Friday, September 20, 2013

The Good Old Days revisited

One hundred years ago a good night out often consisted of a trip to the Music Hall, where comedians and singers entertained audiences across the UK. Stars such as Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and Harry Champion were household names. Later, Music Hall moved towards what became known as Variety and made stars of Max Miller, Max Wall, Arthur Askey and many others, who in some cases cemented their fame via the popular radio shows of the day or on film. As many as ten acts, including jugglers, ventriloquists, conjurors and acrobats, would make up the bottom half of the bill. Then television came along and it killed the Music Hall and Variety Theatre stone dead.
Well, nearly. In 1963 the British Music Hall Society was formed to preserve this endangered species and prevent its extinction and 50 years on the society has succeeded in restoring one of London's first Music Halls - Wilton's, near the City - and a magnificent building it is too. I went there today for day one of a three day Festival of Music Hall and Variety, organised, in part, by fellow Woodie Bill Haynes, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Here are some photos from the day, beginning with the man who was, for me, the day's highlight - Jools Holland. Jools is a fantastic pianist and also, it would seem, a thoroughly nice man as well as being a Music Hall fan. He ran through half a dozen numbers ranging from Roses Of Picardy to a blues number, a Music Hall song and a Fats Waller selection, ending by accompanying the excellent and very funny Roy Hudd, president of the society, on a 19th century song by Harry Dacre about the poor of London.
Earlier in the day there was an interesting talk about the history of ventriloquism by one of the UK's top vents Steve Hewlett. Like Music Hall itself, the art had nearly died out, until recent TV talent shows gave it a bit of a boost. Steve ended his amusing talk, which included the stories of past vents such as Terry Hall, Arthur Worsley, Saveen and Edgar Berger, by bringing on one of the most famous dummies of them all - Archie Andrews: a name that will instantly bring back memories of Sunday afternoons and the radio show Educating Archie to anyone of my age. Archie is on the left, by the way.
After a break, the show resumed with a very funny act by a stand-up comedian from an earlier era named Joe Goodman, (taking the place at short notice of Freddie 'Parrot Face' Davies, who was ill), who cracked some good jokes which would go down well even in today's comedy clubs. He ended his act by putting on the greasepaint of a clown and here he is with Roy Hudd. Roy also did a hilarious double act with Music Hall enthusiast John Henty, who introduced a previously unknown film - actually a series of Mutoscope cards (better known as cards for a What the Butler Saw machine) - showing Dan Leno, which is believed to be the only moving pictures of him in existence.
Introducing some of the acts here is Wyn Calvin, vice president of the society, known as the 'King' of the pantomime dames.
After Jools Holland came a genuine Music Hall sequence featuring the Paper Moon Theatre Company, based on The Good Old Days TV series of years gone by. 'Chairman' of the show was one of the original hosts of the shows at the City Varieties in Leeds, Johnny Dennis.
The acts featured in the Paper Moon sequence included (left to right) a Gracie Fields tribute, Judith Hibbert; an old style, and very good and funny juggler, Micheal Pearse; George Formby-style uke act Andy Eastwood; bizarrely dressed 'Man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo', Peter John; former Good Old Days star singing 'Always the bridesmaid' Jan Hunt; and, guesting, Roy Hudd as Bud Flanagan. An excellent example of variety I thought, but, sadly, very much of an earlier time and it's not hard to see why it lost out to TV.
Originally opened in 1858 but closed for many years prior to restoration, Wilton's Music Hall is a wonderfully ornate theatre and the Festival featured dozens of original posters, as well as an exhibition of costumes, including Max Miller's famous floral coat (left).
Finally, here's a photo of me outside Wilton's, which is hidden away down a back alley near the Docklands Light Railway. 
Words and photos by Nick Cobban.


At 3:05 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds great, looking forward to my visit on Sunday.
Gordon F

At 12:53 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Went on the WAS great. Many laughs,
Gordon F

At 6:40 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

All that lot for just £10, fantastic value. A very very entertaining few hours. Sadly, apart from Ken Dodd, I thought Sunday was very average, compared to Friday. Interesting but lacked the excitement. Soulboy


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