I first planned Voices of Variety as a book, and my agent approached publishers. There was some interest, but issues with production values and the size of an advance. So after a while, realising I was never going to be satisfied with the kind of book proposed, I decided to simply make all this material available as a resource for anyone interested in British popular culture of the earlier part of the 20th century – an ever-changing and expanding site where I would have total control, able to add and drop material and illustrations as appropriate. And, most importantly, I can link the text to moving archive images, which proliferate on YouTube and elsewhere. On the Leslie Sarony page, for example, as well as the text and illustrations, there is well over half-an-hour of audio and video material, and you can see Leslie performing as a young man and also in his 80s. You can’t have that multiplicity of experience with a book!
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.
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, Barry Chuckle, Denis Norden, June Whitfield, Nicholas Parsons, Eddie Large, Barbara Windsor 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.
I HAD a very distinct idea of the calibre of artist I wanted to speak to when I started my researches back in the 1970s. Each had to be steeped in music hall and variety and also somehow be living their last years in a kind of bubble, out of their time – not really seen as suitable for television, except perhaps as character actors for the more adaptable. They were stage people, music hall people, and they operated in a quite different world.
That ruled out performers who, although of the same or similar vintage, had adapted well to new media and flourished happily on television or radio – Charlie Chester, Arthur Askey, Jimmy Jewel, Hylda Baker, Ted Ray and various others. I was more interested in the old-timers still trundling around Britain appearing in Old Time Music Hall shows.
There were a couple of acts I would dearly have loved to interview, however, but it never happened. Bob And Alf Pearson agreed to see me but for one reason or another we were never in the right place at the right time. Bob (1907-1985) and Alf (1910-2002) were Sunderland-born duettists, Bob at the piano and Alf leaning against it, of sentimental or comic songs.
The other was ‘Wee’ Georgie Wood (1894-1979), the famous ‘little person’ of the music halls, who was 4ft 9ins and played a child for most of his long career. He agreed to see me all right, but demanded a fee for the interview, which was against the policy of The Guardian and, as all these interviews were carried out under the auspices of that newspaper, ruled him out. Looking back, I regret not doing the interview anyway and secretly slipping him a fee, because he was a fascinating character. But I was very young back then, and very hard-up.
UNTIL rock music took over, music hall, variety or vaudeville – they were arguably versions of the same thing, and any differences belong in a discussion elsewhere – spent eighty years as Britain’s dominant live entertainment. Gone are those theatres where our little gang of ten learned their craft, polishing and honing at the bottom of the bill, what they called ‘the wines and spirits’, until they were good enough to move from the tatty Number 3 circuit to the Number 2 and then Moss Empires and Stoll, who handled the Number 1 venues.
With the theatres mostly consigned to history as variety venues by the late 1950s, younger entertainers learned their craft in different settings: pubs, working men’s clubs, holiday camps, college revues and, much later, comedy clubs.
Morecambe and Wise: Learned the language of television.
The stars who followed our gang, coming to prominence in the 1950s at the tail-end of touring twice-nightly variety, still had a whiff of the music halls about them but were able to adapt much more easily to changes in society and public demand: Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Bruce Forsyth, Benny Hill and so many others may have begun among the wines and spirits on bills topped by our old-timers, but they saw the way the wind was blowing and quickly became telly-savvy. Although many had appeared in cabaret, revue, films and on radio, there was a tendency towards inflexibility in many of the old stars. They were accustomed to a pre-television world where you could tour the same act for years.
And while they were certainly smart enough to recognise the importance and potential of television, and some longed to be on it more often – to get the hang of it somehow – most tended to be unsuited to the medium. “She completely ignores the camera and just plays behind it to the small studio audience,” a TV producer said of Hetty King. “She doesn’t seem to realise that the camera represents millions of people.”
Well, of course she did, because she was nobody’s fool. But when you’ve spent seventy years performing to a living, breathing audience, manipulating and coercing, riding the crowd with the skill of a jockey taming an unruly beast, you’d choose a bit of life over the unseen multitudes represented by the cold glass eye of the television camera any day.
Many of them were quite well-off and could have retired, so why did they battle on, touring Britain, Ireland, Australia and South Africa in Old Time Music Hall shows? Two reasons. There was an ageing constituency who still loved them, who found their presence comforting and life-affirming, their predictability reassuring. The other reason is probably more compelling – it was what they did. Usually from theatre or circus families, most had been full-time entertainers since they were toddlers, and knew no other way of life.
Today, television has become the wines and spirits where performers learn. Ambition, raw energy, clever marketing and a willingness to bare the soul in public have replaced years of struggle, experience and development. The old stars acquired skills now fallen into desuetude, such as tap-dancing, and mostly hid their true natures behind a professional smile. Nowadays a version of the inner self is revealed immediately, and a common ground has emerged for both performer and spectator to inhabit.
Instead of marvelling at fabulousness, and extraordinary and hard-won expertise, we have a compulsion to observe the mundane on television: people like us, cooking, doing up houses, swapping lifestyles, getting married, describing embarrassing ailments, trying to start businesses, going on diets, singing badly on talent shows and weeping when judged harshly. Fame has become democratised and anyone unburdened by accurate self-awareness can have it if they possess enough courage and a personality that might catch our fleeting attention.
Though some viewers regret this evolution, it is not necessarily worse. Just different. Show business has become bigger than tap-dancing, but also smaller.
I WAS in my early twenties in 1971, working as a junior journalist in the Features department of what was then the very busy Manchester office of The Guardian. I had family connections to the music halls and variety, and the affable Northern Features Editor, John Course, responded positively to the idea of my tracking down the last of the veterans still working.
Me with my granddad, Fred Elcock.
My grandfather, Fred Elcock, who came from Dudley in the Midlands, had worked in the music halls with his partner Jack Dutton before the First World War not as an entertainer as such, but as an acrobat and gymnast – his speciality was leaping a billiard table lengthways. Because of these skills, he was popular in the halls as a front-cloth turn who performed his feats of strength and daring while the sets were being changed behind the curtain. Fred came to the notice of impresario Fred Karno, who used him whenever he was touring his shows in the Midlands, and that was how my granddad came to know two members of Karno’s regular troupe – Stan Laurel (then working under his real name, Stan Jefferson) and Charlie Chaplin. I loved to sit on Fred’s knee when I was little, listening to his tales of Stan, Charlie and other stars with whom he had appeared – Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno and George Robey – them at the top of the bill and him way down at the bottom, if mentioned at all.
Fred gave up show business after serving in World War l – he just lost the heart for it, said my Nan, after what he had seen in battle – and spent his working life as a clerk in the Michelin factory at Newcastle Under Lyme in the Potteries.
The Guardian thought my interviews with the old-timers would make a novel occasional series, and John Course suggested that my good friend Don McPhee, a staff photographer, go with me. Although Don was my age, he also had a great liking for variety entertainment and was a big fan of Max Wall.
In almost all other respects I was very much a boy of my times . . . flower power, Hendrix and the Stones, expertly rolling joints and taking LSD. With the introduction of the contraceptive pill, we enjoyed what other journalists – the middle-aged ones on the tabloids – enviously called “free love” in those long-ago days. The Permissive Society, it was known as.
Stephen Dixon in 1971: why would old people be nervous of me?
Don McPhee in 1971: He didn’t have the same problem.
We wore cheesecloth shirts, Afghan coats, big flares and shoulder-length hair. Some of us had droopy moustaches and Afros. But a little bit of me was different. My other friends were mostly tolerant of my interest in music hall, which they regarded as a baffling and deeply uncool eccentricity, though they did point out that they preferred listening to Hawkwind rather than George Formby while stoned.
The year-long journey Don and I took into the world of music hall, fading before us even as he brought it into focus and I switched on my tape recorder, took us to sterile little civic theatres and ornate Victorian variety palaces, a cluttered flat in Streatham and a modest semi in Eastbourne. There was a private music hall museum in Wimbledon and a beautiful bungalow in Steyning, Sussex. Brinsworth House, the retirement home for variety artists at Twickenham. Some of our old stars were grumpy and suspicious at first but warmed to us; others were delightful and welcoming from the start. One was defeated and drunk. We heard great stories and, much later and from other sources, the stories behind the stories: the sister act who allegedly shared a lover, the sexual difficulties of a revered clown, the composer of comic songs who had a sideline writing musical porn for private gatherings of fellow-pros, the retired tenor who turned out much later to have been the half-brother of a British Prime Minister.
But most of all, we heard about what it was like to work on the halls. Don was with me most of the time; when he wasn’t available I traveled alone, or with another Guardian photographer. It was a race against time, for by late 1972 two of the gang had gone, and the curtain was twitching for others. I stayed friendly with nearly all of them. We met from time to time and exchanged Christmas cards and letters. One or two sent me little presents. Why were they so very nice to me, these old stars? Part of it was the politeness and good manners common to their generation, and, more practically, I was a usefulcontact on a national newspaper. Also, I think my naivety and clumsy enthusiasm amused them, though they were mostly too kind to let it show. I was too inexperienced in life to appreciate the tremendous allure youth can have for the elderly. Their old bones were perhaps warmed by the attention of someone young enough to be a grandchild. Many of their contemporaries, the core fans from their own youth, probably needed help to get to the toilet by 1971.
And then, one by one, the members of my little gang of old stars took that last walk into the wings, and after a few years all were gone. The first of our ten was born in 1883 and the last died in 1990, so their collective story covers more than 100 years of British popular entertainment.
Now I am bringing them back: putting flesh on the ghosts of stars I knew half a lifetime ago, when I was so young and they were so old. The cardboard box full of spool-to-spool tapes, audio cassettes, notebooks, transcripts, yellowed cuttings and photographs has been living in various garages and attics for 40 years. I blow the dust off a spool and thread it through the antique tape-player I picked up in a car boot sale the other week. An elderly voice, formal and precise, quavers out. And there is another voice, one that makes me prickle with mortification: young and hesitant, asking questions that are often patronising and sometimes just plain daft.
These brittle spool and cassette tapes, most of them over 40 years old, are not of a good enough quality to transfer onto this site, though I hope to acquire the technology and expertise to clean them up and include excerpts at some point. I should also point out that I was not interviewing these people as a theatre historian or researcher, but as a journalist writing articles for a daily newspaper. If I had the same opportunity today, my questions would be quite different. Back then, I was simply seeking to provide an entertaining read over breakfast or on the train.
Don McPhee, The Guardian’s best-loved Northern photographer and a lifelong close friend, whose wonderful portraits you can see on this site, died in 2007. As well as the variety stars, together we had interviewed dozens of show business personalities, from Les Dawson to Vincent Price. To quote Les,* I do miss him.
*“And to make matters even worse, the wife’s run off with the bloke next door.” Long pause. “I do miss him.”