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!
The culmination of a twenty-five year campaign, the passing of the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938 meant that millions of UK workers now had a little time on their hands and a little money to spend as well. Coastal holiday destinations, previously mostly the reserve of the well-to-do, now became more achievable for ordinary working class families.
Your choice of seaside town was usually the one nearest to your home location (saving precious time in travelling) , so that workers of Manchester or Liverpool went to either Blackpool or Morecambe; Leeds workers most often headed to Skegness, Filey or Scarborough; while London workers would head east to Southend, Clacton, Margate, or perhaps south to Brighton, Hastings, Bournemouth or Torquay.
Many Northern industrial towns had local holiday weeks (called wakes weeks or trades weeks) when all factories or mills in one area would shut down for maintenance and all the workers would take their annual leave at the same time.
Transport was by coach or train – often specially laid on by the employers – to move the vast numbers of workers quickly and efficiently to and from their holiday destinations.
Blackpool, already popular with holidaymakers, boomed. It became the northern holiday hub, being well-served by roads and railways – it also had the good fortune of having over 8 million factory and mill workers within 60 miles. Blackpool’s hotels, guest houses, restaurants, holiday camps and amusements of all types prospered.
All the big seaside towns saw a massive uptick in business as they scrambled to cater for holidaymakers with every type of diversion – from a penny deckchair on the beach, ice creams, candy floss and sticks of rock, to Punch and Judy shows and donkey rides for the kids, to amusement arcades and funfairs, to pubs and cafes, souvenir and gift shops, lidos and parks, to theatres and bandstands with their brass bands and concert party shows, as well as every kind of food from cockles and whelks to good old fish and chips.
And of course it wasn’t a holiday without seeing one of the big shows which ran for a sixteen-week season in the huge theatres. The biggest stars of their day played to continually packed houses, two or three times a day. All around the coast, pier theatres and those along the seafronts jockeyed for popular star names to plaster across their marquees for the summer season.
The Seaside concert parties and travelling Pierrot shows which had been popular at seaside resorts in earlier decades had catered to a more middle-class, well-to-do type of holidaymaker, but by the time of the Holidays with Pay Act they were beginning to be perceived as small-scale, “quaint” and rather old-fashioned, although they did not fully disappear from the UK holiday scene until the 1950s. The new thing was the big seaside variety shows where you could see seven or eight acts with a star heading the bill, usually a singer or comedian. It was essentially the well-known variety format taken to the seaside.
The popularity of these new seaside entertainments was easily explicable. Back in the 1930s, radio was the main form of broadcast entertainment. Many of the celebrities- comedians, singers, bands- of the day were well-known to mass audiences – but those audiences had rarely, if ever, seen them. Now, these new holidaymakers were clamouring for entertainment and the novelty of seeing their radio and film favourites proved too good to miss. The opportunity for exploitation was therefore enormous. It was quite usual for shows with an attractive star offering to sell out their entire engagement, regularly turning away business. If customers found that one show was fully booked, they simply moved on to the next show, hoping for availability there. The great thing for the shows was that every week their potential audience was refreshed by the exodus of one week’s visitors and the arrival of the next. Most theatres would have the House Full signs out at every performance.
In the early 1950s, when variety started to decline, it was the seaside summer season shows which helped to keep those same kind of variety acts in work as other opportunities for work became scarcer. In the winter, pantomime would continue to help keep the variety acts working; let’s not forget that at its height, pantomime season could last all the way from the Christmas week through until Easter at the major theatres.
The Summer Show season was early June through to late September. Comics, singers, acrobats, monologists, ventriloquists, contortionists, jugglers, dancers (eccentric and traditional) and speciality acts of every sort padded out these lightweight diversions which slogged their way through the summer, come rain or come shine.
The scheduling of shows was specifically designed to be comfortable to what audiences already knew and accepted with their hometown variety theatres, and so just like variety, the seaside shows appeared twice nightly at around 6.15 and 8.30 Monday to Saturday, with a matinee midweek and often on Saturdays. If that weren’t enough, there was yet more entertainment on offer on Sundays when the theatres ran one-night concerts, where visiting shows and stars would tour the seaside resorts and cover large parts of the UK coastline during a summer of Sundays.
Big cinemas got into the act too – and at all the major holiday resorts, the town’s largest cinemas relinquished movies for a summer season of live stage shows. The vast auditoria of 2000 or 2500 seats were consistently full from one week to the next, as the almost unquenchable flow of holidaymakers took their turn to see the stars “live”.
As to the format of the seaside summer shows, they usually consisted of a headliner with a range of other speciality acts supporting, very much like the variety bills which had been familiar to audiences in their hometowns over the previous decades. From time to time comic plays or musical comedies were presented as entertainment that was a little bit different, but these were more of an occasional exception to the expected variety format. More often than not, different theatres presented the type of shows which their audiences had grown to expect- for example the Grand in Blackpool would usually present a show which was a play format, almost always a comedy with star names filling out the marquee.
Later, as TV intruded into UK homes in the 50s and 60s, stage versions of the most popular TV shows started to appear at our coastal theatres for the Summer. Almost anything -or anyone- that became popular was ripe for the summer show treatment.
To illustrate this point, in 1954 the Blackpool Grand Theatre even hosted a season of Jack Hylton’s stage production of popular radio show THE ARCHERS, then (as now) gathering large audiences on BBC radio. Interestingly, the stage version does not appear to have included any of the original cast- perhaps due to recording commitments. The stage show starred Jack Warner, Joyce Barbour, Charles Victor, Dandy Nicholls and Peter Byrne.
The big producers of the time – George and Alfred Black, Jack Hylton, and later Bernard Delfont, amongst others – rotated a number of shows around the seaside resorts across different years. From the advert below, you can see how the talent was spread around the UK by Delfont’s organisation in 1963.
Because the seaside towns drew such large, ever-changing audiences the shows welcomed the broadest spectrum of acts- those on their way up, on the way down, those at the height of their fame, and everything in between. Just take a glance (above) at the Delfont Organisation’s offerings in Summer 1963, ranging from early appearances by Mike and Bernie Winters; to big stars like Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Vaughan, Harry Worth and Bruce Forsyth; and those in their later years such as Hetty King (onstage since 1890!), Jimmy James (onstage since 1900!) and Marie Lloyd Jr. (onstage since 1896!).
There were also producers who specialised in entertainment at our seaside towns, whose shows returned year after year with new names but under a recurring name and the format of variety – the public seemed to enjoy the familiarity. An example below is Lawrence Wright whose ON WITH THE SHOW ran for over 30 years in Blackpool.
As an alternative to variety-style bills, comedy plays were also popular. These were created for stars who were not singers or comedians, but rather actors known for comic parts they had played – on TV, theatre, film or radio. Being comic actors as opposed to comedians, they were not joke-tellers. The creation of comic plays gave them a format within which to play, capitalising upon their known character type and therefore satisfied the audience’s expectations. Flexible enough to be moulded around different types of star performer, these comic plays tended to reappear for several years at different locations, often with available TV or theatre names slotted into them. Here (below) is an example from the early seventies. In 1971, some of the stars of TV’s ON THE BUSES piled into a comedy called STOP IT, NURSE at the Windmill in Great Yarmouth. The following year, the show had moved to Torquay – but this time out, the stars were from the Carry On fold- Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor and Bernard Bresslaw.
A number of these comedy plays were written by a man named Sam Cree. The scripts were loose enough to flex around different personalities and lightly written with just enough plot to keep the momentum moving forward. These shows appeared up and down the country with varying stars from year to year and kept many a theatre owner happy as well as their audiences, who had come to see the stars first and the play second.
Sam Cree was an Irishman who wrote over 20 plays, mostly for summer show consumption, which in the mid to late sixties were sometimes filmed live in the theatre or restaged for television. The BBC presented these until around 1968. Perhaps those recordings still lie in the BBC vaults, or perhaps they were part of the massive amount of videotape which was wiped for reuse. We may never know.
The stars would also be called upon to do a fair amount of pre-season publicity as well as regular media appearances and charity events , beauty contests and other local events and ceremonies during the Summer season. Above is just one example of the main stars at Great Yarmouth in 1970 turning out en masse for a charity event benefitting the local Round Table.
The UK’s constant flow of seaside holidaymakers began to ebb during the late sixties as holidays abroad became more financially affordable, with the rise of the foreign package holiday. The British summer seaside season died out in the late 70s and early 80s as more people took holidays abroad (where better weather was almost guaranteed) and tastes in entertainment changed.
The coastal holiday shows lasted into the eighties, becoming an ever-diminishing shadow of their former selves. Declining audiences coupled with increasing fees for stars and competing film and TV schedules meant that stars were often reluctant to carve a full four months out of their schedules, as they could earn more money with less hard work elsewhere.
And so the seaside shows simply faded away. Today, just a very few survive with a dedicated band of performers and audiences. Sadly the Golden Age of the UK’s Summer Seaside shows is long gone, but for many of us, the memories will linger.
In the next article I’ll recall my own childhood holidays in Great Yarmouth and the stars and shows I was lucky enough to see.
If you have any memories of seaside UK holiday shows then I’d love to hear about them. Please share your thoughts in the comments box below. Thank You!
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!
Frank Matcham, the greatest British theatre architect, died 100 years ago on Sunday, 17th May.
If you’re not familiar with his name, you will probably be familiar with his work – if I mention the London Palladium, The London Coliseum, The Victoria Palace, as well as many theatres up and down the country (including Buxton Opera House and Richmond Theatre) and most notably a string of Empire variety theatres for the Moss circuit. Frank Matcham was the doyen of theatre architects of his time, creating theatres across the land, during the golden age of theatre construction from 1890 to around 1912.
Astonishingly, at the time his work was rather looked down upon, with theatre and music hall being “mere” entertainment, but thankfully the passage of time has fully underlined his pre-eminence as one of the greatest architects of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.
Of the approximately 120 buildings that he either designed or remodelled, tragically only 26 remain today. Many were destroyed by wartime bombing, but even more (such as the Metropolitan Edgware Road) were wilfully bulldozed during the changing entertainment scene of the 1950s and 60s when theatregoing traditions faded away. Variety died, and TV was the box they buried it in.
Matcham was renowned for his professional punctuality, bringing jobs in on time and to schedule. His richly-detailed designs were opulent, with a grandeur and elegance, fully-flourished and embellished with all manner of decorative plasterwork that made his theatres a feast for the eyes before the curtain had even gone up. He was also a pioneer in the use of steel frameworks for his theatres, which gave his auditoria the strength to eliminate the need for pillars, allowing unobstructed views from every seat in the house and excellent sightlines, another Matcham trademark. Often larger-scale designs, often seating over 2,000, his auditoria were also known for their remarkable feeling of intimacy which was vital for variety shows – the medium for which he built so many of his theatres – and one of the many reasons they are still so rewarding to visit today.
Better informed and more scholarly writers than me have written many biographies of Matcham, so I shan’t add to the already sizeable pile*. Much has been written about the man and his designs too, but I would like to take a rather different tack.
As someone who has been privileged to manage a Matcham Theatre, I would like to discuss his skill as an engineer of flow in the spaces he created.
I was fortunate enough to spend some years managing the Victoria Palace, built by Matcham in 1911 on the site of the old Royal Standard Music Hall. This was built was a variety house, for twice nightly variety (three shows Wednesday and Saturday – in total, sixteen a shows a week!), and the front of house areas were opulent and gilded as any other Matcham beauty. After just a few days there, what impressed me so much was how the theatre actually worked. Regular readers may recall that I have already written about there being a dome in the ceiling of the auditorium which was on runners and effectively “rolled off” to allow the hot air to escape after each matinee or first house. Remember, this was before any type of air-conditioning had been imagined, and with twice nightly variety, the ingenious Matcham gave us a way to regulate the auditorium temperature – vital in those long hot summers that we occasionally got! (and believe me, the Upper Circle in summer could feel like sitting in a microwave!). You can find my earlier article here.
Matcham’s skill as an engineer was undoubted; what dawned on me quickly was how smart he was as an engineer of flow. Getting 1500 people in and out of a theatre is not a quick and easy job, and the Victoria Palace’s creative design was a gift to those times when a swift turnaround was needed.
Here’s an example – I was managing the show BUDDY, which had back to back shows on Friday at 5.30 and 8.30, As the show ran 2 hours 45 (give or take a few minutes) I was intrigued to see how fast we would manage taking 1500 people out of the theatre and immediately bringing in another house of 1500 at top speed. Thankfully Matcham had already provided for this in his design, and of course this is what the V-P was built for, twice nightly with a 20-minute turnaround, and it’s certainly where it came into its own!
Here’s how it worked – with a full house of 1500 in watching the first performance, patrons would start arriving for the second house while the first one was still running. Thanks to the way the theatre was designed, we could open the main stalls bar directly from the street to take a few hundred stalls patrons, check their tickets and get them buying drinks (and using the bar toilets as needed). We could do the same for the Dress Circle patrons, checking tickets and getting them into the Dress Circle bar. We could then fill the foyer areas, and in this way we could probably accommodate about half of our full house capacity within the theatre, with the remainder thronging on the street outside.
At 8.20 the first house would come down and that audience (from all levels) would then be channelled out of the left hand side of the building through a large bank of exit doors just off the auditorium which took the crowds onto a side street. Staircases brought the upper levels down to their own exits on the same side. By keeping certain doors closed we could regulate the flow of patrons like a heart valve pumps blood – in one way, out the other. So with the first house exited left, we could then check, clear, reset and reopen the house within minutes. It was one of those all-hands-on-deck moments that are so exhilarating in theatre – 1500 gone, 1500 waiting, and the clock ticking. Thankfully, audiences were usually keen to be seated which meant that an 8.35 start was often achieved, at the latest 8.40.
Its only when you see the clarity of design thinking in action with a full house that you really appreciate the brilliance of an architect like Matcham. I know that so many theatres are not half as well thought-through, which can occasionally make them a nightmare to manage.
As someone who has had the privilege to manage a Matcham, I can safely say it was like driving a Rolls Royce.
It is at this point that I must “come out” to you all. I am a member of the Frank Matcham Society, a large group of admirers of the man’s work, who regularly visit, enjoy and write about the craft, skill and panache of this master architect.
In recognition of the Centenary anniversary, The Matcham Society have produced an excellent, comprehensively detailed 110-page book by Michael Sell, covering all of his theatres, and is well worth reading. You can find details of the book (ISBN 978-1-9163618-0-5) through the Society.
And you can find details of the Frank Matcham Society here
Frank Matcham’s surviving theatres are listed and rightly so – they will never be equalled for engineering, decoration, design, intimacy, elegance and comfort. For those of us who have served the theatregoing public, we have daily cause to be grateful for the skill and planning of – to my mind- the greatest theatre architect of all time.
*For those interested in reading more, a very comprehensive article about Frank Matcham and his work can be found here