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.


The night the roof fell in – Washington’s Knickerbocker Theatre tragedy

A new article from the esteemed Ransom Center in Texas allows us to recall one of the deadliest nights in theatre history.

In the 1980s, the Harry Ransom Center received a fascinating and unique historical artefact. John and Vera Hills had donated a scrapbook of theirs which featured an extraordinary unpublished account of their survival of the Knickerbocker Theatre roof collapse in Washington, D.C. on January 28, 1922.

A fascinating article by graduate assistant Hannah Neuhauser explores this scrapbook and its astonishing first-hand testimony.

You can read Hannah’s article here


SAVE Britain’s Heritage annual lecture focuses on demolition of historic buildings only as last resort

SAVE Britain’s Heritage’s 2023 annual lecture will be held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London -and online- on 7th March, in a hybrid event that you can join wherever you are.

Net zero and sustainability specialist Simon Sturgis will use the occasion to call for a revolution in architecture in response to the climate emergency. He will make the compelling case that one of our most effective responses to the crisis is to make demolition of buildings the last resort – not the first.

UNRESTRICTED THEATRE SAYS: This is particularly pertinent to the demolition by stealth that we are currently seeing in historic theatres and cinema buildings across the UK which occupy valuable sites that developers are slavering to get delisted and demolished. There are a number of high-profile sites worth supporting with your interest, including Dudley Hippodrome, the last purpose-built professional theatre in its area which has been actively targeted by the visionless local council; and the State Grays cinema, bought by Wetherspoons and left to rot with a gaping hole in the roof to hasten its decline. We must all work to ensure that greedy developers don’t profit from the loss of our historic built environment by unscrupulous owners who actively work to destroy assets of local community value.

“Architecture is facing its biggest change since the First World War,” Sturgis will say. “Architectural thought has been effectively dormant for the last 90 years and now needs a thought revolution to help solve the climate crisis.”

Simon Sturgis is one of the country’s leading experts in the emerging field of embodied carbon in the built environment. He is managing partner of the consultancy Targeting Zero and an advisor to government, MPs the EU and industry.

Simon was SAVE’s chief sustainability witness at the public inquiry in October last year where we highlighted the massive carbon waste of Marks and Spencer’s plans to demolish their flagship building at Marble Arch.

SAVE’s Marks and Spencer campaign attracted widespread press and public interest because of three key ingredients: a well-loved heritage landmark on Oxford Street; a household name; and the potentially far-reaching consequences this case could have for construction and development.

It is the first time carbon and heritage have both been at the heart of a public inquiry in the UK. With the Secretary of State’s decision expected by early May, it is being widely viewed as a landmark case.

The built environment is responsible for about 40% of global carbon emissions – more than any other sector – which means cutting development’s emissions would have a disproportionately positive impact on our carbon footprint.

This presents us with an urgent obligation to change the way we do development, Simon will argue. Even the “greenest” new-build proposal – which just five years ago would have been welcome – is now arguably an obstacle to the UK’s progress towards its legally binding commitment to be net zero by 2050.

As a result, the retrofit and reuse of existing buildings must become the starting point of any development brief. As architect Carl Elefante’s mantra has it, “the greenest building is the one that already exists”.

The SAVE annual lecture, Architecture and Climate Crisis: How the past can save the future will be held on 7th March in the stunning David Chipperfield-designed Benjamin West Lecture Theatre at the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens building – itself a great example of a retrofit which gave a historic building a viable new future.

It is a hybrid event and tickets to watch online are also available.

Find more information, and book tickets (from £5), here


Guest writing for Ardent Theatre Company

Happy New (Creative) Year to you all!

I was delighted to be asked to write the first blog post of the New Year for Ardent Theatre company by their Creative Director, Mark Sands.

Ardent have recently achieved a significant milestone in their evolution as a company, by securing a three-year Paul Hamlyn Foundation grant to support the running of the company. This couldn’t have come at a better time, as the company’s next major production, of Tracy Ryan’s STRIKE! opens in April at Southwark Playhouse in London, and is the first production to have signed up to be guided by Equity’s Green Book, outlining how to create and run sustainable theatre productions.

For the blog entry, I thought it would be good to address the country’s productivity gap, explain what has contributed to it and suggest genuine solutions. I think you’ll find it an interesting read.

You can find a link to Ardent’s always-interesting blog here


Wishing You All a TAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Fayard and Harold – The Nicholas Brothers, undisputed kings of tap, in motion during a routine in STORMY WEATHER (1942).

Christmas is a time when many of us like to get out and see a show with our special friends and family, and song and dance often feature high in the sort of entertainment we seek out, to match the exuberant and cheery feelings many feel about the holiday season.

For those of you who may prefer celebrating from home, I have picked out a few things you can see online, which I think you may enjoy in this time when we relax and indulge ourselves a little.

Still on BBCiPlayer (for UK licence-holders) is the big musical ANYTHING GOES. Filmed live at the Barbican in London, this major new production of the classic musical comedy features an all-star cast led by renowned Broadway actress Sutton Foster with Cole Porter’s timeless songs and a sprinkling of dance, including a good bit of tap.

Find ANYTHING GOES here

If tap is really your thing, you’ll enjoy this rarely-seen and recently rediscovered documentary, first broadcast in the UK on Channel Four in 1983, MASTERS OF TAP- with contributions from legends such as Will Gaines, Honi Coles and Chuck Green.

Find MASTERS OF TAP here

FOSSE/VERDON was a great series about the relationship between legendary choreographer Bob Fosse and his second wife, the dynamic performer Gwen Verdon. In eight parts, and boasting great performances by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, with a guest spot by Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s well worth your holiday time.

Find FOSSE/VERDON here

For fans of classic tap, you can’t go wrong with Ann Miller, Guinness World Record holder as the fastest tapper in history (for many years). There’s a nice new print of a long-unavailable Miller movie, TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM from 1941 currently on YouTube. It’s a very lumpy but passable musical, but definitely worth seeing for Ann’s numbers (starting at 24:15) which are delightful, especially the number she does with comedy character actor Allen Jenkins, in what I believe is his only dance routine on film – and its enormous fun! (Find it fast by going to 37:07). Foghorn-voiced Jenkins was one of the group of Irish-heritage actor/singer/dancers who worked their way up, through being chorus boys on Broadway in the 20s and then onto Hollywood in the 30s, whose number included close friends such as Pat O’Brien and James Cagney.

Find TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM here

And if you’d like to know more about my personal (and Fred Astaire’s) top tap stars, the Nicholas Brothers, you can see a great biography of them below with lots of clips of them in action. If you watch nothing else, jump to the end, at 49:43, where they project their movie routine LUCKY NUMBERS from 1936 behind them, while performing it perfectly almost 60 years later. I saw this routine live when they performed it at the all-star gala STAIRWAY TO THE STARS in November 1989 at the London Palladium, and it absolutely brought the house down. Enjoy!

Find WE SING, WE DANCE here

Happy Holidays to you all!