As a child my first memory of visiting a theatre was at the Kings Theatre, Southsea in 1969 to see a Christmas Pantomine called Puss N’ Boots. This opened up a whole new world and since, I have been to the theatre many times. One of the best shows I have seen was in London’s West end to see a Musical play about Sir Winston Churchill. The Special effects and drama was brilliant and Robert Hardy who played Winnie was excellent.
Music hall and Variety Theatre was popular entertainment that featured successive acts by singers, comedians, dancers, and actors. The form derived from the taproom concerts given in city taverns in England in the 18th–19th centuries.
To meet the demand for entertainment for the working class, tavern owners often annexed nearby buildings as music halls, where drinking and smoking were permitted. The originator of the English music hall as such was Charles Morton, who built Morton’s Canterbury Hall (1852) and Oxford Hall (1861) in London. Leading performers included Lillie Langtry, Harry Lauder (1870–1950), and Gracie Fields. Music halls evolved into larger, more respectable variety theatres, such as London’s Hippodrome and the Coliseum. Variety acts combined music, comedy acts, and one-act plays and featured celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt and Herbert Tree.
Before Music Hall was given its name, similar types of entertainment would have been going on for many centuries. In essence, Music Hall brought together a variety of different acts which together formed an evening of light hearted entertainment.
The origins of Music Hall are found in a number of institutions which provided entertainment in the populous towns and cities of Britain in the 1830s. These were:
– The backroom of the pub, where simple sing-songs gave way to the singing saloon concert.
– Popular theatre, sometimes in pub saloons but mainly at travelling fairs.
– Song & Supper Rooms, where more affluent middle class men would enjoy a night out on the town.
– The Pleasure Gardens, where entertainment became more low brow as the years passed.
By the 1850s, the tavern landlords had moved the entertainment function of pubs into purpose built halls; these new premises still retaining the traditional ambience of the inn. The format of the evening was unchanged: a chairman would introduce song and dance acts onto a simple stage, whilst trying to keep order with a gavel. In all cases, eating, drinking and smoking continued throughout the performances.
The audience, often exuberant with alcohol, both heckled and joined in with their favourite songs and performers.The growth of the Halls was rapid and spread across Britain with the first great boom in the 1860s, so that by 1870, 31 large halls were listed in London and 384 in the rest of the country. This growth was not only in the number of halls, but also in the amenities and catering facilities. In addition, performers now became a professional workforce, appearing in London at several Halls each night and making frequent provincial tours.
At its peak, music hall was the television of its day. Its stars were enormously popular in a way it is hard to believe nowadays. They had their songs specially written for them, and permission would have to be sought if other performers wanted to sing them in public.
After consolidation during the 1870s, music hall then started another period of expansion. The London Pavilion was restyled in 1885 and incorporated much from traditional theatre’s ideas of house and stage design. This lead to the era of the de-luxe hall or Variety theatre. Now there was fixed seating in the stalls and the performer was more distant from the audience. With the increase in costs from the introduction of safety regulations and the inflation of the star’s fees, the music hall industry began to combine into a number of Syndicates. A number of nationwide chains such as Moss, Stoll and Thornton with their “Empires” and “Palaces” started to dominate the business.
Changes to licensing laws made a music and dancing licence a requirement. This allowed moral and social reformers the opportunity to challenge the style and operation of the halls; most notable in this respect was Mrs Ormiston Chant who campaigned against lax morals in the Empire, Leicester Square. Later, there was the prohibition of drink in all new halls such that by 1909, of the 29 halls belonging to Stoll, only 8 held a drinks licence.
With just a few proprietors controlling the majority of the halls, the owners attempted to extract the maximum work for minimum pay from the performers. This lead to the formation of the Variety Artists’ Federation, which in 1907 organised the first music hall strike. In 1912, music hall gained a level of respectability with the first Royal Command Performance.
The London County Council, after a series of fires in theatres and music halls finally banned eating and drinking in the auditorium in 1914. From that time, the music halls simply had to be run on the same lines as theatres. After this, music hall became known by its earlier name of Variety and, with the coming of cinema and later radio, became extinct by the time of World War II.
As far as sound recording goes, a convenient watershed is the year 1925 when the electrical recording process was first commercially introduced, making obsolete the previous mechanical “acoustic” recordings. In W. Macqueen-Pope’s book The Melody lingers on he attempts to give the difference between Music Hall and Variety. “Music Hall”, he states, “was Variety (although Variety is not Music Hall).” This shows the difficulty of any definition, although one can understand what he means. On this site, we have used the term “Variety” for recordings made after 1925, and Music Hall where Artists bridged both methods of recording.
Although generally regarded as a particularly British institution,one other countriy namely the USA, also have a music hall tradition. In America vaudeville developed on parallel lines to music hall in Britain.
Attempts have been made at revival in Britain, both in the 1930s and on British television in the 1960’s to 1970’s with “The Good Old Days” which has been something of a pastiche. Unfortunately, sound recording came too late for most of very first generation of artists, for example George Leybourne. However, at the turn of the 19th/20th century a number of survivors such as Dan Leno, as well as younger artists, started to make recordings. Initially these were very expensive (typically you could buy twelve of the best seats in the house for the price of one record), but with time, prices fell and these records eventually became more affordable by typical music hall clientele.
Over the first three decades of the 20th century many artists committed their songs and performance to record, and these can still be heard and enjoyed today.
Music hall and variety died in the mid fifties with the arrival of Rock n Roll which attracted the youth of Britain. The previous clientele were the mums and dads which lost the habit of going to Music Hall and Variety shows and by the time of the 1960’s the end was nigh.
In the modern era the West End in London is the theatre centre of the world and has become a mixture of acting greats from the Movie World and Theatreland. In 1994 Shakespeare’s The Globe Theatre was rebuilt and is now one of the most popular theatres in London.
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The Chinese call Britain ‘The Island of Hero’s’ which I think sums up what we British are all about. We British are inquisitive and competitive and are always looking over the horizon to the next adventure and discovery.
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