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.
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.