‘For I’ve a wondrous rod in pickle/Your pretty little Bum to tickle.’
For two years, Master Betty was fashion’s favourite. He was taken to see Lady Hamilton perform her celebrated ‘Attitudes’, after which he is reputed to have remarked, ‘I’m too old to be kissed, Ma’am.’
He was befriended by the actress Mrs Jordan, and her royal lover, the Duke of Clarence. After one of his performances, he was invited to a supper party by the Duke, which occasioned adverse comment in the press.
Yet even Mrs Jordan was not immune to professional jealousy. In the Drury Lane green room, she is said to have exclaimed, ‘Oh, for the days of King Herod!’
Those days came soon enough: Betty’s fate was sealed shortly before his 15th birthday. In time, his novelty value wore off. By engaging a host of infant prodigies, including a Young Roscia, a Young Orpheus and an Infant Vestris, venal managers exposed the original to ridicule.
Kemble himself delivered the coup de grâce by hiring the eight-year-old Miss Mudie (who was so short that the actor playing her lover had to go down on all fours to embrace her) to play the title role of The Country Girl at Covent Garden. And, of course, puberty destroyed Betty’s appeal for a significant (and powerful) section of the audience.
Betty gave his last youthful performance in July 1808 and then matriculated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he remained for two and a half years, leaving without taking his degree. He retired to the family estate in Shropshire. But a country life failed to satisfy him. In 1812, he returned to the boards in Bath, determined to regain his reputation. It is there that The Young Pretender begins.