Tag Archives: music halls

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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Teaching the Germans British humour?

Martin promoting tonight's show in Leipzig

Martin promoting a previous Leipzig show

Last night, before this month’s ever-original Pull The Other One comedy show in South London, I talked to Martin Soan who organises both it and the Pull The Other One shows in Germany. He and his wife Vivienne have so far staged three in Leipzig this year.

“What’s next?” I asked.

“A lecture in Leipzig,” Martin told me.

“On what?” I asked.

“British comedy.”

“To whom?” I asked.

“Leipzigians,” said Martin.

“In general?” I asked.

“What we’re going to aim for,” explained Martin, “is the working class. The history of comedy in Germany is very interesting.”

“Is it?” I asked. “The British cliché is that the Germans have no sense of humour.”

“Yeah, but that’s total bollocks,” said Martin. “What IS true is that, traditionally, they have not had anybody entertaining the working class. Traditionally, the working classes were just supposed to work. Their thing was sausages and beer not comedy and cabaret, which was for the middle class.

“Before the First World War, Leipzig had about 20 dedicated cabaret and comedy theatres – variety, kabaret and comedy – which were frequented by the intelligentsia and the middle classes. Some of them still exist today – there are two or three in the middle of town. The acts they have are very skilled and crafted acts – magicians and stuff like that.

“Me and Vivienne met some elderly Leipzigians and they told us that, traditionally, the working class have never had their version of music halls or comedy clubs.”

“They didn’t,” I asked, “have any equivalent of our music halls in the late-19th century?”

“No,” said Martin. “Now, obviously they have television, but their heritage was not live entertainment. So we are going to try and reinvent ourselves for the working classes of Leipzig.”

“How?” I asked.

Vivienne Soan even promoted the show to statues

Vivienne Soan promoting a previous comedy show in Leipzig

“We’ve opened up a show in the Louisiana bar, which is a working class bar and we are going to do our next Pull The Other One show there in December. We’re going to go away from all the students, away from all the middle classes.”

“And,” I asked, “you are going to do a lecture on British comedy in the pub?”

“An education in British humour,” said Martin. “Yes. Just me and Vivienne. We are basically just going to do a show, but Vivienne is going to have a lectern, notes and it starts off with her talking about how we have always had to import everything into Britain and we did actually, at one point, import humour.”

“We did?” I asked.

“Well, Mr Punch came from Italy. That’s where we start and then we’ll go through gags, a description of each different genre of comedy and I’ll upstage her, then I’ll do a bit at the lectern and she’ll upstage me. That’s the show, basically, but it’s gonna be very low-key because we don’t wanna put on a show-show because we don’t want to frighten them off.”

“It sounds like an excuse for a piss-up,” I said.

“Yes,” said Martin, “but with entertainment. Even the working classes over there are very, very academic. And, for me, it will be a break from the comedy scene here, which is getting a bit claggy.”

“Claggy?” I asked.

Soiree in a Cemetery

After the success of cemetery comedy, underground comedy

“It’s stagnating a bit. There must be something different out there. That’s why I enjoyed doing our Soirée in a Cemetery the other week. It was different. The next one’s at the end of November.”

“In a cemetery again?” I asked.

“No.”

“Where’s the next one?’

“Subterranean.”

“Where?” I asked.

“It’s a secret,” said Martin. “It’s underground.”

“It certainly is,” I said.

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Filed under Comedy, Germany, Humor, Humour