Britain Had Talent: A History Of Variety Theatre by Oliver Double

Book review by Steve Bennett

Variety has an image problem these days, seen in retrospect as a rather tacky collection of cheesy acts that passed for entertainment in a world before television. But in this book, comedy lecturer Oliver Double puts up a strong case for the genre, making it easy to see parallels with today’s stand-up circuit on almost every page.

The main similarity is that each act was a separate entity, producing their own routines rather than being part of a bigger show, They would be booked by impresarios such as Val Parnell and Bernard Delfont to play venues around the country, spending a week with the notorious theatrical landladies of each town before moving off.

Many of these performers were, of course, comics anyway – Max Miller, Tommy Trinder, George Formby, Morecambe and Wise – but they would share bills with musicians, dancers, ventriloquist, magicians and novelty act, all placed according to a strict hierarchy.

And the factors Double attributes to those who clawed their way up the bills, based on reviews of the day, are no different from what makes a comedian a star today: warmth, personality, novelty and an ability to engage with an audience.

There are other lessons today’s comedy industry might be able to take from variety – especially as some see storm clouds gathering over the club circuit.

Variety was once Britain’s dominant form of entertainment, filling vast, ornate theatres twice nightly. But when death came, it came quickly, and in little more than a decade this once-lucrative industry was dismantled; the palaces of delight demolished or turned into bingo halls. Only a few survive today, such as Leeds City Varieties, Hackney Empire or London Palladium. The acts were driven into working men’s clubs, where on a confined stage only comics and singers could survive.

Double – a lecturer at the University of Kent who wrote one of the first books about the practicalities of modern comedy, 1997’s Stand Up! On Being A Comedian – divides Britain Had Talent into two main sections covering the history of variety and what he calls ‘performance dynamics’, which is a way if examining, and honouring, the acts.

Although this is history, and meticulously researched history at that, the writing is never dry, reflecting the vibrant world of variety itself. But compared to what came before, the music halls, variety was positively sober. Those were ribald places of food, booze, comic song – and even prostitutes. In the dying years of the 19th century, variety’s early entrepreneurs in the dying years such as HE Moss and Oswald Stoll made it respectable (dull, say music hall devotees) with theatre seating, drinking only in the intervals, and a wider range of entertainment.

Radio fuelled the business, with fans wanting to see their favourite stars in person, but television was a big factor in its decline. Now you could see the performers – and the high cost of the hire-purchase repayments on early sets meant people had less money to go out, too.

Double covers the rise and fall with pace and insight, especially on the overlap between the traditional and the new, whether it be an influx of big-name American stars, much to the chagrin of home-grown talent, or accommodating the then-new teenage trends of skiffle and rock and roll. On the first point, Max Miller was so incensed at the 1950 Royal Variety Performance that he had been allocated only six minutes on the precisely-timed bill when American Jack Benny had 20 that he deliberately overrun. When Val Parnell told Miller he’d never work for him again, the comic said: ‘You’re £70,000 too late’.

Such anecdotes, though relatively thin on the ground here, explain why it is the section on performers that best brings the world of variety to life. Double’s scoured countless biographies for background, and interviewed a few variety survivors, such as Vera Lynn, the Beverly Sisters, Roy Hudd and strongwoman Joan Rhodes, who died in 2010 is perhaps given more prominence here than her place in variety strictly merits, but always provides good quotes.

The result is an entertaining whirl through the stars of the day, big and small, giving a flavour of their personality onstage and off. A book encapsulating the whole of variety’s history can never analyse individual performers in depth, but Double provides a perfect introduction to this colourful community of nomadic performers.

Although a few names have lasted into this century, many of the stars of the day are now obscure at best, forgotten at worst. Monsewer Eddie Gray might ring a few bells, but what of xylophonist Teddy Brown, acrobats The Guanjou Brothers & Juantia or Peg Leg Bates, a one-legged tapdancer?

If this sounds like an episode of Britain’s Got Talent, Double sees Simon Cowell’s reality show as the modern incarnation of variety, as the book’s title acknowledges.

But modern stand-up – which had its own genesis in an ‘alternative cabaret’ movement of the late Seventies/early Nineties – is clearly a direct descendant; and if you are interested in this world, this is a perfect introduction to the one that spawned it.

  • Britain Had Talent: A History Of Variety Theatre, by Oliver Double, has been published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £17.99. Click here to buy from Amazon for £15.29.

Published: 6 Nov 2012

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