Last night, I went to the Cinema Museum in London to hear comic Roy Hudd talk with former News Huddlines writer Glenn Mitchell. It is on the site of the old Lambeth Workshop in which Charlie Chaplin lived in June 1896 for a few weeks, when his mother was an inmate. Roy Hudd was talking about the early British music hall stars and there were copious unique film clips.
But, Glenn Mitchell, explained: “The common denominator of a lot of these early music hall artists is that they pre-date film, they pre-date records. All we have is the sheet music. Sometimes not even photographs: all we have is the artwork from the sheet music.”
Roy Hudd remembered: “Dan Leno once said: I wish I did something else. Artists leave their paintings, sculptors leave sculpture. What does a comedian leave? Only the memory of the last laugh. That was before we reached the point when we could film everything.”
“Even later on,” said Glenn, “there isn’t necessarily a record of what they did make. The films disappeared. The records became lost. This evening is not necessarily about the greatest artists; it has more to do with those who were captured on film. It’s the old gag about history not being about who is right but who is left. This place – the main Cinema Museum room – reminds me of the earliest music halls: the informal seating arrangement, the small platform for a stage, a bar at the side and, best of the lot, drinking in the auditorium.”
Roy agreed: “People’s vision of music halls is Leonard Sachs on The Good Old Days. But it grew totally out of the publicans’ interest in making as much money as they possibly could – selling as many drinks as they could. Some enterprising ones decided they’d put on a couple of turns (acts) in the evening and more people would come and see the show and drink their beer.
“Charlie Chilton, who was a great expert on music halls, told me: Everyone thinks that, when the chairman bangs his gavel, he’s doing what the Speaker does in the House of Commons – trying to control a drunken mob. But not really. He was trying to flog the beer. When he banged his gavel and said Order, please! Order! he actually meant Order (your beer).”
“It is,” said Glenn, “a nice, sanitised myth, really, what they did on The Good Old Days. In the real old days, it was pretty rough stuff.”
“Not half,” agreed Roy. “I’ve been at Wilton’s Music Hall fairly recently and (in the old days) that was a most awful place. It really was a terrible, terrible place.”
“That place,” said Glenn, “closed down relatively early for a good reason.”
“Oh yes,” said Roy. “Lots of reasons. When I first went there, they had a little Catholic hospital almost next door and there was a priest who came in and talked to me and he said: It was such a rough old area. All the girls used to be in Wilton’s Music Hall selling their wares, get something terrible, then go into the little hospital round the corner where they’d be cured and then come straight back.”
“Who was the comic,” asked Glenn, “who took his son to a certain type of clinic and…”
“Jimmy Wheeler,” said Roy. “His father was a comic with him – they were Wheeler & Wilson, an act in variety. Poor Jim was on a tour with lots of naughty girls and got some sort of ‘problem’ and his father went to the hospital with him in Soho and said: Good morning. We’ve called in answer to your advert in the gentlemen’s toilets on Leicester Square tube station.”