Variety Acts and Turns of the Early 1930s

Music hall constantly adapted to survive, yet the cultural form is often dismissed. Fern Riddell considers our collective memory

April 3, 2014

Variety Acts and Turns of the Early 1930s
Two-DVD set, Strike Force Entertainment

Popular culture is inescapable. From television, film, media and cinema to books and magazines, we are surrounded by unlimited access to what is “popular”. Mass entertainment has revolutionised culture, relying on global networks of appreciation and interaction on a vast scale. It is something we judge, sneer at and yet are continually fascinated by. But when did this obsession start, and who decides what is actually “popular”?

The first mass entertainment in Britain emerged in the middle of the 19th century. Music hall, with its nightly bills of singers, dancers and speciality acts, provided the increasingly leisure-orientated urban populace with fast-paced programmes, a sea of constantly changing faces, and space to relax, enjoy and socialise with friends and family. Although it began as a working-class entertainment, by the early 1900s, music hall’s popularity extended across the classes and around the world. It constantly updated itself, including the latest technologies and drawing far bigger audiences than legitimate theatre or highbrow forms of culture had ever seen.

After the First World War, the halls rebranded their entertainment style as “variety” – a new term for a new age, but the old art form. “Variety” was respectable, a performance of working-class culture rather than an authentic representation of the workers and their lives. And it is a cultural form that is still very much alive today. Any stand-up comedian or popular singer can trace the roots of their act back to the music halls. But somehow this birthplace of popular culture, this historical connection to the entertainment of our past, has been forgotten and dismissed.

The latest release from Strike Force Entertainment, Variety Acts and Turns of the Early 1930s, joins its 2012 compilations, Variety Acts and Turns of the Mid 1930s and Variety Acts and Turns of the Late 1930s. Together, they make up a four-DVD set and more than 12 hours of footage – where we are invited to view a unique moment in the creation of British popular culture. At the start of the 1930s, British Pathé decided to enhance its newsreels with a new “cine magazine” called Pathétone Weekly, featuring a series of short films entitled Stars. A mainstay of Pathé’s output by 1931, Stars showcased acts from the variety stage – singers, dancers and performers of all types were now regularly featured in the new entertainment shorts for cinema audiences.

The collections have brought together myriad clips from the whole decade, displaying many household names – Charlie Chaplin, Gus Allen, Lily Morris and Josephine Baker – just as they would have appeared 85 years ago. Excitingly, this gives us access to the visual culture of the 1930s in a highly immersive way. The image may be sharper, the sound may be digitally enhanced, but the tone, style and performance of each act is just as its original audience would have witnessed them.

What is important about the 1930s is that a form of popular culture, variety (on stage, screen or radio), became widely accepted as a dominant culture, due in large part to its intensely diverse nature and the physicality of performances as they were transmitted to new audiences. Advances in technology allowed for the recording of live sound and moving image, which puts us in touch with the physical actuality, the cultural memory of the time, in a way that is far more detailed than any written source could be.

For the performers involved, inclusion in British Pathé’s Stars series was both a blessing and a curse. It took their names and acts out to far larger audiences and gave them the opportunity to build a distant fan base. However, it also halved the life of their song or act, forcing them to constantly change and update their turn, or risk audience uninterest.

For a variety act of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a popular song provided ample earnings for a significant amount of time, allowing the premier stars of their day, such as Vesta Tilley and Gus Ellen, to earn £300 a week. The “Queen of the Music Halls”, Marie Lloyd, was said to have amassed a fortune worth more than £250,000 (equivalent to £14 million today). Once a song had succeeded in the local halls, you would take it on a national tour, Glasgow to Bristol, and finally, for a lucky few, across the world – New York, Australia and Russia.

An act may have needed only one or two decent pieces to survive, but with British Pathé’s newsreels of the 1930s, that security was gone. However, this was not the first time that the halls had had to adapt to new technology. With the invention of the gramophone in the 1890s and then the first entertainment radio broadcasts in the UK in 1922, there had been a similar risk, but the benefits – increased song sheet sales and a new income from record sales – vastly outweighed the damage these could do.

Performers became more adept at producing new material, and more willing to incorporate the latest technology into their turns. The managers of the music halls were equally excited by technological advances and, long before British Pathé decided to show films about them in the cinema, had decided to show films during the acts. These were known as “cine-variety” bills, and saw traditional music hall programmes incorporate short films among the live acts for which they were best known.

Music hall, and its later incarnation as variety, survived by constantly changing and updating its style and content. Just as the popular culture of the 1960s differs from that of today, so the halls challenged themselves constantly to create something new.

Our cultural memory seems to have forgotten this important fact, seeing the halls as a very staid, solid form of culture, predominantly popular in the latter half of the 19th century, and failing to survive the popularity of the wireless, cinema and later television.

But that is simply not the case. Music hall has adapted and survived even today. So why do we think it didn’t?

The 1930s are a pivotal moment in British popular culture, as they sit between the social destruction brought about by two world wars. But they also marked the appearance of that dreaded creature, the cultural critic. While there had always been commentators on high and elite culture, a new breed turned to popular culture, deciding what it was and what it was not. Max Beerbohm seized on this role with glee, and focused a large portion of his cultural critique – often transmitted by the BBC – on the music halls. While regularly exalting their vulgar virtues, he also made very clear that this was a cultural form that reflected the past. Music hall, and by extension variety, was defined as Victorian – it had a specific place and time that had now gone. It was no longer the new, the most modern, the most popular.

Yet if we watch Variety Acts and Turns of the Early 1930s and its companions, music hall’s survival is clear. The songs are sentimental, ballads or comic. There are comedy duos, dancers, performers of all ages. Regardless of what the critics thought, music hall was alive and well, and still has a very deep hold on our cultural memory.

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