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Sunday, 21 July, 2002, 00:54 GMT 01:54 UK
Chaplin knighthood blocked
Charlie Chaplin in The Kid
Chaplin's marriages to teenagers raised eyebrows

Confidential Foreign Office papers just released by the Public Record Office reveal how for years Charlie Chaplin was denied a knighthood.

The papers are being put on the Record Office website from Monday, 22 July.

They include a hostile report on Chaplin by the Foreign Office research department in 1956.

This drew attention to his "communist" sympathies and to his morals - his marriages included two to girls aged sixteen and he had once lost a paternity suit.

Mr Chaplin has alienated many of his former champions and admirers

Foreign Office memo
It wasn't until 1971 that an official remarked that "a good deal of water has flowed under the bridge since then" and that "there may be a feeling that it is time to let bygones be bygones".

Chaplin was eventually knighted in 1975.

The episode shows the deep sensitivity of the issue, with views being sought from the British ambassadors in Washington and Switzerland (where Chaplin, still a British citizen, moved to in 1952 after leaving the United States).

The damning research department memorandum is headed The United States' case against Mr Charles S Chaplin.

'Lurid' paternity suit

Indeed much of the British reluctance to give Charlie Chaplin a knighthood stemmed from concern that the Americans, then in strong anti-communist mood, would not approve and the British honours system would therefore be "brought into disrepute".

The memo says: "Mr Chaplin has alienated many of his former champions and admirers by allowing himself to be played up in certain European countries as a martyr to "hyper-Americanism".

He has also added grist to his opponents' mill by his acceptance of public marks of favour from the communist orbit - e.g. his consenting to receive the "peace prize" of the communist-sponsored World Peace Council in June 1954".
Documents
The documents have been kept secret

The report points out: "Mr Chaplin managed to shock even the more broad-minded in the 1920s - e.g. his two marriages to 16-year-olds. Nor has the press allowed its readers to forget the Joan Barry paternity suit, the lurid details of which dominated headlines in 1943 and 1944 before Mr Chaplin was finally declared the legal father of Miss Barry's child."

So keen was one official to point out the supposed moral lapse in his marriages that in another document the phrase "16-year-old women" was changed.

The word "women" was crossed out and "girls" written in by hand.

In 1969, the Foreign Office still opposed a knighthood and even by 1971 after the swinging sixties had redefined sexual and political views, it was very sniffy.
Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin's politics provoked suspicion in the US

There was a lot of bureaucratic buck passing.

From the North America department R A Vining (Miss) writes that an honour "would do no harm to our relations with the US".

But she hands the final word to the Washington embassy with a classic piece of official weaselling: "But if Washington thinks otherwise, I would not venture to disagree".

In Washington the British Ambassador Lord Cromer is a bit doubtful.

Special honour

He thinks Bob Hope, born in Britain but a US citizen, might be a better candidate.

"I would just question whether such tardy recognition of Mr Chaplin's talents displayed so very long ago would really be desirable now", he comments without making a clear recommendation.

But pressure on the British government was kept up. One letter to the Queen in 1972 is preserved. It was from Fergus Horsburgh in Canada.

He, too, uses the phrase "let bygones be bygones".

And times were a'changin'.

In 1972, Charlie was given a special Oscar.

The long delayed knighthood came three years later, just two years before Chaplin died.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Chairman of the Critics' Circle, John Marriott
"He was a very controversial figure in his day"
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