The Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive goes to auction on May 20.

Wilson, Keppel and Betty: Unique archive of sand dance music hall legends goes to auction in Lichfield

A UNIQUE archive of costumes, photographs and memories celebrating one of music hall’s most legendary variety acts is going to auction in Lichfield.

Adored by international audiences for three decades, Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s deadpan sand dance routines were equally renowned by their peers as a perfect 14-and-a-half minutes’ performance.

The character of Betty was intrinsic to a trio who became a vaudeville sensation which never seemed to go out of fashion – probably because they never aspired to be fashionable, albeit originating to conveniently capitalise on the 1920s’ trend for Ancient Egypt following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

With a stage life running from 1928 to 1962, the Betty role was to be taken on by as many as 14 dancers over 34 years as the changing trio travelled the world with the most famous slapstick pseudo-Egyptian dance act of all time.

Now the personal archive of the final ‘Betty’ – Birmingham-born Jean ‘Jeanne’ MacKinnon, née Curley – is going under the hammer with Richard Winterton Auctioneers at The Lichfield Auction Centre, Wood End Lane, Fradley Park, on Monday, May 20, starting at 9.30am.

Birmingham-born Jean ‘Jeanne’ MacKinnon, née Curley.
Birmingham-born Jean ‘Jeanne’ MacKinnon, née Curley.

Sold as a single lot, the collection is thought to be the nearest anyone has to a Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive.

It includes two of Jeanne’s costumes sewn by Joe Keppel himself – a three-piece blue rhinestone bejewelled and sequinned costume with headdress, bralette and skirt; and a two-piece white rhinestone costume, also bejewelled and sequinned, comprising headdress and bralette.

The blue costume appeared with Jeanne on a television interview with Roy Hudd in 1989.

There is also a painted papier mâché and leather mask with trademark drooping moustache, based on Joe Keppel’s stage appearance and worn by Betty on the back of her head during the Dance Of The Seven Veils.

By the removal of the final veil, Betty would have carefully manoeuvred herself to face backwards, mask in place, for a surprise finale.

Senior valuer for Richard Winterton Auctioneers Sarah Williams with the Joe Keppel mask.
Senior valuer for Richard Winterton Auctioneers Sarah Williams with the Joe Keppel mask.

Other evocative elements of the collection include nine finger cymbals, a white plastic recorder, spare costume jewels and two pairs of pointe ballet shoes believed to be from Jeanne’s days as a dancer before she took on the iconic role.

A treasure trove of photographs show Jeanne in a variety of acts and costumes throughout her career as a professional dancer as well as some unseen photos with Wilson, Keppel and Betty and negatives of two rare studio shots of the act’s final line-up.

The archive features newspaper cuttings relating to her career before, during and after her time as Betty, plus various music hall programmes, including one from Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s last show at Wellington Pier, Great Yarmouth in 1962 and a programme for the Royal Festival Hall ‘London Reunion’ on October 3 1959 with the trio taking top billing.

Further personal effects include postcards home to her mother sent by Jeanne while she was touring in Europe.

One from Paris featuring the Eiffel Tower on the front is headed ‘Wilson, Keppel and Betty’ followed by the address of the Soho Cabaret.

On the back, Jeanne writes: “We open on Saturday. It is going to be a very lavish production. Cross your fingers Saturday night that we are a success.”

A rare picture of the final line-up of Wilson, Keppel and Betty with Jeanne.
A rare picture of the final line-up of Wilson, Keppel and Betty with Jeanne.

Four Cunard Line menus from RMS Mauretania in June and July 1947 are likely to be from Wilson and Keppel’s travels with a previous Betty – neither man liked flying so the act would always travel by sea instead of air.

There are two cards signed by Joe Keppel and a photo of Jeanne onstage with a flamenco group – on the reverse is written Casino Non Stop Show Oslo with a message signed ‘Kepp’.

The archive also includes letters relating to Jean’s various interviews for television studios two decades after the act’s retirement and her Equity cards from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Robert French, valuer at Richard Winterton Auctioneers, said: “Heroic figures in British variety and comedy, over the years Wilson, Keppel and Betty played every major theatre in Europe.

“Their name has been in three-foot high lights outside the Alhambra Theatre in London; they played three Royal Variety Performances in 1933, 1945 and 1947; the London Palladium in 1950 on the same bill as Frank Sinatra; and Sunday Night Palladium to television audiences.

“Because Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s iconic deadpan sand shuffle never changed that much, it could be honed to absolute perfection by the stars and, for many, became the pinnacle of the golden age of vaudeville and variety.”

The Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive goes to auction on May 20.
The Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive goes to auction on May 20.

The act inspired greats such as Morecambe and Wise and the Chuckle Brothers and famous fans are believed to include Paul Merton, Frank Skinner and Dame Judi Dench.

Apparently, Wilson, Keppel and Betty were even an influence on John Lydon back when he was Johnny Rotten of the notorious Sex Pistols.

Also going under the hammer with the archive on May 20 is a copy of comedy writer Alan Stafford’s 2015 biography Wilson, Keppel and Betty: Too Naked for the Nazis – a title derived from a pre-war appearance in Germany by Wilson, Keppel and Betty.

The show, thought to be in 1935, featured original Betty, Betty Knox, after whom all subsequent Bettys were named.

Legend has it that propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering were in the audience and condemned the show as indecent.

But it was not Betty’s alure which enraged the Nazis – it was the sight of Wilson and Keppel’s bony knees.

Betty Knox retired from the act in 1941 and became a war correspondent and journalist, later witnessing, in a fascinating twist of fate, Goering’s trial at Nuremburg.

Betty’s role onstage was taken by her daughter Patsy from 1942 to 1950 and she was subsequently followed by numerous Bettys.

Jeanne sent this postcard from Paris home to her mother days before Wilson, Keppel and Betty started a residency at the Soho Cabaret. On the reverse (inset) she wrote: “We open on Saturday… it is going to be a very lavish production. Cross your fingers Saturday night that we are a success.”
Jeanne sent this postcard from Paris home to her mother days before Wilson, Keppel and Betty started a residency at the Soho Cabaret. On the reverse (inset) she wrote: “We open on Saturday… it is going to be a very lavish production. Cross your fingers Saturday night that we are a success.”

Mr French added: “It seems there will always be an eternal mystery as to exactly how many Bettys there were.

“Some believe Jeanne was the 11th Betty although extensive research by Alan Stafford suggests she could well have been the 14th – and in one interview in a newspaper clipping she declared herself to be the 13th.

“One detail that is definitely clear is that Jeanne was the final person to take the role – and that she definitely made her mark.”

Richard Winterton Auctioneers reached out to Wilson, Keppel and Betty biographer Mr Stafford, who said: “Bettys came and Bettys went but, when Jeanne MacKinnon joined the famous trio, thank goodness she stuck around and made as valuable a contribution to their last years as Betty Knox had to their first.

“Jeanne’s collection is the nearest thing anyone has to a Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive – and her colourful costumes remind us that there was never anything monochrome about the act.

“The key ingredient to the role of Betty was that combination of glamour and comedy. Not everyone could do it, but Jeanne made the role her own and ensured this enduring trio never went stale.”

The collection is thought to be the nearest anyone has to a Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive.
The collection is thought to be the nearest anyone has to a Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive.

Born in 1932 in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter district, Jeanne trained in ballet, tap and modern dance.

She made her debut as a Windmill girl at London’s Windmill Theatre in 1955, following which she toured Europe with a Spanish flamenco ballet act.

In Norway, she was spotted by Wilson and Keppel and invited to take on the role of Betty, which she did in 1956.

Not only was she instrumental to the act, Jeanne insisted upon more colourful veils and convinced Wilson and Keppel to arrange new publicity photos as they were still relying on decades old material featuring Bettys from years back.

She also bought a VW minibus and volunteered herself as chauffeur – as neither Wilson nor Keppel could drive – in addition to helping lug costumes and props.

The act was revitalised and the new trio spent two years with residences at revues in Paris including the Crazy Horse and Moulin Rouge, sharing bills with stars such as Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier.

But in 1962, due to Jack’s ill health, the 34 years of Wilson, Keppel and Betty – and 42 years of Wilson and Keppel in total – came to an end.

The trio had to pull out mid-season of its show at Wellington Pier, Great Yarmouth with Harry Secombe top of the bill and would never perform together again.

The archive includes photographs of the final line-up of Wilson, Keppel and Betty which are thought to be previously unseen.
The archive includes photographs of the final line-up of Wilson, Keppel and Betty which are thought to be previously unseen.

Following her time as Betty, Jean went on to become a high-flying act circus performer The Flying Croneras in Germany before returning to Birmingham to marry Andrew MacKinnon in 1964 and going on to run the Victoria public house.

Two years later, Jeanne was managing The Windmill Lounge in Hurst Street, Birmingham – a ‘terrific coincidence’, she said in a 1966 newspaper interview.

In later life she contributed to various shows about Wilson, Keppel and Betty, speaking fondly of her time with the world’s greatest slapstick variety dance act.

Letters from the BBC, Anglia Television, Central Television, BRMB radio and others relating to interviews with her are included in the archive.

After the act retired, Joe Keppel returned to his native Cork, dying in 1977 aged 83.

Jack Wilson moved into Brinsworth House, a retirement home for showbiz personalities, in 1967 and died in 1970 aged 76.

Jeanie died in Birmingham in December 2018 aged 86. She had no children and her archive was gifted to a close friend from the entertainment business.

Betty would wear the mask based on Joe Keppel's stage appearance on the back of her head for a suitably eccentric finale to the Dance Of The Seven Veils. Senior valuer Sarah Williams is pictured with the mask.
Betty would wear the mask based on Joe Keppel’s stage appearance on the back of her head for a suitably eccentric finale to the Dance Of The Seven Veils. Senior valuer Sarah Williams is pictured with the mask.

Sarah Williams, senior valuer for Richard Winterton Auctioneers, said: “Viewed by modern audiences, the act might well be regarded as one of its time yet Wilson, Keppel and Betty are still revered for their sense of timing, humour and absolute professionalism.

“Because they never said a word onstage, their finely-honed act could be understood by audiences worldwide and it also worked well when it came to cinema.

“As existing film footage shows, their soft-shoe sand shuffle is an enduring highlight of variety’s golden age.”

The archive goes under the hammer in Richard Winterton Auctioneers’ Antiques & Home Sale on Monday, May 20, at The Lichfield Auction Centre with an estimate of £2,000 to £2,500.

The auction catalogue can be viewed online via our Auction Dates page a week before the sale and people can bid online, in the room or by prior arranged telephone bid.

Appointments to view in person can also be organised through Richard Winterton Auctioneers on 01543 251081 or by email to office@richardwinterton.co.uk.

Appointments for free valuations of items of all types, home visits for large collections and house clearance quotations are also available.

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