Magazine article The Spectator

Variety Was the Spice of Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Variety Was the Spice of Life

Article excerpt

My O ld Man: A P ersonal History of Music Hall by John Major Harper Press, £20, pp. 363, ISBN 97800074510138 Tough job being a disused prime minister.

John Major has resisted the temptation to flounce off in a sulk, or to play the international peacemaker, or (as Harold Macmillan was said to do during the 1970s) to fantasise about a glorious comeback urged on him by a despairing populace eager to rediscover its lost greatness. Instead, Major has become a social historian. After a book on cricket he now offers us a personal history of the music hall. His father, Tom Major (b. 1879), made a living as a comic artiste for over 30 years, and his recollections are the starting-point for Major's investigations.

Music hall grew out of the glee clubs and saloon theatres of the 18th century where 'catches' (hummable melodies) were played to boozing crowds by impromptu artistes. Publicans realised that by hiring talented performers they could attract more customers and keep the cash rolling in at the bar. By the mid-19th century, a huge market for live entertainment had developed among the working classes, who now had time on their hands and cash to burn. Music hall gave them what they wanted: supper, alcohol, a chance to make a bet, and a parade of singers, comics, street-acrobats, magicians, transvestites and exotic hustlers from all over the world.

London was the centre of this ramshackle showbiz boom.

Most music-hall performers struggled to make ends meet, but the big stars could earn hundreds of pounds a week, sometimes playing five or six venues in a single evening. Hansom cabs criss-crossed the city, ferrying the high-earners between theatres.

Drink and exhaustion terminated many careers. Hangers-on and poor relations were adept at imposing on the generosity of a prosperous star. The fear of failure was ever-present. One performer, after a gig in Glasgow where he heard himself referred to as 'a has-been', went to a nearby park and blew his brains out. Few of the big names died elderly, sober and solvent.

The heyday of music hall predates the gramophone, so it's hard for us to grasp its popular appeal. Here's a burst of patter by 'the prime minister of mirth, ' George Robey, a leading star of the Edwardian era, who appeared on stage as a defrocked cleric:

by all means, but let that merriment be tempered with dignity, and with the reserve which is compatible with the obvious refinement of our environment. …

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