BBC Radio4 Extra is making available their dramatization of J.B. Priestley’s wonderful book about music hall, LOST EMPIRES (first broadcast in 1994), in three one-hour episodes on Monday 18th May, Tuesday 19th May and Wednesday 20th May.
The play tells the story of Richard Herncastle who decides to join his Uncle Nick’s magic act on ‘the halls’ in 1913 just before World War One, and stars Tom Baker, Bryan Pringle, Richard Hollick, Brigit Forsyth and Deborah McAndrew.
The episodes will be available for a limited time afterwards – usually a month- either on the BBC Sounds app, which is free (but you do need to register), or directly below.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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 SouthamptonTheatres – 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.
Lena Horne, who died ten years ago this month, was one of the most sophisticated song stylists of her generation. In this appreciation ANTHONY FIELD recalls his association with her and her history, living as she did through times which were not as enlightened as our current society’s. But most of all, it celebrates her triumphs as an artist – no one was going to silence this lady and her music!
This tribute dates from May 2010
One of the first decisions I had to make when I took up the post as Finance Director at Theatre Projects was whether to extend the season of Lena Horne’s THE LADY AND HER MUSIC which we presented at the Adelphi Theatre in London in August 1984. Faced with the age-old show business dilemma I had to decide whether the first sell-out month should be extended for a second month. We had pioneered opening the show on Sundays and closing on Mondays which had proved successful but we still had to decide whether to extend the season (and risk losing an extra month of business) or to risk finding that would-be ticket buyers who had initially failed to obtain tickets would not come back. This was the dilemma I recorded in The Stage newspaper of 9 August 1984.
The show was an absolute sell-out and proved that Lena Horne was right to postpone her retirement planned for 1980. This last appearance of Lena in London is recalled by many of us who are sad to hear of her death this month (May 2010) at the age of 92.
I first saw her live at her London Palladium debut in August 1950 when she played to enraptured audiences for two sold-out weeks. Her husband, Lennie Hayton, MGM’s Musical Director, conducted his own exciting arrangements opening with “You Do Something To Me” which raised the roof. The variety bill supporting her included Bernard Miles and Billy Cotton and his band. I never asked her what she thought of them! (She returned for another successful season at the Palladium in June 1952).
Born in Brooklyn on 30 June 1917 she was the daughter of an actress and a hotel operator. Her early life was unsettled as her parents divorced when she was three and she spent her childhood living with various relatives. As a young girl she planned to be a teacher but the Depression came and she left the Brooklyn High School For Girls and went to a dancers’ audition at the Cotton Club. She was hired and spent three years learning all about show business from some of the greats including Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
She married Louis Jones and had two children, Ted and Gail, but the marriage failed and Lena divorced him after four years. She then joined Charlie Barnett’s band as their singer and was spotted by MGM’s music supervisor Roger Edens, after which MGM producer Arthur Freed offered her a contract.
Her first film was “Panama Hattie” and the studio created special make-up for her called “Light Egyptian”. Her next film was “Cabin in the Sky” when she played opposite Ethel Waters but MGM did not offer her another assignment, loaning her out to 20th Century-Fox for “Stormy Weather” where she played opposite Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. She then appeared in “As Thousands Cheer”, “Swing Fever”, “Broadway Rhythm”, “Two Girls and a Sailor”, “Ziegfeld Follies” and “Till the Clouds Roll By” but she was always limited to a guest spot number which could be cut out when the film was shown in southern US states’ theatres without affecting the plot. Her last film at MGM was “Duchess of Idaho” in 1950.
During World War Two Lena became the pin-up for hundreds of thousands of black GIs and was firm in her refusal to appear on any tours unless black soldiers were admitted as part of the audience.
In 1950, Lena announced her three-year secret marriage to Lennie Hayton. Their marriage of 24 years ended with his sudden death in 1971 which ended what was a real love match.
Being black in Hollywood’s white society was not easy and for a long time her only real friend there was Orson Welles. Living in a wealthy neighbourhood, the residents there were convinced that she “lowered the tone of the place”. But Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre constantly came to her defence.
Surprisingly, her only big success in a Broadway musical was “Jamaica” with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg. It opened in October 1957 with a cast including Ricardo Montalban and Adelaide Hall and ran for 555 performances.
After Lennie Hayton’s death she lived a quiet life in Santa Barbara. Her son Ted also died in 1971 of a kidney ailment and her daughter Gail had married Sidney Lumet, giving Lena her beloved two grandsons and three granddaughters.
In 1980 she was persuaded to spend a year of planning, writing, honing and rehearsing “The Lady And Her Music” which opened at the Nederlander Theatre on 12 May 1981. The reviews were unanimously sensational and it became the hottest ticket in New York, receiving a special Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Award. Its 14-month run made it the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history.
Lena finally brought the show to London when Michael Billington wrote that “her timing, phrasing and emotional voltage remain as powerful as ever. In “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” she takes a line like “I’m a real, ripe, juicy plum again” and delivers every syllable into your lap with onomatopoeic suggestiveness. And she can even take the ride in “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and, through fierce, whispered enunciation of every particle of every word, turn it into something full of moonlit eroticism.”
Opening the evening with Rodgers and Hart’s “A Lady Must Live”, she ended the evening of 22 songs with “Stormy Weather”.
She told me at dinner after that first night that “After this Adelphi engagement I’m going to call it a day. It’s time to concentrate on my five grandchildren. Enough is enough!”
With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish this article.
AFTERWORD An audio recording of the 1981 Broadway run was made and is available through a wide range of streaming outlets including Spotify and Amazon Music
ADDITION You will be pleased to hear that a recording of the entire Broadway show has turned up on my favourite archive, YouTube. You can find it here