TV review: The Story of Variety

Gary Day sees irony in a lament about the death of variety theatre and its larger-than-life characters

March 10, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

The curtain rose and a man in a white sailor suit tap-danced across the stage. He looked like a ghost. Sixty years ago every town in Britain had its own variety theatre. What were they like? What happened to them all? With the aid of some of its surviving stars, Michael Grade tried to remember (BBC Four, The Story of Variety, Sunday 6 March, 8pm).

The typical show began with a dance routine. That was followed by "the second spot comedian" - "It's good to be back. Not that I've been anywhere, but it's good to be back." Undeterred by the patter, the audience returned after the interval. They were greeted by another dance number, all glitter, feathers and high kicks. Then came "the speciality acts" - jugglers, impressionists, musicians, magicians, strongmen, snake charmers and, of course, ventriloquists, the best of whom was Arthur Worsley.

How Worsley managed to form the consonants "b" and "p" without moving his lips is a mystery. His dummy, Charlie Brown, did all the talking, complaining that Arthur was "a mean, moody, miserable, melancholic, motionless misfit". Phew! That alliterative achievement surpassed even the "bottle of beer" sketch. Perhaps Charlie really was the one speaking.

The best ventriloquists are deeply attached to their dummies. Some can't be separated from them. Dennis Spicer's demise was particularly sinister. He was killed in a car accident. In the wreckage, the police found the shoes of his dummy by the accelerator.

The show concluded with the star act, and they didn't get much more stellar than Max Miller, with his trademark white hat and flowing floral suits. "I'm a bit tired tonight. I've been shoplifting. And some of those shops are very heavy I tell you." He was the first to make contact with the audience, leaning over the footlights, taking them into his confidence, getting them to side with him against the theatre manager determined to censor his material.

Miller would have enjoyed a dressing room close to the stage, but those lower down the bill could be so far away they would be worn out by the time they arrived for their cue. Rats were a problem. Regarding themselves as the permanent residents of the changing areas, they did not take kindly to artistes invading their territory and let them know by gnawing through anything they were careless enough to leave on the floor, including their feet.

But for real squalor you couldn't beat digs. The rooms were damp and the sheets had often not been washed since the last occupant lay snoring between them. One chap recalled seeing the ash fall off his landlady's cigarette into the rice pudding she was making. "Ah well, we all get to eat muck some time," she said philosophically. You'd have thought this would have made Roy Hudd grateful for the baked beans thrust at him every evening.

Not a bit of it. For some people, like Rick at the end of Casablanca, a hill of beans is a metaphor for how trivial "the problems of three little people (are) in this crazy world". But for the likes of Roy, a plate of beans is a metaphor for the trivial treatment of important people like himself in the crazy world of rented rooms.

Some landladies served more than food. One guest recalled going to get a glass of water only to find his hostess entertaining the pianist Alberto Semprini on the kitchen table. "Oh Mr Sanders!" she exclaimed. "What must you think of me?" Others were less accommodating both with themselves and their establishments. Stairs were a problem to would-be lovers. They creaked. One enterprising Romeo thought he could get round the problem by carrying his Juliet on his back. Unfortunately the proprietress had better hearing than a bat and so that was one house in which the standards of morality were upheld.

The programme was history by anecdote. Doreen Wise remembered a time at Crewe when freezing weather delayed all the trains. The station was silent. Rene Hughes and Jimmy James waltzed on the platform as the wind blew in gusts of snow. Mr Grade's own contribution concerned his youthful attempt to stump the memory man, Leslie Welch, by asking him for the names of the cup-winning Aston Villa team in 1892. Leslie rattled them off. They were all wrong. How hard it is to be accurate about the past.

One myth that went unchallenged was that, compared with music hall, variety provided family entertainment. If you are the Addams Family, yes. Many variety acts weren't just risque, they had an unsettling, existential quality.

Rock'n'roll killed variety, and television buried it. There was, therefore, a certain irony in Mr Grade lamenting its fate. Did not Brutus shed tears over Caesar? The ghost in the sailor suit disappeared into the wings.

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