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, as a new middle-class emerged, these 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 including family audiences, 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, contortionists, 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. Duration, too was modified; early music hall’s parade of (mostly) singers with entertainment across the whole eevning, with occasional gaps and no sense of urgency or structure- you could spend three to four hours listening to songs from dozens of performers, who often played several halls in one evening. Variety formalised the structure of a show that had between seven and ten acts, lasting up to two hours, which was performed twice per evening (First House and Second House).

By the beginning of the 20th century, these halls had become very grand indeed, and the most famous and wide-reaching circuit of them all was the Moss Empires. The world of variety was further legitimised by the announcement of the first Royal Command Performance (later known as the Royal Variety Performance which continues to this day) in the presence of the King and Queen of England. on July 1st 1912 at the Palace Theatre in London.

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.

in the later 1920s, radio and talking pictures began to erode the popularity of variety as acts took their performances to larger audiences. In many cases variety artists were barred from appearing on “rival media”, but in a way it gradually dawned on promoters that the competition could also be helpful. When audiences heard artists on the radio, their appearance on a local variety bill often encouraged them to attend to find out what they looked like.

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. With more, newer competition, 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 sick of the recent past of war, rationing and deprivation 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 legendary Canterbury Music Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1. (undated, uncredited photo). The theatre was one of the many WW2 bombing casualties and never reopened.

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.

Streatham Hill Theatre fights to survive

If I were to tell you that a theatre larger than the London Palladium was hidden away in a London suburb, shuttered and in danger of being lost forever, you might not believe me. But in Streatham, there it stands.

The Streatham Hill Theatre is an astonishingly lavish venue which is fighting for survival. It’s currently closed and decaying. The passionate and dedicated Friends group is currently fundraising to fund a feasibility study for the commercial assessment of the venue’s future potential as a multi-use arts centre.

Already on the Theatres Trust’s “Theatres At Risk Register”, Streatham Hill Theatre is an incredible survivor, which was built by the celebrated theatre architect WGR Sprague. Sprague designed a wealth of beautiful theatres, mostly in London, such as The Aldwych, the Novello, Wyndham’s, Gielgud, St Martin’s, Ambassadors, and the Queen’s (recently renamed Sondheim) all in the West End, as well as the Coronet in Notting Hill. The Streatham Hill Playhouse (as it was originally named) was Sprague’s last completed theatre before he died, designed together with architect WH Barton. At 2,800 seats it was one of the largest live theatres ever built in the suburbs of London, and probably the best equipped theatre outside the West End. It opened in November 1929 during a brief revival of UK theatre building. The theatre was Grade ll-listed in 1994. (Incidentally, the late Roy Hudd who died just a few days ago, made his professional debut here in 1957).

Streatham Hill Theatre – undated, uncredited photo, 1930s

With an impressively detailed façade in off-white Doultonware, the interiors are described by the Theatres Trust thus; “The foyers, auditorium and public areas were described as being ‘in the Adam manner’ but are quite eclectic, with friezes of sphinxes, angels and garlands in abundance. The bar at first floor level is mahogany, and has murals of scenes of old London.” Quite a visual feast, then, and that was before audiences even got to see a show on the enormous stage (which still retains its original stage equipment).

Extensive bomb damage to auditorium (on right of picture) in 1944. Proscenium and stage house (right) survive.

Damaged from bombing in 1944, the theatre was restored to its original glory* in 1950 and reopened. Bingo had kept the place open from 1962 until 2017, but since then this lovely house has been dark, largely unused and at increasingly at risk.

The Friends of Streatham Hill Theatre formed in mid-2018 and have steadily increased their profile and supporter numbers ever since. The theatre’s 90th anniversary on 20th November 2019 was a great media opportunity, which was seized enthusiastically, and actors Simon Callow and Catherine Russell joined a party hosted in the theatre’s foyer (courtesy of the building’s current owners, Beacon Bingo), to call attention to the ongoing risk of losing this unique asset. Helpfully, in early 2019 the local council, Lambeth, agreed the Friends’ application for listing of the theatre as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). This gives the community a chance to acquire the property should the current owners decide to sell.

The Foundation stone laid by stage star Miss Evelyn Laye at the commencement of construction- 6th September 1928. Photo Courtesy of the Friends website.

Let’s take a quick look around, with these photos – for which, my grateful thanks to Tim Hatcher and Roger Fox

Soon after the 90th anniversary event, the crowdfunding campaign was launched to raise the money for a feasibility study of the building’s future as a mixed-use arts centre. This fund was dramatically boosted by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who pledged £15,000 to help the fund achieve its target of £35,000. At time of writing, they need a further £8,000 to hit their target by their deadline, which is 25th May.

Please consider helping them if you are able. Any amount will help. You can find the crowdfunding details below. Please consider joining the Friends group too – they need your support.

Such a large scale venue presents its own challenges regarding future use, but there are many creative ways in which this “sleeping beauty” can be brought back into productive use for a community which values the jewel in their midst. I wish them success!

Take a quick photographic look inside here

You can find out more about Friends of the Streatham Hill Theatre here

Join the Friends’ Facebook page here

You can contribute to their crowdfunding appeal here

EXTRA: My friend and colleague Tim Hatcher has written this expert, fascinating article about the differences between the original build and the rebuild of the Theatre’s auditorium. It can be found here.

Time to Remember: the birth of BRIT School

Today the BRIT School is internationally-known, fast approaching its 30th birthday in September next year and with an enviable track record. Over 100 million albums have been sold worldwide by former BRIT School music students, including top selling stars Adele, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua, Jessie J, The Kooks, The Feeling, Katy B and the late Amy Winehouse. Alongside these achievements, the school has fostered the talent of a wide variety of stage performers such as Tom Holland, Cush Jumbo and Louis Maskell.

In this article from October 1989, ANTHONY FIELD, the first Chairman of the Trust which established the school, looks back on the work involved to create a game-changing institution.

A great many confusing statements have been published in various newspapers recently about the so-called “Fame” school, so that it would appear useful for everyone to have a brief, accurate history of how the various parties came to be involved in this exciting venture.

The original concept, pioneered by Mark Featherstone-Witty, led to the formation of the Schools for the Performing Arts Ltd. I was pleased to be asked to be the first Chairman of this Trust, since I had already seen two smaller projects fail to proceed. Indeed, during my time as Finance Director of the Arts Council of Great Britain, the then Secretary-General, Sir Roy Shaw, and I met Tommy Steele about the possibility of establishing a School for Performing Arts on a site in Soho. Andrew Lloyd Webber was also reported as having envisioned such a school being developed within the site of the Palace Theatre.

However, here, at last was the possibility of creating a School which could respond to the current needs of the present arts and entertainment industry. Since the end of World War Two Great Britain has earned an international standing in the performing arts which is pre-eminent, because it is the outcome of many specialist schools. Our magnificently talented singers, dancers, actors, musicians, directors, composers, dramatists and technicians have largely flowed from such schools as RADA, LAMDA, The Guildhall School, The Royal College of Music and others. However, these are all post-18 schools.

Further, for all the brilliance of the talents streaming from these schools, the whole new stream of British (and American) musicals, such as CATS, LES MISERABLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, MISS SAIGON and ASPECTS OF LOVE has put a great strain on the new style of talents required from performers. It is no longer simply a matter of being a supreme ballet dancer or actor or opera singer or jazz musician; one has to be able to sing and dance and act and play instruments and deal with new sound and lighting technology (and if you’re in BARNUM, tightrope walk!).

It was to meet this new demand that the philosophy and new curriculum for the Schools for Performing Arts Ltd was established, and attracted the flow of star names as our Patrons with a view that this support would be for a national programme of schools to be launched in a number of cities across Great Britain. Cameron Mackintosh recently joined as a Patron, precisely in the knowledge of his problem alone in casting and re-casting his musicals.

All this has required an incredible input of hard work donated by all our Trustees over a period of some seven years. This culminated in the British Phonographic Industry Trust donating £2.36 million towards the cost of launching the first of such schools and the Department of Education and Science responded with an additional £3.54 million.

At this stage, the London School for Performing Arts and Technology Ltd was incorporated (and known as the BRIT School) to administer the first of such schools on a site at Selhurst, offered by Croydon Council. LSPAT Is a completely separate and different company from the Schools for Performing Arts Ltd and our Patrons.

The investment of some £6 million in the first school, being launched in Croydon, is a major national achievement. it is hoped that another school may be established in Liverpool, spearheaded by Paul McCartney, in collaboration with the SPA Trust.

The confusion which has recently been caused locally in Croydon emanates from local political and educational issues which the Croydon Local Authority will need to resolve. However, the Schools for Performing Arts Trust is enormously grateful to the profession and, in particular, to its many Patrons, who have endorsed and continue to support our new national philosophy of approach to education in the performing arts and technology.

Article published by kind permission of the Estate of Anthony Field

“I have never been to a school like this anywhere in the world; I think it’s that unique… it’s a very special place.”

Tim Cook, Apple CEO

AFTERWORD After the opening of BRIT School, Mark Featherstone-Witty and Anthony Field turned their attention to creating the second performing arts school in Liverpool. With another raft of industry support and many Patrons and individual donors (including HM The Queen who made a private donation to the establishment of the Liverpool School), The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (now famous as LIPA) was created in the next few years, opening in 1996. LIPA is now amongst the most respected educational establishments in the country, regularly appearing in top 20 lists of the best in the UK.

To view the BRITSchool’s website, click here