Magazine article The Spectator

Television: What a Performance!

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: What a Performance!

Article excerpt

Let's start this week with a joke: 'You know Mrs Kelly? Do you know Mrs Kelly? Her husband's that little stout man, always on the corner of the street in a greasy waistcoat. You must know Mrs Kelly. Well, of course if you don't, you don't, but I thought you did, because I thought everybody knew Mrs Kelly.'

No, I can't claim my sides are entirely split either. Yet, according to the first episode of What a Performance! Pioneers of Popular Entertainment (BBC4, Thursday), this sort of material by the Victorian music-hall star Dan Leno marked the birth of stand-up comedy as we know and are perhaps overburdened by it today.

The series' stated aim is to explore mass entertainment from the days before television. But there appears to be another, unstated one as well: to show that BBC4 documentaries don't all have to be by genial middle-aged academics keen to impart their knowledge in the form of neatly constructed arguments. Instead, they can be fun!

To this end, the chosen presenters are the unlikely double act of Frank Skinner and Suzy Klein, who bubble with a degree of chuckling enthusiasm that the average 18-30 holiday rep might envy. For a while on Thursday they were on best BBC4 behaviour, as they traced the origins of the Victorian music hall in the various strands of urban entertainment that grew up after the industrial revolution. Before long, though, the problems that would mar the rest of the programme began to surface.

For one thing, there was the surprisingly sloppy editing, with facts we'd already been told later put forward as startling revelations. For another, there was the decision to get Frank and Suzy to re-enact old music-hall turns. Seeing these turns as they might once have been was certainly necessary and even illuminating. The trouble is that, far too often, the chief focus was on Frank and Suzy's own 'journey' from initial rehearsal to final performance (and their feelings about it) rather than on what I suspect most BBC4 viewers would have wanted: more on the history of Victorian music hall. It also meant that the presenters seemed to be having more of the desired fun than we were.

Stranger still, the pair apparently considered that part of their brief was to pretend that everything we saw remains pure comedy gold -- up to and including that routine about Mrs Kelly (and I gave you the edited version). Throughout the programme, both presenters approvingly emphasised how irreverent the Victorian music hall was. …

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