Today is the third Music Hall and Variety Day, where the British Music Hall Society invites people around the UK and beyond to celebrate by posting on social media photographs, postcards, bill posters, programmes, costumes, stories, memories about music hall, the buildings, performers, songs and shows that you may recall or have a link with. And don’t forget the hashtags so others can find your contributions!
For my contribution, below you can enjoy Michael Grade’s excellent History of Music Hall from 2011
Monday May 16th marks the third annual Music Hall and Variety Day, when celebrations of the UK’s wonderful Music Hall and variety heydays proliferate across social media, online, and in-person events too.
This year the British Music Hall Society (instigators of the annual celebration) are reprising last year’s celebration of legendary cabaret star Douglas Byng, which was an in-person event. Now, to make the event more widely available, it is being presented once again, this time as an online Zoom broadcast.
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 relationship and popularity with audiences over a career spanning six decades.
On Monday, 16th May, The British Music Hall Society hosts an online 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 online event, presented by the British Music Hall Society.
At Tate Britain until September 18, there’s a rare chance to see collected works of English painter Walter Sickert in the first major retrospective of his work for over 60 years. Those interested in music hall will definitely not want to miss it.
Walter Sickert is recognised as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, having helped shape modern British art as we know it. With ties to renowned painters from James Abbott McNeill Whistler to Edgar Degas, he strengthened the artistic connections between Britain and France and continues to influence contemporary painters to this very day.
The first major retrospective of Sickert at Tate in over 60 years, this exhibition explores how he had an often radical, distinctive approach to setting and subject matter. From working off detailed sketches to taking inspiration from news photography, these were the tools he used to depict his vision of everyday life.
A former actor, he had a flair and fascination for all things theatrical, including performers in music halls crafted on canvas, and nude portraits staged in intimate, domestic settings. His imagination was also fuelled by current events including the rise of celebrity culture, and he used this to create compelling narratives.
Much like the man, his art was complex. Creative and colourful, his body of work was ever-changing and can be interpreted in different ways. His own self-portraits, for example, showcase how he evolved throughout his career – from his beginnings as an actor and artistic apprentice, to becoming one of the most gifted and influential artists of his time.
Room Three sounds of particular interest to those with theatre on their minds, as the catalogue to the exhibition says:
“Initially inspired by Degas’s paintings of Parisian café-concerts, Sickert’s music hall paintings catapulted his career to new heights. From a young age he was described as ‘stage-struck’ and acted professionally before becoming an artist. Sickert visited music halls almost every night and made sketches that not only captured the effects of light and movement onstage, but also the people watching in the audience. His subsequent paintings adopted unusual viewpoints while playing with colour, expressing the vibrancy of the performative atmosphere. However, critics described music halls as ‘working-class entertainments’, perceiving popular culture as an inappropriate subject for fine art.
Music halls were popular entertainment venues in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Sickert’s paintings of London, but also Paris and Dieppe, trace their development and demise – from nightly live performances to hosting the first cinematic screenings in Britain. The cinema as well as radio and music recordings became popular, leading to a decline in music hall audiences. Yet, Sickert never lost his interest in theatrical subjects and later turned his attention to other forms of popular entertainment.”
On selected Wednesdays and Fridays at 1.00pm, you can add to your enjoyment with a pre-show talk, lasting 60 minutes, details of which you can find here
For more information, and to book tickets, click here
For anyone who might want a bit of an introduction to Sickert’s work, here are a couple of interesting video courtesy of YouTube posters
Music Hall legends Wilson, Keppel and Betty were given a much-welcomed extra exposure on Sunday 30th January on Talking Pictures TV’s THE FOOTAGE DETECTIVES, where newly-discovered film is restored and aired.
For those unaware of these legendary figures, they graced music hall and variety stages from the 1930s until 1962, with their most-repeated signature piece being an eccentric sand dance in a sequence known as Cleopatra’s Nightmare which has become legendary in music hall history.
THE FOOTAGE DETECTIVES’ highlight was the airing of film discovered by Wilson, Keppel and Betty biographer Alan Stafford (His book is entitled TOO NAKED FOR THE NAZIS) with the famous trio in 1949, in rehearsal for a pantomime at no other venue than the illustrious Dudley Hippodrome. Aside from giving us the only known colour footage of the famous trio, the film was a fascinating overview of preparation and rehearsals for a major regional pantomine, quite probably unique as a film record of a time sadly long-gone.
You can catch up with the programme by watching it on the channel’s on-demand service, Talking Pictures TV Encore, which you can find at http://tptvencore.co.uk Episode 11 is the one you’ll need to select.