Last night I dreamt that I got on a train in Manchester and over-shot the station I intended to get off at. The train went on to Blackpool and then to southern Ireland. I had trouble getting on a train back to Manchester.
I also dreamt that comedian Roy Hudd interviewed former Prime Minister John Major about the history of British music halls in a crowded London basement room and we all laughed a lot and ended up singing I’m Henerey the Eighth I Am and If You Were The Only Girl in the World.
Except that last bit was not a dream. It happened for real. John Major really was chatting to Roy Hudd at Soho Theatre, to plug My Old Man his book about his father. Older readers will remember that John Major’s father ended up selling gnomes in South London.
You could not dream it up. Prime Minister John Major’s father Tom Major was a Music Hall performer.
British Music Halls started as singing rooms at the back of pubs, which developed in London into saloon theatres in the pleasure gardens and then into ‘song and supper clubs’ including The Cyder Cellar, The Coal Hole and Evans’ Late Joys. Then Charles Morton opened the Canterbury theatre on Lambeth Marshes as a venue dedicated to music hall and this began to attract a female audience which no-one had done before. And that was when Music Hall really started to grow and grow.
“Usually,” said Roy Hudd last night, “the guy who owned the pub was the chairman, to keep an eye on all the drinks. And people always imagine that, when the chairman banged his gavel and shouted out Order! Order! he was doing the same job as the Speaker in the House of Commons – trying to control a drunken mob. But the original shout-out of Order! Order! was an instruction to the audience to order another round of drinks.”
“Yes and, in the very early days,” John Major explained, “the artists actually got paid dependant on how much alcohol was ordered while they were performing. If you drove them to drink, you became rich.”
Tom Major, his father, was a middle-of-the-bill performer. He never became a star.
“It was his life,” John Major explained last night. “and, when he was dying, lots of people came to see him who had worked with him fifty or sixty years before. None of them had been hugely successful. People say politics is a tough profession, I think showbusiness is tougher and lots of these people, even in their elderly, ailing condition, their minds went back to moments when they were on the stage and those were the highlights of their lives.
“They were pretty shabbily dressed – prosperity, if it had ever known them, had passed on pretty quickly. I remember sitting by the bed one afternoon when they argued who had the best chorus songs – Florrie Forde or Harry Champion. A draw was declared when the whisky ran out.
“There was very little money in it for most people. Certainly not before 1907 when the Variety Artistes’ Federation was formed. My father was actually one of the founder members. There was a great meeting and my dad and (his wife) Kitty were numbers 97 and 98 who signed up on the first evening.”
“My half brother died in Brinsworth House,” said John Major.
“People used to come to us,” said Roy Hudd, “who needed help and people on the committee would say What does she need help for? She never stopped working. 52 weeks a year and she never stopped working! But we had one or two very old producers on the committee who would say: She never stopped working, but she never earned more than £2 a week! There was no pension scheme or anything like that back then. They worked hard, but they never got a lot of reward for it.”
“You didn’t, unless you were at the top,” agreed John Major.
“The great George Leybourne,” said Roy Hudd, “the man who sang Champagne Charlie, in the 1860s, was earning £160 a week. What would that be worth today? You could buy a house then for £15.”
“And,” added John Major, “not only was he paid £160 a week, but he was given free champagne all the time because he was advertising it – Moët & Chandon – and he died penniless at 41. He had lots of ‘friends’ and, as the money began to disappear, the friends disappeared and, bitter and disillusioned, he died at 41 absolutely penniless. The money just ran through his hands. He would have made a very good Chancellor in a recent government.
“Most of the acts,” he continued, “would appear at three, four, five, sometimes six theatres a night. They’d be on the stage in a warm theatre, then go out into the cold air, get into another warm theatre and repeat that several times per night. So they were open to all sorts of colds, coughs, diseases and problems. Some of them lived to an old age. But it was a minority.”
“Well,” said Roy Hudd, “Charles Coborn, whose big hit was Two Lovely Black Eyes, lived to over 90 and, late in life, he was at the funeral of one of his mates and Tommy Trinder was there. Tommy asked him How old are you now then, Charlie? He said I’m 88. And Tommy said Blimey, it’s hardly worth you going home!”
“If you were at the top,” said John Major, “you could command a very good fee but, once they’d got their one or two headliners, everybody else below was interchangeable with a dozen other people. So they could be offered very low wages and usually were and, if they didn’t take them, then they simply didn’t get employed. So they lived on the hope they were suddenly going to make it. It was a very harsh, tough business right the way through the Victorian era until the strike of 1907, when things began to get better. They were remarkable people to have lived through that and loved performing so much that they continued to do so.
“One magician, The Great Layafette, used to have a sign above his door: The more I see Man, the more I love my dog. And he was buried with his dog. He died in a fire in a theatre. They found the body and they were going to bury him when they realised it was not The Great Lafayette – it was his body double for a trick. So, in a further part of the rubble, they found his body, which they then buried with his dog in a cemetery in Edinburgh.
“There were some amazing acts – Prago the Missing Link, Felix the Talking Duck, Bessie Squelch and Her Big Brass Six. And there were some amazing magicians. There was a guy called Washington Bishop who was a fraud as an illusionist. He was always getting into trouble. He was sued at one stage and fled the country for a while because he owed £10,000 he couldn’t pay. His will specified that his body could be used for science. So, when he died, the doctors grabbed his body and it was dismantled. The next day, his mother turned up and said: But he wasn’t dead! He’s always had these fits. I think these doctors should be arrested for murder!
“The doctors were horrified. There was a great fuss and eventually they brought back the pieces – they found his brain in his chest cavity – and there was another autopsy and eventually the doctors got away with it because it turned out that the mother was as big a fruitcake as the son.”
Showbusiness does not change.