A Victorian confidence trickster whose exploits would leave Del Boy and Arthur Daley speechless is the fascinating subject of a comedy drama having its world premiere at Greenwich Theatre from July 13-23, 2017.
Chinese Whispers, written and directed by prolific local actor Ian Lindsay, tells the story of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse who, among many other things, sold non-existent battleships to the famous John Brown’s shipyard.
He also donated eight tons of Chinese manuscripts to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, but it’s widely believed they were forgeries by Backhouse, who spoke several languages including Chinese.
“I think what Backhouse did was awful,” said Ian Lindsay, “but he was an amazing scholar. There was nothing glamorous about him but there was this brilliance of the mind.”
“When he arrived in Peking he went to The Times office to get a job. It was run by an Australian called Morrison, who was the sort of Murdoch of the time. He said he had no jobs but changed his mind after Backhouse produced a recommendation from Lord Salisbury, who was Primer Minister of the day.”
“Backhouse was a complete fantasist who spoke of an affair with Oscar Wilde, but the frauds were real. I don’t know where his bizarre life came from, I really don’t. He was from a Quaker family and didn’t get on with his parents. He went to school at Winchester and perhaps there was some kind of rebellion in there somewhere.”
Seventy-eight-year-old Ian is best known as George in Men Behaving Badly but after that it’s more a question of what he didn’t appear in across five decades of acting – from Z Cars and The Bill to EastEnders, Coronation Street and Benidorm, and films that included Mike Bassett: England Manager.
“I’ve been lucky,” said Ian, “but I’ve had big gaps like most actors, plus I was ill a year or two ago. As we say about this trade, it’s very hard to get into but it’s even harder to get out of.”
“My father was a public school headmaster but I got sent down from Oxford. One of my ‘scouts’ came in and said I had an exam that morning. I said I hadn’t but saw my name on the list. The exam was tracing back the history of the Anglo Saxons.”
“I couldn’t answer one single question, so I just wrote my name at the top of the paper and went out to contact the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) for an interview.”
“I turned up at Gower Street and expected a queue but found I was being seen privately. The principal, John Fernald said, yes, you’re an actor, and took me on. As I was leaving he said he had been sent down by Trinity as well, so I believe in the old boys’ failure network!”
Ian gave a copy of Chinese Whispers to co-producer Peter Shaw in a Greenwich pub and was told they should put it on. “Peter’s been wonderful,” said Ian. “He’d worked with James Haddrell at Greenwich Theatre before and we both knew what a great job James has done building the theatre up over the last six or seven years. I’m very excited and can’t wait for rehearsals to begin.”
Amongst his stings, Backhouse tricked the British Government over an arms deal, John Brown’s Shipyard over a large quantity of battleships and the American Banknote Company regarding an order for printing one hundred million banknotes.
Co-author Jeremy Cantwell, scholar and ex-BBC librarian, had access to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in order to research the story. Between 1913 and 1923 the Bodleian was in receipt of over eight tons of Chinese manuscripts from Sir Edmund in an attempt by him to receive a professorship in return, however it is widely believed the documents were forgeries by Backhouse, much like the rest of his fantastic life.
Best known for his appearances in Men Behaving Badly as George, director Ian Lindsay has had a career on stage and screen stretching back five decades. He has played roles in TV favourites such as Z Cars, Boon, Forever Green, Casualty, Peak Practice, EastEnders, Coronation Street, Benidorm and many more. On the big screen Ian appeared in Mike Bassett: England Manager, The Tall Guy and Little Dorrit. He is the best selling author of How to Kill a Yob.
Chinese Whispers, Thursday, July 13, to Sunday, July 232017