Last Sunday, at the late Malcolm Hardee’s annual birthday celebrations (he drowned in 2005), excerpts were screened from Jody VandenBurg’s long-planned feature-length documentary about the great man. If the mountain of great anecdotes which I know Jody has can ever be edited down to 90-minutes or so, it will be an extraordinary piece of social history: a vivid glimpse into the early days of British Alternative Comedy.
Last Thursday, I saw a vivid insight into an earlier British showbiz era: a preview of the first episode of BBC TV’s The Story of Variety with Michael Grade – it’s a two-part documentary to be broadcast much later this year.
I learnt stuff.
I didn’t know that smooth, sophisticated pianist Semprini was such a wild ladies’ man. There is a wonderful story about a showbiz landlady with the punchline “Oh, Mr Sanders, what must you think of me!”
I remember staying at the legendary Mrs Hoey’s theatrical digs in Manchester where there were no sexual shenanigans, but getting breakfast in the morning involved choosing from a roll-call of every type of egg available since the dawn of time and she and her husband (a scene hand at BBC Manchester) used to go on holidays to Crossmaglen, one of the most dangerous places in Ireland during the then Troubles.
Mrs Hoey’s was impeccably clean, but I had not heard the story – told in The Story of Variety – that you could guess in advance if a theatrical bed-&-breakfast place was not of the best if a previous act staying there had written “…quoth the Raven” in the visitors’ book.
I had also never heard the story of young English comic Des O’Connor’s first time playing the notorious Glasgow Empire where they famously hated all English acts. He went so badly on his first nightly performance that he figured the only thing he could do was pretend to faint, which he did and got carted off to the Royal Infirmary.
Old-style variety was much like modern-day comedy in that, as the documentary says: “You couldn’t be in Variety and be in elite company. It just wasn’t done. But, if you became a very big star, you could mix with kings and princes.”
Except kings and princes are thin on the ground nowadays and have been replaced by other gliterati.
The Story of Variety with Michael Grade is wonderful stuff for anyone interested in showbiz and bizarre acts. Ken Dodd talks of the old Variety theatres having “a smell of oranges and cigars”. In Ashton-under-Lyme, the performers had to hang their shoes up in the dressing rooms because of the rats.
But after-screening anecdotes and opinions were as interesting as what was in the documentary.
I had never spotted, until Michael Grade mentioned it to Barry Cryer after the screening, that now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Hylda Baker’s stage persona was actually an almost direct copy of now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Jimmy James. Like the sleight-of-hand in a good magic act, once you know it you can see it.
I was vaguely aware that Eric Morecambe’s famous catchphrase “Look at me when I‘m talking to you” was actually lifted from ventriloquist Arthur Worsley’s act – the dummy Charlie Brown used to say it to Worsley. (Eric freely admitted where he had got the line from.)
Most interestingly, Michael Grade said he would not have commissioned ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent series (which he likes) because he wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to get so many interesting acts.
But bizarre and interesting variety acts have always been and are always out there. I know from personal experience, looking for Gong Show style TV acts, that you just have to put an ad in The Stage newspaper on three consecutive weeks and they spill out like a tsurreal tsunami. A combination of real-people adding interest to their drab lives in godforsaken towns and suburbs around the UK… and struggling professionals who in previous times might have played clubs but who now often play street theatre.
The Story of Variety with Michael Grade comes to the conclusion that live Variety was killed off in the mid-to-late-1950s by a combination of television, scheduling rock stars in Variety stage shows (which split the audience into two groups, neither of which were fully satisfied) and adding strippers (which destroyed the appeal for family audiences). But this did not kill off the acts, merely the places they were showcased. Sunday Night at the London Palladium thrived on ITV in the 1950s and 1960s.
Michael Grade was wrong.
There are loads of good variety acts playing the Piazza in London’s Covent Garden every week and there is a third tier to the annual Edinburgh Fringe, which no-one ever seems to mention. There are the paid-for Fringe venues… plus the two organisations offering free venues… plus the free street theatre with which Edinburgh is awash throughout August.
And Variety is not dead elsewhere. Mr Methane still farts around the UK; Charlie Chuck is more speciality/spesh act than stand-up, The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper doubles as The Great Voltini and the ratings success of Britain’s Got Talent on ITV1 and The Magicians on BBC1 show that there are not just loads of good spesh acts out there but that there is an appetite for them.
Now, what was the name of that bloke who used to torture teddy bears on a wheel of death at Malcolm Hardee’s old clubs The Tunnel Palladium and Up The Creek?
Was it Steve someone?