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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.

Marie 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.

Jack 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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Tuesday 20 December 2005