Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Return of the big night out?

Variety acts are enjoying a revival up at the Edinburgh Fringe:
...venues devoted to the outpourings of alternative comedians since Ben Elton first performed at the fringe in the boom years of the early 1980s are increasingly making room for singing acts, burlesque artists and magicians.

There's even talk of the spirit of music hall being revived. However, whilst music hall proper - performed in dedicated theatrical venues and encompassing a bafflingly wide array of entertainments - died out in the '60s, its spirit never entirely left us (and I'm not referring to the historical reenactment that was the The Good Old Days, which staggered into the '80s).

Music hall's absurd fustian, foppish outfits, rococo styling and stock characters have been variously drawn on by a number of entertainers, some of them - perhaps surprisingly - fashionable and even innovative: pop groups such as The Small Faces, The Beatles, Chas and Dave and Madness; comics Monty Python, Vic Reeves and Harry Hill; and West End musicals Oliver! and My Fair Lady.

To take just a handful of elements borrowed from music hall, directly or indirectly: Madness's Nutty Dance can be traced back through Humphrey Ocean's capering for Kilburn and the High Roads (Ian Dury's first group) to the Egyptian Sand Dance (right); John Cleese's Ministry for Silly Walks included some moves lifted directly from Max Wall's routine (bottom [and a real treat]); the characters of My Fair Lady, despite its Pygmalion origins, are almost all to be found as music hall types.

A new generation of performers tapping into this heritage will certainly have a lot to work with. David Kynaston's Family Britain provides a sample of music hall acts from the early-'50s (previously quoted over at my place):
...the magician Ali Bongo ('The Shriek of Araby'), the illusionist Cingallee, the pigeon act Hamilton Conrad, the animal and bird impersonator Percy ('I Travel the Road') Edwards, the drag act Ford and Sheen, the mind-reader The Amazing Fogel, the lady whistler Eva Kane, the male impersonator Hetty King, the foot spinner and raconteur Tex McLeod, the yodelling accordionist Billy Moore, the human spider Valantyne Napier, the mental telepathists The Piddingtons, the novelty xylophonist Reggie Redcliffe, the speciality dancer Bunty St Clair, the pianist Semprini, the aereliste Olga Varona, and many, many others - inhabitants of a lost world.

What a rich ecology that is!

The auguries for a full-blown revival - music hall proper rather than music hall as influence - are as promising as they've ever been. Variety is once again drawing big TV audiences through shows like Britain's Got Talent and The X-Factor. And our appetite for live performance - paradoxically or inevitably? - appears to grow the more we consume the rest of our entertainment in digital form.

But I do have concerns that the phenomenon detected up in Edinburgh isn't really inspired by music hall, despite its being name-checked in the piece. Most of what's happening there is actually its rather pretentious and standoffish sister, cabaret. A concern with 'radical, transgressive chic' sounds dangerously like the sort of tiresome and self-consciously didactic stuff that I don't need mental telepathists The Piddingtons to tell me isn't going to entertain the people.

And without popularity music hall can't really be music hall. True, it's always had a strong strain of the bizarre and transgressive. But above all it has to be demotic, raucous, accessible and involving.

I suspect that what's playing in front of the arty and mostly bourgeois Edinburgh crowds isn't going to go down too well with the descendants of music hall's original (and notoriously unforgiving) audiences in those Halls, Empires, Hippodromes, Alhambras and Grands that were dotted around Britain's large industrial cities. But perhaps there's an impresario out there right now - the new music hall's Simon Cowell, God help us - who's experimenting with a formula that will once again lay on a truly popular Big Night Out.

(By the way, if you're interested to learn more about the history of music hall, I stumbled across this excellent site.)


  1. Believe me when I say that, as a child, I caught the tail end of that mode of entertainment and it weren't funny, at all. Max Walls career was in it's death throes, a state of affairs it had enjoyed since its inception.
    The Leeds music hall thing was repetitive beyond belief, 'Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do'. Oh, for f..ks sake.
    Edinburgh's festival is a goldmine of embryo talent, No1 daughter is once again in mid rehearsal with a budding Ridley Scott. The entire spectrum of theatre is there for all to see, from the sublime to the ridiculous and in these days of manufactured talent a light in the wilderness.

  2. Ah but Malty it was in its death throes then - cinema, radio and then TV had the pick of the crop.

    I'm glad to hear the Fringe is so good. The Guardian's arts pages can sometimes provoke unwarranted scepticism (but only sometimes).

  3. The culture/morality of the 40s/50s was so different. Max Wall's career hit the buffers in the 50s when he left his wife to live with a girl of half his age. No one would book him. He went bankrupt, the girl left, and he was reduced to a bedsit.

    Wouldn't have the same effect at all today.