When I started my researches into British Music Hall and Variety I wasn’t sure what I would eventually do with all the information accumulated. But along the way I chatted to, or corresponded with, the following people: Vera D.Barnes (daughter of Minnie Goss, Ella Shields’s dresser), Terry Doogan, June Franey (widow of G.H.Elliott), Roy Hudd, Billy Dainty, Ken Dodd, John Cleese, Sir Harry Secombe, Sir John Major, Johnny Hutch, Pamela Lorraine (niece of Elsie and Doris Waters), Peter Sarony (son of Leslie), Dickie Henderson, Daniel Farson, James Casey (son of Jimmy James), Les Dawson, Hughie Green, Charles Hawtrey, Bill Maynard, Peter Cotes, Maureen Potter, Danny Cummins, Roy Rolland. In many cases I was interviewing them for a newspaper piece, but I made sure I always threw in a couple of questions at the end about my little gang of veterans and they always responded warmly. John Cleese, for example, chuckled and told me that he was well aware of the work of Nat Jackley and Max Wall when he devised his ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ routine for Monty Python.
I owe a special debt of thanks to Terry Devlin, who helped kick-start this site, and, more recently, to John Fisher, author of the classic ‘Funny Way to be a Hero,’ plus books on Tommy Cooper, Tony Hancock and several others and television producer (C4’s ‘Heroes of Comedy’ series) who has kindly given me fascinating information and some wonderful images from his collection.
Here’s a clip, included simply because I really like it. G.S.Melvin (1886-1946) was a Scottish drag artist, famous for I’m Happy When I’m Hiking and other jolly songs featuring robust outdoorsy women. Here he’s a Girl Guides leader. Melvin was just a name to me until I came across this clip, the only one of him I have ever seen, and I was immediately struck by the fastidiousness of the characterisation, the earthy humour and Melvin’s great stage charm. An example of this comes at the end, when he acknowledges the little girl who was his main partner in the sketch. A clip like this does more to flesh out these long-forgotten stars than the records or contemporary written descriptions. To me these clips are priceless – our only real link with the great days of Variety.
NOTES ON QUOTES:
Unless attributed elsewhere, all the quotes on the Artists pages were made directly to me by the performers concerned, mostly in person and sometimes by phone or letter or, more recently in the cases of Pamela Lorraine, Peter Sarony and others, by email. If some quotes seem familiar to Music Hall and Variety enthusiasts, it is because the old stars had been interviewed for years and, rather like the unchanging nature of their acts, they tended to trot out their favourite stories, word for word, to different journalists. Having said that, it is possible that in a jumble of 40 years of notes I have used a quote somewhere that is not correctly attributed. At this stage, if I see a few sentences on a bit of yellowing paper I scribbled 35 years ago, I’m not sure if I wrote them myself as notes for a piece or copied it from something that caught my attention.
THE BUSINESS OF SHOW BUSINESS
CONTRACTS, agreements and theatre managers’ report cards give fascinating insights into the financial side of the great era of variety entertainment. The image at the left is a contract between Hetty King and the proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Grand and Hippodrome theatres, Bolton, in 1922, and shows that Hetty was quite capable of functioning as producer of a complete show – as ‘manager’ she was contracted to provide a programme of seven acts, with herself topping the bill. She was to receive 55 per cent of the takings for the week, and out of it she was contracted to pay herself, the acts and various others, including the stage manager, prompter, chorus, supers, extras, wardrobe and author’s and composer’s fees. The proprietor agreed to provide the band, electricians, prop staff, stock scenery, advertising etc, and would get the remaining 45 per cent.
Right is a report card on Hetty from 1939, disclosing that her salary for the week was £45 (worth over £2,000 today) plus 8 per cent of any excess in takings over a stipulated amount that varied from theatre to theatre. Managers’ reports on her performance range from the lukewarm – ‘Still lively on the stage and retains a fair singing voice but the numbers badly chosen – her name being chiefly responsible for the good applause she gets’ (Edinburgh), to the highly-complimentary: ‘Giving a wonderful performance – her technique has a style of its own. She gains marvellous applause’ (Finsbury Park Empire).
The document below right is a report on Buster Keaton, who appeared with Hetty in Do You Remember? in 1951. The manager of the dreaded Glasgow Empire loved him and his partner (wife Eleanor): ‘VG reception. An extremely clever silent comedy impression of two drunks in an anniversary scene, both partners’ every move and expression showing finesse, creating plenty of laughs.’ In Newcastle the Keatons received a similar tribute: ‘Their act of miming of actions and falls creates roars of solid laughter and applause.’ Buster Keaton’s salary for the week varied between £225 and £300 (£6,500 in today’s money).
I am very grateful to John Fisher for sending me copies of these great historical documents.
Here’s a tantalising little silent clip from the 1920s of Ella Shields as herself, then a man-about-town, and finally Burlington Bertie (I couldn’t squeeze it onto the Thanks for the Memory Page):
For The Guardian I wrote the obituaries of Hetty King, Max Wall, Spike Milligan, Sandy Powell, Nat Jackley, Frankie Howerd, George Burns, Benny Hill, Eric Sykes, Josef Locke, Les Dawson, Jimmy Jewel, Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise, Arthur Worsley, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden, Michael Bentine, Dave Allen, Harry Worth, Jimmy Logan, Ken Platt, Maureen Potter, Gracie Fields, Charlie Drake, Frank Muir, Johnny Speight, Bernard Manning, Norman Wisdom, Chic Murray, Harold Berens, Dermot Morgan, Tommy Trinder, Charlie Chester, Ronnie Ronalde, Bill Kerr, Stephen Lewis, Eli Woods, Frank Kelly, Paul Daniels and many, many more I can’t recall (I should have kept more cuttings!). This list will grow as the names come back to me.