When “Doris, the Goddess of Wind” was featured by Alan Bennett in his hit play THE HABIT OF ART, it reminded audiences of one the long- lost saucy cabaret performers of an earlier time. The writer and original performer of this piece was the popular cabaret, musical and revue star Douglas Byng, usually appearing in drag as one of his gallery of characters encapsulated in song. Naughty, bawdy, saucy, camp, risqué, outrageous – Byng was all of these, and more. Which is why he retained his affectionate popularity with audiences over a career spanning six decades.
This Thursday, 16th September, The British Music Hall Society hosts an evening telling Byng’s life story, presented by Richard Norman and Keith Fawkes, which is amply illustrated with recordings of the master at work, both on film and on disc. Byng’s debonair drag appearances in revue were described by Noel Coward as “the most refined vulgarity in London”. His records of his own saucy songs sold millions, and he was Britain’s biggest cabaret star for many years in the 20s and 30s.
His full name was Douglas Coy Byng, but “Coy” was the one thing Byng was definitely not. An openly gay performer at a time when this was very much not the norm, Byng’s long career was helped by his versatility in adapting to fluctuating trends after the cabaret scene changed during and after world war two; he found a home in pantomime for thirty years, while he could still be found performing his speciality routines in his eighties.
Now unjustly forgotten, Douglas Byng deserves this celebration and also a renewed recognition as one of the pioneers of LGBT visibility, as well as being a much-loved and very entertaining “turn” for well over 60 years.
DOUGLAS BYNG is an in-person event, presented by the British Music Hall Society at the Water Rats Pub/Theatre venue in London. Find details and tickets here
Anyone fascinated by the rich entertainment history of our oldest and most venerable theatres will be intrigued by this talk presented by Mark Fox to celebrate Music Hall & Variety Day 2021 covering the history of The London Palladium – take a virtual tour of The London Palladium and walk in the steps of the many great entertainers that have performed at this legendary theatre.
The talk will be presented online via Zoom on 3.00pm on Sunday 16th May 2021. Tickets are £3 for BMHS members and £5 for non-members. A joining link will be sent the day before the talk for all ticket purchasers. You can buy tickets here
Next week sees the annual celebration that is Music Hall and Variety Day and as part of the celebrations, the British Music Hall Society invites you to join them on a virtual walking tour of Brixton, celebrating the role of the area in the history of entertainment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The event is presented by Tracey Gregory, Chris Beddoe and Sue McKenzie, all of whom are part of the team working on the Brixton Music Hall project researching and mapping the people and places of Music hall Brixton on the Layers of London website (https://www.layersoflondon.org).
If you saw any of the excellent Brixton Music Hall talks last September (see my previous blog articles here and here) you will remember Tracey, Chris and Sue for their sterling work on those very interesting and informative events, which means that this new event is certain to be worth attending.
The talk will start at 11am on Sunday 16th May 2021. A Zoom joining link will be sent out via TicketSource on the day before the event. Tickets cost £3 for BMHS members and £5 for non-members. You can book your ticket here
This Thursday, 15th April at 7.30pm UK time, The British Music Hall Society presents a talk by Dr. William Rough, entitled “The paintings of Walter Richard Sickert, c.1888-c.1895”. Online
‘Tawdry, vulgar and the sentiment of the lowest music hall’ In the late 19th century, the painter Walter Richard Sickert captured the music halls of London in a series of canvases.
His depiction of the architecture, audiences, and performers of a selection of London halls, including the Old Bedford, Gatti’s and the Marylebone, bring a unique insight into the ‘magic and poetry’ of the London halls.
Having previously trained and been employed as an actor, Sickert had an affinity with performers and theatres, which he brought to his paintings. His music hall paintings were, however, not universally liked and attracted much criticism during this period.
This talk will explore a selection of Sickert’s paintings discussing the world he depicts, and the criticism his paintings and subject matter attracted.
Sickert was born in Munich to parents of Danish origin but British nationality. He settled in London with his parents in 1868. Sickert initially trained as an actor but in 1881 he began studying at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. He was a pupil of Whistler and also worked with Degas in Paris two years later. Degas influenced Sickert’s use of informal compositions and subject matter, particularly his fondness for theatre scenes. He died in 1942
Tickets cost £5 for non-members and £3 for members. LOG IN DETAILS ARE E-MAILED ON THE DAY OF THE TALK. Limited numbers of tickets are available at time of writing and can be boughthere
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 in the record industry. The albums completely fascinated 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 affectionately 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 the most fondly remembered 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!