British Music Hall Society’s first annual conference is a hit!

Last weekend the British Music Hall Society held their first annual conference which examined “How the Music Hall worked 1840-1918”, held in the beautiful and atmospheric venue of The Cinema Museum in London. And what an entertaining event it was!

A wide range of speakers were given varied length timeslots to discuss their passions, archive excavations and family histories, over the busy two-day conference, which sold out almost as soon as bookings opened some months ago.

Thanks to the large amount of time, love and planning invested by Alison Young (Deputy Chair of the British Music Hall Society) and Charlie Holland, noted author and archive raider, the event was a solid success from start to finish.

In a clever move, the makeup of the day was broken up into varied sections, with three speakers given twenty-minute slots, followed by a Q&A for all three; after a short break, there were five six-minute presentations also followed by a group Q&A. This not only had the effect of concentrating minds on the variety of subjects, but also to see links and parallels between some of the speakers’ subjects and approaches, which enlivened the Q&A sections considerably. To further break up the day, each lunchtime was preceded by a different hour-long walk around the locality exploring the sites (many long gone) of where acts lived and music halls stood, ably lead by Alison and Charlie.

A kaleidoscope of fascinating subjects covered included juggler Paul Cinquevalli; trapezist Jules Leotard; the Keaton family’s only music hall booking in the UK; animal acts; child performers and their safeguarding; variety reviews; illumination of the stage; ethnic representation; songs related to speciality acts; speciality acts themselves; female magicians; act copies and rivalries; theatre managers impact on dress and behaviour of audiences; significant variety agents, and the entangled world of showbusiness families, amongst many others.

Themes reappeared through different presentations; the importance of the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square (on the site now occupied by the Odeon) in terms of acts’ credibility and bookability; the famed trapeze artist Jules Leotard and the song The Man On The Flying Trapeze (was it about him?); the theft and copying of others acts in an age before copyright.

We also explored through the Q&As the importance of viewing the events of over a century ago in context of the time they occurred in. Female artists were celebrated as exercising their agency on stage, whilst still being controlled by the business establishment of predominantly male managers and agents. Managers were applauded for their attempts to exercise improvement in the dress and decorum of their audiences. We were also encouraged to consider whether our empathy has an expiry date – with some of the acts described meeting an untimely demise during performances, how has the passage of over 100 years affected our ability to empathise with the performers who often risked life and limb to support themselves and their families, (one tightrope walker still performing while eight months’ pregnant).

Exhibitions occupied adjoining rooms, and a sprawling book and merchandise area was tempting – all ideal ways to while away the break times between sessions.

For me the highlights were Tracey Gregory’s short presentation on animal performers, with a fascinating look at the vast array of stables and other animal accommodation around Brixton; Lisa Stein Haven’s talk on the Three Keatons quickly terminated engagement at London’s Palace Theatre (Father Joe brought the tickets home on the same night as they opened!); and most entertaining for me was the style and delivery of veteran performer Alan Stockwell who delighted the audience with his descriptions(with accompanying graphic posters) of unusual and dangerous speciality (or “spesh”) acts.

A hugely entertaining way to spend a weekend for anyone with an interest in showbusiness. Next year’s event is already on the drawing board- I hope to be there- and maybe see you there too!

Congratulations and thanks once again to everyone involved, but especially to Alison Young and Charlie Holland for a hugely successful event, made even better by their hard work and love of their subjects.


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