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)

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