MUSIC HALL and VARIETY DAY 2021 – More Music Hall and Variety: Puffery and Bill Matter – artwork

Following on from my earlier articles about Music Hall, to celebrate Music Hall and Variety Day on May 16th, here are some further thoughts about how music halls attracted their audiences. In terms of communication, images and design became very important to audiences’ understanding and appreciation of the stars, shows and theatres of music hall and variety.

Visual recognition in a pre-cinema and TV world was almost non-existent, which is why the sheet music of the most famous songs of the time featured large illustrations of the stars who sang them. Here are a few examples:

Programmes

Alhambra, Leicester Square Programme cover from May 1898
1900
1911
1912
1950s

Songsheets

Playbills

Posters had a lot to convey in a short timeframe. They more often than not used a contrasting red and blue colour pallette (which helped to keep the costs of their manufacture down). The grand masthead of the theatre would be consistent, whilst the acts on that week’s bill were different every week, except at venues like the Palladium where a show may be scheduled for more than a week, but variety shows were very rarely (if ever) extended past their agreed run- this was due to the artists’ next bookings usually being immediately following.

The name of the act would dominate, whilst a few catchy or intriguing words describing the act (musical, comedy, dancing, animal act, contortionist, acrobatic, etc) were added in smaller type underneath – this was referred to as the artist’s “bill matter”. Smartly written bill matter sometimes stemmed from- or became- an artist’s catch-phrase or calling card. Bill matter helped audiences identify the performer; for established acts that usually meant one of their catch-phrases, or for a lesser-known acts it gave some indication of what the act was about. Examples include Max Miller – The Cheeky Chappie, Ted Ray – Fiddling and Fooling; Sandy Powell used his catchphrase – Can You Hear Me, Mother?, and for lesser-known acts the bill matter either gave a taste of the act or was used as a teaser ; one example of which is Rene Strange – The Unusual Girl*.

There were somewhere between seven and ten acts for an average variety bill and getting them all on the poster took some clever typographical design. You can see some examples in the posters I have selected from The London Palladium, Manchester Palace, Shepherds Bush Empire and Glasgow Empire.

Interesting to see this example from the early fifties with Morecambe and Wise (who had not yet broken through on television) supporting Peter Sellers (who had broken through on radio). Also intriguing to see that the Theatre was broadcasting the Tuesday First House- I think I am right in assuming on radio and not TV. Not many years after this, the BBC bought the theatre to use as a TV studio from where many TV shows were broadcast for the next 25 years.

* For anyone nonplussed by Rene Strange’s bill matter, may I put you out of your confusion by sharing with you that her act started as singing whilst drawing caricatures, and over the years developed into puppetry with various cleverly-designed bespoke marionettes, combined with singing. She was even invited onto the bill for the 1946 Royal Variety Performance!


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