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A right Charlie: visiting Chaplin’s World in Switzerland

Though I was always aware of his unique position in the history of cinema, I must admit I have never been the greatest fan of Charlie Chaplin. Having said that, he holds a unique place in my childhood memories, as his passing on Christmas Day 1977 would have been one of the very first celebrity deaths I can remember, coming not long after Elvis Presley and Marc Bolan that same year.

Before ’77? I can’t honestly think of anyone, but I vividly recall seeing the television news over the holiday period while we were at my paternal grandparents’ home in Cricklewood, North London.

It seemed everyone knew who Charlie Chaplin was.

In a strange circular thing, when that same paternal grandmother died in 2003, my father and I left the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead and pottered around a local thrift store on the way back to the car. 

I recall picking up a photo book about Chaplin and being struck by how the grey-haired older man, shorn of his signature hat and moustache, bore virtually no resemblance to the younger “Tramp” character that made his name.

“Do you know who that is?,” I asked my father.

“Charlie Chaplin”, he replied, quick as a flash.

“I’d have barely recognised him if it wasn’t for the name on the front of the book. He looks so different.”

Sweetly, even though he’d just lost his mother, Dad secretly bought the book for me as a present and gave it to me that evening as we started to discuss funeral arrangements. 

One of the earliest and most powerful protagonists in world cinema, Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. was born on 16 April 1889 in Walworth, a particularly deprived part of South London. In one of the great rags to riches stories, he spent the last 25 years of his life in the village of Vevey, a typically green and elevated locale in the hills above Montreux, on the beautiful Swiss Riviera. It seems fitting that Chaplin, a perfectionist and multi-tasker, chose Switzerland, a country renowned for precision in everything from luxury watches to Roger Federer’s backhand, as his retirement home.

On a road trip from France to Switzerland a while back (the same one where I ended up abandoning the car as I tried to enter Ukraine), I was looking for suitable destinations to do in a day from the lakeside splendour of Montreux. After making a quick whistle stop photo op to David Bowie’s former residence in nearby Blonay*, I was invited to visit Charlie Chaplin’s final home — the 37-acre Manoir de Ban estate in Corsier-sur-Vevey.

Now named the Musée Chaplin, the mansion has been painstakingly restored and refashioned into a full-on museum operation, with screening rooms, exhibits and stunning gardens with a slightly obscured view of Lake Geneva. 

“Life in Switzerland is really pleasant and can be anything you want it to be. One can rub elbows with the illustrious, the rich and the artistic, and politically one can agree to disagree with all of them. And everything is so central; in two hours we can reach practically any European capital. I have made several trips to London and Paris but spend most of my time in Corsier – it is really the ideal country home.” — Charlie Chaplin

Almost leaping, a lifelike wax figure of a waving Charlie greets you in the foyer. The neoclassical home’s first floor has been faithfully restored as it appeared in Chaplin’s day down to the ornate family furniture, including the cozy, jacquard-print sofa on which I was invited to sit in the gracious drawing room. Thanks Pats.

I gained insight not only about his personal life and huge family inside the mansion but also his artistic creations. It was fascinating to learn about the bright mind and creative man behind the baggy pants, tight coat, small hat, oversized shoes, and that famous cane-in-hand through his everyday life, portrayed in unswervingly great detail inside his house. 

Chaplin had a lifelong compulsion to do everything himself, even down to wanting to play every role in each of his films. He served as an actor, writer, director and composer on many of his movies, and original scores, letters and scripts lie on his desk as if he’d just left the room. 

Remember, Chapin even wrote Smile, which was Michael Jackson’s favourite song of all time.

One of the best ways to experience his professional achievements is at the state of the art immersive film studio where you get to see the recreated scenes and characters built with wax from the famous movies of the beloved Tramp. The cinema serves as the main feature of the newly built complex on the grounds known as Chaplin’s World. And if you feel like ‘slumming it’, there’s also a restaurant that serves fish and chips in a nod to his working class boyhood in Britain.

If you have only a passing interest in the legend of Chaplin, the passionate artist, the comic genius, and the cinematic innovator who worked on both sides of the camera, do yourself a favour and go and explore Chaplin’s World.

It’s an eminently interesting venue in a winning location and well worth including in your Swiss itineracy, if you have one.

Steve Pafford

*As almost neighbours — Blonay and Vevey are seven minutes’ drive from each other — David Bowie got to know Chaplin’s widow Oona though Charlie and Oona’s fifth child Eugene Chaplin, a recording engineer who worked on the Heroes and Lodger albums. Even closer to home, Charlie’s mother Hannah and Bowie’s brother Terry were both in-patients at the notorious Cane Hill mental hospital near Croydon, depicted on the cover of certain iterations of Bowie’s third LP The Man Who Sold The World.

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