Celebrate “Bawdy but British” Douglas Byng on Music Hall and Variety Day

One of several big-selling compilations of the works of Douglas Byng

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.

Find details and tickets here

VIEWS: GCSEs not improved by cultural activities? Perhaps it’s the exams (and the system) that need improving….

There was a very interesting item in The Guardian on 12th March (which you can read here– no paywall) which claimed that a new study had determined that cultural activities had no impact upon the educational grades of pupils.

The study, due to appear in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, says in its summation “It is beguiling to believe that increasing pupils’ levels of cultural capital will have a positive influence on school GCSE outcomes. It is tempting to theorise that visits to museums or historic venues might be helpful in igniting interests in history, and that visits to the theatre might similarly cultivate learning in drama. On deeper reflection, it is difficult to plausibly describe mechanisms by which the exposure to certain extracurricular activities would influence outcomes in other school GCSE subjects.”

While acknowledging that reading activities did have a discernable impact upon grade attainment, the study’s questionable assertion that cultural activities have no impact upon exam grades must be challenged as being ridiculously binary.

Cultural visits and activities will introduce children to new people, things, ideas and ways of thinking and relating to the world.

My husband, therapist Juan Carlos Gouveia, explains that children mentally operate exclusively through the emotional side of their mind as they learn up until around the age of 8, which is when the logic part of the mind begins to develop. A productive, modern educational system needs to support and nourish both sides of young people’s minds, and not sacrifice one over the other.

There are many things that our UK education system fails to provide, in its focus on the skills which make our youngsters cannon-fodder for call centres, retail and service industries (it’s an uncomfortable truth but still a truth nevertheless). I’ll come back to that later.

And what about the inequality of the exam process itself? Often criticised as unfit and outdated as GCSEs are, is this REALLY how we want to measure our youngsters’ development?

We all know that some young people sail through exams, whereas others find them a psychological hill to climb. This has little correlation to the actual intelligence of the child, as anguished parents argue every single year, as kids look on, powerless.

It is often glibly said that knowledge is power. However, the real power comes from the understanding of that knowledge, not its simple acquisition.

Perhaps instead of holding the exams as a standard, we should look at changing the model of examination to be less mechanistic and more human. After all, our young people are not machines.

With the disruption and deep emotional upsets that Covid has wrought upon so many young people, isn’t it time to humanise this failing, binary system which seeks to pigeonhole them, all too often incorrectly and with immense damage to their future lives.

With growing understanding of neurodiversity, this too must be brought into the educational system to include rather than exclude those who don’t function just like everyone else.

Young people need support, understanding and connection, not to be told to jump through hoops at the sound of a bell, and then to be told they’ve “failed” if they haven’t conformed to this outdated system of categorising humans, in itself a vague and sloppy process.

A vibrant, dynamic, diverse, creative society is never the product of “cookie-cutter” schooling.

The experience of being alive, being human is so many things – confusing, joyful, sad, terrifying, risky, scary, incredible, awesome, humbling and heartwarming.

I have worked with many teachers in previous times and met many fantastic, caring, hard-working, dedicated and inspiring teachers who are a credit to their profession who give so much to their students. But even these caring professional can only do so much when they are operating within an outdated system which puts tick boxes ahead of talent, scores instead of humanity and organic personal growth.

Wouldn’t it be great if our education system encouraged people to live, as well as work? How? By teaching them THE STUFF THAT REALLY MATTERS. By informing and advising them about things that are relevant to them in their development as functioning members of society, such as to how to maintain a loving relationship, how to ask for help, how to understand a setback, taking care of your own mental health and wellbeing, how to understand people of different views, how to understand and respect your own sexual orientation, how to manage money, how to come to terms with death and grief, how to deal with your own feelings, self-care and self-respect, dispute resolution, how to deal with social media, how to recognise abusive behaviour, peer pressure and how to handle it, how to eat for good health and good mood, how to respect and care for others, what addictions are- and how they can be overcome, how to focus your energy on looking after yourself. And so many, many more.

It is in these unquantifiable, abstract, creative, areas where theatre, art and culture can help young people come to terms with, and better understand, the world and themselves, by encouraging them to think, to question, ultimately to give them the tools to care for themselves better. Young people’s happier lives should be our country’s foremost aim. A better future for them means a better future for us all.

Get Into Theatre is a great resource for young theatre-makers

Get Into Theatre is a website which is a fantastic resource for those young people wanting to know more about the many and varied rewarding careers that theatre can offer them.

Get Into Theatre was originally produced by The Stage newspaper and created in partnership with the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre. All the partners remain active supporters but Get Into Theatre is now an independent charity.

At its website you’ll find huge amounts of theatre-related information, ideas and useful interviews, FAQs, opportunities and experiences, as well as a quick and easy way to refine what you’re looking for in the site’s fun Quick Questions feature.

I’d highly recommend this site as a first stop for anyone wanting to know about the world of theatre which seems obvious to those of us in it, but can seem impenetrable to those outside wanting to know more. This website is a brilliant bridge across that divide. Get along there today!

Visit Get Into Theatre here

Morecambe Winter Gardens makes progress – and gets more good news

Recreated lost box front courtesy of specialists Hayles and Howe

Currently celebrating its 125th anniversary year, Morecambe’s historic Winter Gardens restoration project is well into its second year.

As can be seen from the interior photos, the plasterwork specialists Hayles and Howe are taking great care in recreating lost ceiling panels, box fronts and other decorative plasterwork features.

Further good news to boost the Winter Gardens’ future life came at the end of January when the local Council voted unanimously to approve the plans for another Eden Project eco-park, this time to be built in Morecambe. You can see from the images that the Eden Morecambe project will form an impressive architectural trio along with the Winter Gardens and the recently-restored 1933-built art deco Midland Hotel.

Its great to report that things are looking good in Morecambe! Well done to all the many people steering this grand old theatre into its next phase of life.

Two artists illustrations of the proposed Eden project in Morecambe
Midland Hotel, Morecambe

Five-star ANYTHING GOES sails into UK cinemas for two nights only!

The multi five-starred new London production of ANYTHING GOES will be screened across the UK for two nights only after the end of its run at London’s Barbican Theatre (until November 6th).

For those of you (like me) who are taking your time to return to theatre, you can see it in more than 450 cinemas across the UK on November 28th and December 1st.

The show had been touted for an extensive UK tour after the London run but this appears to have been shelved owing to scheduling problems and the departure of leading lady Sutton Foster (off to do THE MUSIC MAN on Broadway), after the first delay in opening caused scheduling problems which necessitated the departure of originally announced leading lady Megan Mullaly (of WILL AND GRACE fame).

Scheduling problems for regional tours were thrown into utter chaos by the pandemic causing huge numbers of announcements, sudden cancellations and postponements, which has undoubtedly caused a lot of financial hardship to producers and receiving venues alike. I sincerely hope that the touring schedules are able to be maintained without too much interruption, as our industry- and the theatres they serve- depend upon it.

For cinema tickets to ANYTHING GOES, click here

International screenings are to be announced at a later date.