England’s long history of building grand indoor spaces for socialising and entertainment began with the music halls of the early Victorian era. Originating as an extension of the saloon bars of local pubs and taverns, music halls developed their own style of variety performance, producing a number of big name acts who frequented the circuit, which was widespread across the UK and enjoyed a formidable longevity of popularity.
Now sadly very rare to find, some notable survivors are discussed in this Historic England blog which is an entertaining read in itself.
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
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:
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.
* 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!
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
Well, you won’t want to miss out on watching Jon Newman’s talk LAMBETH’S THEATRES: THE OLD VIC AND THE REST, which takes us on a vivid, whirlwind tour of Lambeth’s unlicensed theatres of the 19th Century.
Gathering its material from the extensive Lambeth Archives, the talk takes place online on Thursday 4th February at 7.00pm GMT.