Paris Singer and the Romance of Redcliffe

On the seafront at Paignton, a short distance from Oldway Mansion -photographs of which featured in my previous post on Paris Singer and Isadora Duncan – there looms the distinctive shape of the Redcliffe Hotel. Although the Singer family’s association with Oldway is well-known, Paris Singer’s ownership of Redcliffe and the surrounding area is often overlooked. Today’s post will focus attention on this.


Col. Robert Smith, the architect and first resident of Redcliffe

Singer was not responsible for the construction of Redcliffe. This honour belonged to Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873), a gifted artist and architect who served in India with the Bengal Engineers. He retired from the army in 1832, spent some years in Italy with his wife and young family, before returning to England in 1850. Although born in France, he had brought up in Bideford and had a sister still living in Torquay, which is presumably why he chose to settle in Devon. He designed Redcliffe himself in 1852 and the mansion was built  in stages between 1855 and 1864.

It was a magnificent building, with 23 bedrooms, a conservatory, billiard room, and an underground plunge bath by the sea that was reached by a subterranean tunnel from the house.  Redcliffe Castle, as it was called, sat in five acres of gardens that were filled with rare plants Smith had collected from around the world.


Redcliffe around 1880, showing the Eastern influence


Another photo from around the same time, this time looking from the sands to the NE


The octagonal tower in 2009, showing the decorative emblems

It was an enormous building for an elderly man to live in alone, but Smith also built himself a vast chateau near Nice in France. He did not have long to enjoy either property, dying on 16 September 1873. Redcliffe passed to his estranged son, Lieutenant Robert Claude Smith of the Bombay Calvary, but financial problems forced him to sell the house and all its contents in 1877.

At this time Paris Singer was, of course, only ten years old, and his vast fortune was administered by trustees. The Redcliffe Estate was an attractive buy, because it allowed the trustees to extend Singer’s Fernham estate all the way to the seafront, linking it with other land purchases between Oldway Road and Marldon. After buying Redcliffe, the trustees erected the sea wall that runs along Preston Beach, as well as laying out Marine Drive.

Paris Singer married Lillie Graham in 1887 and ten years later the Paignton Echo records the couple hosting a fundraising bazaar for the local Methodist Church at Redcliffe Towers. During this time the house was rarely occupied, and only opened during the summer months for events such as bazaars and flower shows. In January 1900 Singer had the building converted into a convalescent hospital for soldiers wounded in the Boer War. According to the Paignton Echo, this was done on behalf of Paris by his brother Washington Singer. Paris Singer’s real interest lay in developing the sea front, and in 1904 plans were drawn up for fourteen houses to be built along the front of Preston Green, with another seven houses in the grounds of the Redcliffe itself. (below)


Singer had sold Redcliffe Towers in 1902, and two years later it opened as the 100-bedroom Hotel Redcliffe, touted as ‘The Finest Health Resort in Devon.’ With its opulent, eastern furnishings, oak panelling, stables, electric lighting and panoramic views of Torbay, it offered luxurious accomodation and dining for Paignton’s growing number of visitors.

Singer’s grand plans for the sea front were never implemented, and in February 1913 he sold Preston Green to the local council. He retained a small patch of land adjacent to Redcliffe on which he had earlier built an aircraft hangar for storing his two Avro seaplanes. Two months after the sale, Isadora Duncan’s two children drowned in the Seine. The lovers finally separated in 1917.


Paris Singer (1867-1932), owner of Redcliffe from 1887 to 1902


One of Singer’s seaplanes in flight, with Redcliffe in the background

After the end of the First World War, the seaplanes were used as a visitor attraction, with pilots such as Captain R.L. Truelove offering flights around the bay for the price of 25 shillings. Maybe readers with aeronautical expertise can tell me whether the plane above is an Avro 501, 504 or 510?


Paris Singer in the cockpit of one of his planes


Two of the planes on the beach near the hangar – a cafe now occupies the site.

In 1919 Paignton Council paid Paris Singer £650 for the hangar, as they wished to develop Preston Green as a pleasure ground. During the early 1920s the area was laid out with bathing huts, tennis courts and a promenade. The hangar was leased out to an aerial mapping firm, but was eventually demolished just before World War Two and replaced with a beach cafe.


The view today from inside the Redcliffe Hotel, looking across the bay towards Torquay

Wohlbrück and Tauber in ‘melodie der liebe’ (1932)

On my last visit to London I managed to locate the grave of the famous tenor Richard Tauber (1891-1948) and thought I should write a short post about his collaboration with AW. Despite his self-confessed musical range of ‘two and a half notes’ Anton’s career involved a considerable amount of musical performances, from operetta films through to concerts, stage musicals and even an appearance at Glyndebourne. In 1932 he co-starred with Tauber in Melodie der Liebe – also known as Right to Happiness.

Tauber was born in Linz to theatrical parents, and began performing professionally in his early twenties. After the end of World War One his career really took off, with a contract to the Vienna State Opera, the first of over 700 recordings, and hugely successful excursions into the popular genre of operetta. His first film appearances were during the silent era, but with the advent of sound there was clear potential for adapting his operetta performances for the screen.

Many of these films were, to be frank, of no great merit, having little other purpose was to provide a vehicle for Tauber’s singing. Despite his popularity, Die grosse Attraktion (Max Reichmann, 1931) failed badly at the box office,
leading to the collapse of the Richard Tauber Sound-Film Company. As would happen again during his career, he recouped the financial losses with a lucrative concert tour of Britain and America. When he returned to Germany in 1932, it was clear that a different approach would be necessary if he was going to be attempt another film.

Thankfully the script for Melodie der Liebe (Georg Jacoby, 1932) was much stronger than previous screenplays and provided cinema audiences with a decent story to follow between the musical sequences. Tauber played Richard Hoffman, an eminent singer who has lost his wife and is travelling in the company of his brother in law Bernhard (Szoke Szakall) and young daughter Gloria (Petra Unkel), prior to his departure for a tour in America. After a chance meeting in a pub, he falls for a young woman named Lilli (Alice Treff), unaware of her real intention: she is already engaged to Erwin Richter (AW), an ambitious conductor who sees Hoffmann as a means of furthering his own career.  While this pair devise a plan to exploit Hoffman’s infatuation, and Lilli’s hard-up parents do their best to secure a match, the singer’s daughter has met charming young artist Escha (Lien Deyers), who sees right through Lilli’s pretence. Things come to a head as Hoffman prepares for his farewell performance of Tosca: will he find true love before he sails for New York in the morning?

Looking pensive: AW as Erwin Richter
One strength of the storyline is that it allowed Tauber to perform songs and arias that were integral to the plot, rather than being contrived interruptions of it. Audiences particularly enjoyed little Petra Unkel’s performance as Gloria, and Szakall’s antics as her hapless Uncle Bernhard. The film premiered in Berlin on 26 April 1932 and was well received, later being released in Britain and America as The Right to Happiness. 

AW in a characteristic pose. Only one more film and his elegance would be perfected with the appearance of his trademark moustache
Very few could claim their right to happiness in Nazi Germany, however, and several of the film’s cast were forced to leave soon after the film was released. Deyers and Szakall both went to Hollywood, the latter finding fame in Casablanca. Tauber’s grandfather was Jewish but he was raised as a Catholic after his father converted. Nazi papers began attacking him nonetheless, drawing attention to his ancestry as well as criticising the amount of money he was making. He left Germany for his native Austria in 1933, later moving to Britain where he achieved some success with more films as well as concert and opera performances. In 1936 he married English actress Diana Napier (1905-82) and remained in Britain throughout the war, dying in London of cancer on 8 January 1948.

Tauber’s grave in Brompton cemetery

Ten years later the BBC Home Service presented an hour long programme, ‘The Richard Tauber Story’ to mark the anniversary of his death. The radio programme was broadcast at 8 pm on Wednesday 8 January 1958, narrated by Evelyn Laye (AW’s co-star in the 1954 musical Wedding in Paris) with contributions from Walbrook, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Percy Kahn, Jane Baxter and Tauber’s widow Diana Napier.

Lola Montez (MAX Ophuls 1955) Part 1

There are two things I haven’t done for a while – 1) posted here and 2) watched Lola Montes (Ophuls, 1955.) Both are long overdue, and so today – the first day of another month – I thought I’d post a couple of film stills from my collection. Both are black and white, which does no justice to the lush cinematography and gorgeous Eastmancolor of the film – as well as being Ophuls’ final film, Lola Montes was his only venture into colour, and we’ll never know what wonders he might have achieved had it been otherwise.

AW as King Ludwig I of Bavaria in ‘Lola Montes’
AW plays Ludwig I (1786-1868), King of Bavaria from 1825 until he was dethroned by the revolution 1848. The king’s downfall was partly due to his public relationship with Lola Montez (1821-61), a former dancer and courtesan who wielded influence over Ludwig ever since they met in Munich in 1846. Born in Ireland, her early life saw her flitting around between Liverpool, London, Montrose, Calcutta and Paris, and by the time she met Ludwig she had been married, separated, had an affair with Franz Liszt (other alleged lovers included Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers) and performed on stage under the pseudonym of ‘Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer.’ Her risqué ‘Spider Dance’ would later become notorious.

Lola (Martine Carole) and the KIng

After the fall of Ludwig, Lola had to flee Bavaria, spending time in Switzerland and England before emigrating to America where she took part in public lectures and performances about her past.  It is probably this period of her life that suggested the bold concept of Ophuls’ film – to present Lola’s life as a circus performance. As a historical event this is pure fiction, but it provides scope for playing with ideas about public life as a visual spectacle, with the sins of a celebrity forming the centre of (quite literally) a media circus.

Such a circular visual device obviously recalls La Ronde (Ophuls, 1950) where again there is a central narrator around whom the story revolves: however, the Ringmaster (Peter Ustinov), is a much darker and more cynical character than AW’s master-of-ceremonies in La Ronde. There is a cruelty about the Ringmaster’s exploitation of the woman, who is forced to answer questions  about her past life in exchange for money. Her life in the circus ring is in sharp contrast to her former life with Ludwig, probably the happiest period of her life. In my next post on Lola Montes I hope to write more about AW’s performance and include some colour pictures from the film.