|The Music Hall - end of an era
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In the years after the Great War, Musical Hall,
which had been the mainstay of live popular entertainment for fifty years or more began to
show its age. Cinema, dance-bands, musical comedy, and the fledgling BBC were all playing
their part in reducing its traditional audience.
J.B.Priestley (writing in 1956) recalled the dying
days of the Music Hall:
...some of the ripe old turns were still with us. You could
look in at the Coliseum, as I often did on a winter afternoon and see Little Tich and
Harry Tate, and there were still some glorious drolls at the Holborn Empire (a sad loss;
it had a fine thick atmosphere of its own), Victoria Palace and the rest. There were no
microphones and nobody needed them. There were no stars who had arrived by way of amusing
farmers' wives and invalids on the radio. There were no reputations that had been created
by American gramophone records for teenagers. The men and women who topped the bills had
spent years getting there, learning how to perfect their acts and to handle their
audiences. Of course there was plenty of vulgar rubbish, but all but the very worst of it
had at least some zest and vitality. And the audiences, which laughed at jokes and did not
solemnly applaud them as B.B.C. audiences do now, were an essential part of the show; they
too had vitality, and were still close to the Cockneys who helped to create, a generation
earlier, the English music-hall of the period, the folk art out of which, among other
things came the slapstick of the silent films, especially those of Chaplin.
[For a vivid evocation of the music hall world just
before the Great War see Priestley's Lost Empires published in 1965]
And time was beginning to take its toll amongst the stars
who had entertained working class communities before the war, and who lost so many of
their fans on the Western front.
George Formby Senior died in 1921. He was
a great pantomime favourite in his native Lancashire and was the first Northern dialect
comic to gain popularity in the south with Sailing one of
his best known songs. Known as the "Wigan Nightingale" he deliberately
emphasised the gormless (amiably dullwitted) Northerner and was the victim of a hacking
bronchial cough which he passed off as a gimmick. But it was the cough which finally
carried him off at the age of 44.
Lloyd (left) died in 1922, at the relatively young age of 52. She had long been
known as the Queen of the Halls, and her admirers included T.S.Eliot. Astonishingly, many
of her geatest hits, Don't Dilly Dally, One of the Ruins that Cromwell
knocked about a bit, and Oh Mr Porter, were never recorded. Since she was a
star even in her teenage years, late recordings like A Little of
what you Fancy can give us only a flavour of the exuberance that thrilled and
delighted audiences before the war.
Albert Chevalier (1861-1923) was unusual in that he
moved from the theatre into the halls. He was known as the "Coster Laureate",
but his cockney portraits were often mawkish and stereotypical (and he wasn't a real
cockney - born within the sound of Bow Bells - anyway). But (often in collaboration with
his brother and manager Charles Ingle) he wrote some memorable songs - Knocked em in
the Old Kent Road - and, for all its sentimentality, the still moving My Old Dutch.
Pleasants also died in 1923 at the age of 49. He was a popular pantomime
attraction who hailed from Yorkshire, and was known as the "shy" comedian. The
better-known of his songs include I'm Twenty-One Today and I'm shy Mary Ellen, I'm shy.
Lady de Frece was born in 1864 and died in 1952. She was
better known as Vesta Tilley (right). the greatest male impersonator on
the halls, who retired from performing in 1920, the year after her husband received his
knightwood. On stage from the age of four she enjoyed uninterrupted acclaim right up to
her retirement. Her swan song was the number Jolly good luck to
the girl who loves a soldier, which was very appropriate in view of the
assistance she'd given to the recruiting authorities in the Great War.
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