Category Archives: Music Halls

“Variety is Back and it’s Slightly Fat…”

“It is a marketing nightmare,” Slightly Fat Features originator Goronwy Thomas aka Goronwy Thom told me.

Wednesday to Saturday this coming week, Slightly Fat Features are back at the Leicester Square Theatre in London with The Slightly Fat Show. Six shows in four days – four evening shows; two matinees. Their blurb reads:

“Stuffed to the seams with staggering stunts, lots of laughs and orchestrated mayhem to dazzle and delight. Hard to describe until you witness it live. Suitable for kids but not a kids’ show. Cirque du Soliel meets Monty Python. This unique group has to be seen live to be truly understood!”

For once, a marketing blurb that is true.

“So why a marketing nightmare?” I asked.

“Because,” Goronwy told me, “we are straddling two things. We are a family-friendly show – it is totally clean; there’s no swearing. But, as soon as you are seen as a family show, you can lose a comedy audience, because they don’t want to see a kids’ show. And, if you are billed as a comedy show, you can lose the kids’ audience. That really has been a marketing problem for us.”

“Is that why you are doing matinees AND evening shows?” I asked.

Showstoppers do two shows,” said Goronwy. “There is Showstoppers For Kids and then there is also the normal one as well. We have done some late-night stuff and all-adult stuff. In Leicester Square, the 4.00pm shows will be very very family-based and the 7.00pm ones won’t be so much but, to be honest, the show stays exactly the same. We are straddling two things.”

“Have you got an elevator pitch for the show?” I asked. “A strapline?”

“Variety is back and it’s Slightly Fat,” said Goronwy.

When I saw their show in 2014, it included juggling, cling-film escapology, a pantomime horse, a classic quick-change sketch, a cup-and-ball routine, a Rolf Harris painting routine (presumably we won’t be seeing that again!), a song-and-dance routine, ‘Find The Lady’ with a real person’s head, a diabolo routine spanning the auditorium, a cute dog, occasional things going wrong (all scripted, I think), an audience participation song and a sawing-in-half magic routine… all with presentational twists, superb attention to detail and knowing post-modern nods and glances to the audience. The show got a standing ovation from the genuinely ordinary punter-filled audience at the end.

Before that, I had seen Slightly Fat member Herbie Treehead at the Glastonbury Festival; he also performed in this year’s increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Will they,” I asked Goronwy, “be the same seven people I saw in 2014?”

“Always the same seven since 2010. But, of course, with lots of new material.”

“You been trying it out somewhere?” I asked.

“Lancaster, Canterbury, York, Sidmouth, a lot of places to run it in.”

“All seven of you?”

“Mostly. One of our members – Richard Garaghty – has been filming Tim Burton’s Dumbo. He’s been doing that most of this year, dipping in and out of our try-outs, but he’s doing all the shows in Leicester Square.”

“Where did you started Slightly Fat Features?” I asked.

“Sidmouth in Devon.”

“That’s a slightly odd place to start.”

Slightly Fat Features – extremely indescribable

“A lot of us were old friends from street performing in Covent Garden. Some had known each other since the early 1990s though I didn’t meet any of them until about 2000. Then, when I moved from London to Sidmouth, I wanted an excuse for my mates to come down, so I put on a gig. We did that again and again and brought in guest variety and speciality acts until, in 2010, we said: Let’s just do it as the seven of us.

“We did stuff at the Roundhouse in London and it went on from there. The Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Montreal in 2014. London’s West End in 2014. We all still work individually or as duos. We come together as Slightly Fat three or four or five times a year.”

“It must be a nightmare finding gaps in your schedules and getting together.”

“It is, but it’s worth it.”

“But you won’t,” I suggested, “have any creative clashes because your skills don’t particularly overlap.”

“Not really. And, since about 2013, Petra Massey has done additional direction on top of it and she acts as a sort of UN peacemaker. Where a routine ends. Certain lines. Certain gags. Looking at the bigger picture sometimes. If you get that laugh there, it might underwhelm the bigger picture. Especially with character comedy. Yeah, it DOES get a laugh, but let’s lose it so we can get a bigger laugh later on. Those kind of discussions. And avoiding in-jokes.”

“Why these seven people? Was there a conscious balancing of skills?”

“Originally, we were nine. Then one moved to New Zealand and one dropped out. I don’t think there was any conscious deciding: Oh, he’s a juggler; he’s an escapologist. It was just people who liked spending time together and developing stuff.”

“All seven of you continue to do separate street acts?” I asked.

“Yes. Apart from Robert Lee, who’s a musician. Me and Richard Garaghty have worked a lot as a double act for years now, mainly at European street festivals. And ‘booked street performing’, where you are invited to a town to perform. About a third of my work is probably still outdoor work and you can’t beat it for the immediacy and improvisation with stuff happening. It’s unbeatable for that, though you have to be careful you don’t get too stylistically lost in it.”

“How?”

“Sometimes, in order to keep an audience and sustain them and make them pay you, you have to… Well, I have seen brilliant street performers go inside on a stage in a theatre and their style needs a bit of tweaking, otherwise it can be a bit shouty. Because you have more focus from an audience in a theatre. Street performers are just talking and talking and talking and talking. In a theatre, you can get away with more quiet parts. Street style can sometimes be too fast in a theatre.”

“With seven people to divide it between, you’re not going to make money.”

“No,” Goronwy laughed. “We are seven plus a stage manager sometimes plus accommodation, travel. We are absolutely not going to be hugely rich from it. But it’s a place where we can develop material; that’s a golden thing to have.”

“Have you got a five-year plan?” I asked.

“No. My five-year plan is not to have a five-year plan.”

“I understand,” I said, “that The Boy With Tape on His Face has always had five-year plans.”

“I think it’s destined to underwhelm you – you might not get there. Or you might find it too easy to get there and it puts up a barrier I don’t think we need. But there have been discussions about whether or not we should have one – exactly because of The Boy With Tape on His Face. Exactly that.”

“Have you thought,” I asked, “about America’s Got Talent?”

“That is,” agreed Goronwy, “what Boy With Tape on His Face did. And Piff and Paul Zerdin.”

“I think,” I said, “Mr Methane, farteur of this parish, was in the semi-finals of Germany’s Got Talent. He is not German.”

“We haven’t been approached by America’s Got Talent yet,” said Goronwy, “but we have been by Britain’s Got Talent.”

“Well,” I said, “I think everyone should appear on anything and everything because you never know where things may lead, but a lot of people disagree.”

“In the professional industry,” Goronwy replied, “as far as I can tell, America’s Got Talent has got more prestige than Britain’s Got Talent; and it might break you into the States – Piff went over there and now he is touring the US.”

“The seven of you are good enough for Vegas,” I said.

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The misconception about British music halls bred by the BBC’s “Good Old Days”

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.

Comic Roy Hudd (left) sings at the Cinema Museum last night (+ Glenn Mitchell)

Comic Roy Hudd (left) sings at the Cinema Museum last night

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 Hudd performing on The Good Old Days

Roy Hudd performing on BBC TV’s series The Good Old Days

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.”

Wilton’s Music Hall still puts on shows

Wilton’s Music Hall in London still stages entertainments…

“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.

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