Roy Hudd and Christopher Green discover the perils of applause in a comic conversation at Wilton’s Music Hall, where together they tell the lost story of music hall idol Fred Barnes.
Meet the ‘wavy-haired, blue-eyed Adonis’, singer Fred Barnes, whose hit song, The Black Sheep of The Family, and outrageous appearance both made him a star and were the architects of his downfall. Barnes topped the national circuits in 1911 through into the twenties, and at the height of his fame, he would be seen about town in his trademark white suit and hat, with a pet marmoset on his shoulder.
But Fred’s tragic family history, sudden success and enormous wealth were too hard to handle. His addictions and flamboyant offstage adventures proved his ruin, and after being branded ‘a menace to His Majesty’s fighting forces’, Fred was banned from the stage by his employers.
He fell spectacularly from grace, brought down by a shockingly modern range of addictions: sex, shopping, alcohol, and a need for celebrity. At the pinnacle of his fame in the 1920s he was fabulously wealthy and sported the height of extravagant fashion with a marmoset on his shoulder. He sold his memoir ‘How Success Ruined Me’ to the papers, but by the mid 1930s he was singing for pennies in Southend pubs – now with a chicken perched on his shoulder.
Chris and Roy play out (and argue about, and rewrite) the vital moments from Fred’s private and public life, while reflecting frankly on the perils of applause, addiction and identity in their own performing lives – with jokes, chat and songs.
Roy Hudd, OBE, died in March 2020.
Words and music by Christopher Green with John Orchard on the piano
Listen to HOW SUCCESS RUINED ME here on BBC iPlayer – Or here on audiomack.com – Or here on Internet Archive
Two interesting shows have cropped up on the BBC Sounds app which are currently available to listen to.
Each show lasts an hour, and appear to be available for some time.
The first is TWICE NIGHTLY, a remembrance of Music Hall and Variety days by one of those who performed in it for many years, the musician and comedian Stan Stennett. An interesting show with much first- hand recollection, the subject spends a little too much time on himself for my liking, but it is worth sticking with to get a taste of “the halls”. The show was recorded in 2001.
The second show is from 2003. MUSIC HALL RECLAIMED is presented by Barry Cryer, another performer who started his career at the tail end of Variety, where he looks into the range of material that survives as recordings of many music hall and variety acts- some famous, some unheard for decades- and the care which goes into tracing, restoring and preserving these last remnants of a disappeared age. It presents a number of surprises, including how political some of the music hall songs could be.
Again, well worth a listen, as well as to hear some rare recordings lovingly cleaned and sounding much less than their age – in most cases, over 100 years!
BBC Radio4 Extra is making available their dramatization of J.B. Priestley’s wonderful book about music hall, LOST EMPIRES (first broadcast in 1994), in three one-hour episodes on Monday 18th May, Tuesday 19th May and Wednesday 20th May.
The play tells the story of Richard Herncastle who decides to join his Uncle Nick’s magic act on ‘the halls’ in 1913 just before World War One, and stars Tom Baker, Bryan Pringle, Richard Hollick, Brigit Forsyth and Deborah McAndrew.
The episodes will be available for a limited time afterwards – usually a month- either on the BBC Sounds app, which is free (but you do need to register), or directly below.
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!
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, as a new middle-class emerged, these 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.
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 including family audiences, 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, contortionists, 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. Duration, too was modified; early music hall’s parade of (mostly) singers with entertainment across the whole eevning, with occasional gaps and no sense of urgency or structure- you could spend three to four hours listening to songs from dozens of performers, who often played several halls in one evening. Variety formalised the structure of a show that had between seven and ten acts, lasting up to two hours, which was performed twice per evening (First House and Second House).
By the beginning of the 20th century, these halls had become very grand indeed, and the most famous and wide-reaching circuit of them all was the Moss Empires. The world of variety was further legitimised by the announcement of the first Royal Command Performance (later known as the Royal Variety Performance which continues to this day) in the presence of the King and Queen of England. on July 1st 1912 at the Palace Theatre in London.
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.
in the later 1920s, radio and talking pictures began to erode the popularity of variety as acts took their performances to larger audiences. In many cases variety artists were barred from appearing on “rival media”, but in a way it gradually dawned on promoters that the competition could also be helpful. When audiences heard artists on the radio, their appearance on a local variety bill often encouraged them to attend to find out what they looked like.
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. With more, newer competition, 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 sick of the recent past of war, rationing and deprivation 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”.