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!