Listen to Music Hall and Variety….

Two interesting shows have cropped up on the BBC Sounds app which are currently available to listen to.

Each show lasts an hour, and appear to be available for some time.

The first is TWICE NIGHTLY, a remembrance of Music Hall days by one of those who performed in it for many years, the musician and comedian Stan Stennett. An interesting show with much first- hand recollection, the subject spends a little too much time on himself for my liking, but it is worth sticking with to get a taste of the halls. The show was recorded in 2001.

The second show is from 2003. MUSIC HALL RECLAIMED is presented by Barry Cryer, another performer who started his career at the tail end of variety, where he looks into the range of material that survives as recordings of many music hall and variety acts- some famous, some unheard for decades- and the care which goes into tracing, restoring and preserving these last remnants of a disappeared age. It presents a number of surprises, including how political some of the music hall songs could be. 

Again, well worth a listen, as well as to hear some rare recordings lovingly cleaned and sounding much less than their age – in most cases, over 100 years!


Frank Matcham – the greatest theatre architect

London Coliseum
Frank Matcham c.1900
Buxton Opera House

Frank Matcham, the greatest British theatre architect, died 100 years ago on Sunday, 17th May.

If you’re not familiar with his name, you will probably be familiar with his work – if I mention the London Palladium, The London Coliseum, The Victoria Palace, as well as many theatres up and down the country (including Buxton Opera House and Richmond Theatre) and most notably a string of Empire variety theatres for the Moss circuit. Frank Matcham was the doyen of theatre architects of his time, creating theatres across the land, during the golden age of theatre construction from 1890 to around 1912.

London Palladium
London Palladium

Astonishingly, at the time his work was rather looked down upon, with theatre and music hall being “mere” entertainment, but thankfully the passage of time has fully underlined his pre-eminence as one of the greatest architects of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Of the approximately 120 buildings that he either designed or remodelled, tragically only 26 remain today. Many were destroyed by wartime bombing, but even more (such as the Metropolitan Edgware Road) were wilfully bulldozed during the changing entertainment scene of the 1950s and 60s when theatregoing traditions faded away. Variety died, and TV was the box they buried it in.

Matcham was renowned for his professional punctuality, bringing jobs in on time and to schedule. His richly-detailed designs were opulent, with a grandeur and elegance, fully-flourished and embellished with all manner of decorative plasterwork that made his theatres a feast for the eyes before the curtain had even gone up. He was also a pioneer in the use of steel frameworks for his theatres, which gave his auditoria the strength to eliminate the need for pillars, allowing unobstructed views from every seat in the house and excellent sightlines, another Matcham trademark. Often larger-scale designs, often seating over 2,000, his auditoria were also known for their remarkable feeling of intimacy which was vital for variety shows – the medium for which he built so many of his theatres – and one of the many reasons they are still so rewarding to visit today.

Better informed and more scholarly writers than me have written many biographies of Matcham, so I shan’t add to the already sizeable pile*. Much has been written about the man and his designs too, but I would like to take a rather different tack.

As someone who has been privileged to manage a Matcham Theatre, I would like to discuss his skill as an engineer of flow in the spaces he created.

Victoria Palace

I was fortunate enough to spend some years managing the Victoria Palace, built by Matcham in 1911 on the site of the old Royal Standard Music Hall. This was built was a variety house, for twice nightly variety (three shows Wednesday and Saturday – in total, sixteen a shows a week!), and the front of house areas were opulent and gilded as any other Matcham beauty. After just a few days there, what impressed me so much was how the theatre actually worked. Regular readers may recall that I have already written about there being a dome in the ceiling of the auditorium which was on runners and effectively “rolled off” to allow the hot air to escape after each matinee or first house. Remember, this was before any type of air-conditioning had been imagined, and with twice nightly variety, the ingenious Matcham gave us a way to regulate the auditorium temperature – vital in those long hot summers that we occasionally got! (and believe me, the Upper Circle in summer could feel like sitting in a microwave!). You can find my earlier article here.

Victoria Palace

Matcham’s skill as an engineer was undoubted; what dawned on me quickly was how smart he was as an engineer of flow. Getting 1500 people in and out of a theatre is not a quick and easy job, and the Victoria Palace’s creative design was a gift to those times when a swift turnaround was needed.

Here’s an example – I was managing the show BUDDY, which had back to back shows on Friday at 5.30 and 8.30, As the show ran 2 hours 45 (give or take a few minutes) I was intrigued to see how fast we would manage taking 1500 people out of the theatre and immediately bringing in another house of 1500 at top speed. Thankfully Matcham had already provided for this in his design, and of course this is what the V-P was built for, twice nightly with a 20-minute turnaround, and it’s certainly where it came into its own!

Here’s how it worked – with a full house of 1500 in watching the first performance, patrons would start arriving for the second house while the first one was still running. Thanks to the way the theatre was designed, we could open the main stalls bar directly from the street to take a few hundred stalls patrons, check their tickets and get them buying drinks (and using the bar toilets as needed). We could do the same for the Dress Circle patrons, checking tickets and getting them into the Dress Circle bar. We could then fill the foyer areas, and in this way we could probably accommodate about half of our full house capacity within the theatre, with the remainder thronging on the street outside.

At 8.20 the first house would come down and that audience (from all levels) would then be channelled out of the left hand side of the building through a large bank of exit doors just off the auditorium which took the crowds onto a side street. Staircases brought the upper levels down to their own exits on the same side. By keeping certain doors closed we could regulate the flow of patrons like a heart valve pumps blood – in one way, out the other. So with the first house exited left, we could then check, clear, reset and reopen the house within minutes.  It was one of those all-hands-on-deck moments that are so exhilarating in theatre – 1500 gone, 1500 waiting, and the clock ticking. Thankfully, audiences were usually keen to be seated which meant that an 8.35 start was often achieved, at the latest 8.40.

Its only when you see the clarity of design thinking in action with a full house that you really appreciate the brilliance of an architect like Matcham. I know that so many theatres are not half as well thought-through, which can occasionally make them a nightmare to manage.

As someone who has had the privilege to manage a Matcham, I can safely say it was like driving a Rolls Royce.

It is at this point that I must “come out” to you all. I am a member of the Frank Matcham Society, a large group of admirers of the man’s work, who regularly visit, enjoy and write about the craft, skill and panache of this master architect.

Richmond Theatre “To Wake The Soul By Tender Strokes of Art”

In recognition of the Centenary anniversary, The Matcham Society have produced an excellent, comprehensively detailed 110-page book by Michael Sell, covering all of his theatres, and is well worth reading. You can find details of the book (ISBN 978-1-9163618-0-5) through the Society.

And you can find details of the Frank Matcham Society here

Frank Matcham’s surviving theatres are listed and rightly so – they will never be equalled for engineering, decoration, design, intimacy, elegance and comfort. For those of us who have served the theatregoing public, we have daily cause to be grateful for the skill and planning of – to my mind- the greatest theatre architect of all time.

*For those interested in reading more, a very comprehensive article about Frank Matcham and his work can be found here


Time to Remember: From Music Hall to Variety – a personal tribute

The Metropolitan Edgware Road, demolished 1963.

My love of Music Hall stems from childhood, when my father was given a beautiful three double-album set of vinyl records by a friend. The albums intrigued me – on the front were old photographs of a very ornate theatre façade (later I found it to be the Metropolitan Edgware Road, one of the most beloved of Music Halls and known as “The Met”). Inside the gatefold sleeves of these three albums were black and white photographs of unfamiliar (to me) faces, and for each of them one track was given as an example of their work. And on the back of the albums, beautiful images of the programmes for these halls, with exciting artwork of glamorous showgirls and lovely typography. What was not to like? At that age, knowing nothing of the hundred-year legacy of music hall and variety which had come before, I slipped one of the discs out and put it on the turntable, curious to find out what this all was.

Some of it had aged pretty badly, it seemed. Certainly to my ten-year old ears this was hard to understand, at first. And then I came across a chap called Horace Kenney, who I had never heard of before. His act was “A Music Hall Trial Turn”, based on an audition if you will, of someone not very good, played straight, and all the better for it. Then I could connect with it- this was someone pretending to be bad and doing it so skilfully that it made me squeak with laughter. The pitiful photo of Mr Kenney confirmed what a dead loss he was, and then the connections started forming – Les Dawson and his off-key piano playing, the song-mangling of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards (she mangled the vocals, he wrestled with the piano- and lost)- this was where it had all emanated from. As I played more and more of the discs, sometimes better-known names sprung out- Will Hay, for example – and although this was only audio, as most of these performances had been captured for release on 78rpm discs many years before – a flavour of the acts still came through.

The triple album set was obviously a labour of love – each album of the set was nicely titled Matinee, First House and Second House, reflecting the type of acts you might expect to see at each different performance. The British Music Hall Society contributed much to this set, and the sleeve notes were useful too. Released by World Records, a subscription arm of EMI (I believe), this set may not have been for general consumption, but to me it was something that fired up an interest in Music Hall that has lasted ever since.

Programme from the Alhambra, Leicester Square, demolished 1937 and replaced by the Odeon Leicester Square.

Researching more, the performers were fascinating – most burned bright and then disappeared into oblivion, others had long-standing and affectionately remembered catalogues. Even into the 1950s tours with titles such as “Music Hall Golden Memories” gathered together the remaining huge stars of earlier times such as GH Elliott and Hetty King, and more recently Max Miller – all of whom were touring the UK in a kind of “best of Music Hall”, to nostalgic receptions. But this was the time after Music Hall, when even its successor, Variety, was falling out of popular favour as the newer mediums of television and cinema took precedence; increasingly seen as belonging to the past, audiences simply fell out of the habit of “a night on the halls”.

Prompted by the Last Night of the Met, Edgware Road in April 1963 (which turned hundreds away and surviving variety stars vied to be on the bill) Gerald Glover and Ray Mackender set up the British Music Hall Society in 1963 as the last gasps of that era drifted away. The Society, which is now 57 years old, is organising the Music Hall and Variety Day on 16th May, what would have been long-standing Society President Roy Hudd’s birthday. Sadly, Roy died in March this year, so now the tribute includes Roy himself.

So thank you to all the amazing acts, writers, musicians who gave Music Hall its joie de vivre and Variety its spice. Sadly, we shall never see their like again. In the words of the great Max Miller, “there’ll never be another!”.


AFTERWORD The two photos above are of one of my favourite variety acts, Wilson, Keppel and Betty, and here is some film of them doing the sand dance from their most famous routine, “Cleopatra’s Nightmare”. Enjoy!


Time to Remember: From Music Hall to Variety – a brief history

In the early 1800s, UK theatre was in a bit of a state. Poor quality productions had alienated middle class audiences, and in general theatre’s reputation was on the decline. A turning point came with the Theatres Act of 1843, when the Lord Chamberlain announced a double-edged piece of legislation. Licenses to run theatres, previously highly-restricted, were now to be made available to anyone of “good character”. This sparked a boom in the building of places of entertainment.

However, there was a catch in that the sale of alcohol was forbidden in the auditoria of these places. But, in an interesting counterpoint, the same legislation also granted magistrates the power to issue licenses to public houses to provide a range of entertainment to their customers. Publicans rushed to build halls adjoining their pubs where drink and meals could be served at large tables while a series of musical acts performed on a simple stage against one of the walls. This was the beginning of music hall. As these venues developed, the large tables gradually moved back from the stage as more bench seats filled the front, to get more people in. Eventually the style and shape of these “rooms” evolved into rows of seating and curved balconies, with more and more opulent, purpose-built music halls appearing right across the land.

The people who sang the songs became stars, household names, fondly remembered; and the songs they sang were mostly one of these types – saucy, comic, sentimental or patriotic – and those who sang them were often associated with one particular song for many years, if not life..

Very gradually, more middle-class people frequented the music halls, in true British fashion- by class -with the middle-classes in the more expensive, plush (reserved) seats in the best parts of the house, and the cheaper seats reserved for the rear stalls Pit or the high Gallery.

Collins’s Music Hall, Islington Green, a long-standing favourite hall.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, music hall evolved into variety, and the buildings which housed them became known as variety theatres, in respect to the variety of types of acts that one could see on a bill. Buildings themselves had evolved too, with substantial bar areas outside the auditorium able to sell alcohol, a very important part of any venue’s income. To attract a wider range of clientele, alcohol had been banned from the auditorium itself and could now only be drunk before, after or during the interval of a show, instead of continuously (and inside the auditorium) as previously. In this way, the buildings became much more like traditional theatres in their management.

The evolution from music hall, where an unconnected string of acts, usually singers or comedians, performed, through to variety, which was a much more structured and balanced programme, including singers, comedians, acrobats, jugglers, contortionists, dancers, musicians, conjurers, mind-readers, impressionists, and the much missed speciality acts (or “spesh” acts as they were known) meant that audiences enjoyed the widest range of different types of act.

By the beginning of the 20th century, these halls had become very grand indeed, and the most famous circuit of them all was the Moss Empires. Formalising not only the bill construction but also timings meant that twice nightly variety ruled for the first half of the twentieth century, with shows at 6.15 and 8.30, or 6.30 and 8.45. A standard variety bill lasted a little under two hours including interval.

The fondly-remembered Finsbury Park Empire

In the aftermath of World War Two, bomb damage had closed a number of theatres of all types, including the variety houses. Most of these were lost to demolition, as due to the severe shortages of building materials persisting several years after the war, they could not be rebuilt. Changing audience tastes and the arrival of television in the early 1950s caused audiences to dwindle as the variety theatres struggled to keep going. Slowly the halls began to close, as others were converted to cinemas or bingo which helped to keep them going, but others simply closed and fell into disrepair, awaiting their date with the wrecker’s ball, as a forward-looking country viewed them with indifference as relics of the past.

Around this time, societies began to form which valued their architecture and contribution to the social fabric of our history, and with the advent of listing for entertainment buildings, some at least found the protection they needed to survive, revive and thrive again.

Although we shall never see their like again, some of the great variety theatres and music halls live on as miraculous survivors of another time of gaiety and song, which remind us, in the words of a famous music hall song, that “a little of what you fancy does you good”.

A full house raring to go at the Canterbury Music Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1. (undated, uncredited photo)

Theatre news – buildings in the spotlight

Palace Theatre, London, Stage Door
London Coliseum, architect Frank Matcham.

I’d guess that we’re all missing visits to our favourite theatres by now. As most will agree, online theatre – while most enjoyable – isn’t the same as “the real thing”. Part of that is the atmosphere created – which is to do with going out and congregating with others to form a unique, never to be repeated audience in a specially built environment that heightens our sense of occasion.

Part of this unfathomable equation is down to the venues themselves, and if you, like me, particularly miss venturing inside our great London theatres, then I have some comforting news for you.

For those of you who have Amazon Prime, may I point you to a lovely series called Great West End Theatres, dating from 2012, in which Sir Donald Sinden pours his caramelised voice all over ten of London’s most prestigious playhouses, giving us a nice potted history along the way. (By a funny coincidence, I remember bumping into Sir Donald as I was coming out of the Noel Coward Theatre, as he was filming this show – and I ruined his take. I must say he was as gracious as always – a lovely man.). There were two series made, I believe, but currently only series one is available.

For those who may prefer a more avant-garde alternative, the Royal Court Theatre- in a very Royal Court type of thing- is real-time livestreaming their auditorium, still with its set up for its interrupted show, SHOE LADY. There’s nothing actually going on there, so if you stay too long it might feel like the world’s longest incoming. However, it serves rather poignantly as a reminder that the glorious spaces, usually hidden away from public gaze, are still there, patiently waiting for our return, as we will.

On a sadder note, NST – Nuffield Southampton Theatres – collapsed into administration last week and is at risk of being sold off to developers, demolished, who knows what may become of it. A petition has been started (gaining 10,000 signatures in just 4 days already), to which I would encourage you to add your names to demonstrate the strength of feeling that every one of our theatres- big or small, local or national, wherever in the world- they all make a difference to people’s lives, and as such, we should stand up for theatres now. It is certain that more theatres will face this fate unless we speak up loudly and quickly, and do whatever we can to help them- even if that’s just signing a petition. Please, do it Now. You can find the petition here

Tomorrow, Saturday 16th May, is the very first Music Hall and Variety Day, celebrating not only the stars and songs that made these forms of entertainment so enduringly popular but also the great buildings that were created for this hugely popular style of entertainment. You can read more about the celebration by visiting the British Music Hall Society website here.

And there’s more – this coming Sunday (17th May) will mark the centenary of master theatre architect Frank Matcham’s death. So expect a good read next week from me – an inside view of how his theatres actually worked.