Theatre in Wales

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Winter Theatre Book- Intertwining History, Tribute and Family Quest

Theatre History

John Major , Harper , December 10, 2012
Theatre History by John Major Modesty in accomplishment is an appealing characteristic. Many a Premier has been a writer of reputation in their time. Disraeli did fiction, Balfour philosophy, Churchill history. John Major’s political memoir of 2000 received a warm reception; retrospective self-justification and score-settling were not on its agenda. “My Old Man” has similar virtues, industry, undecorativeness and personal sincerity. It is an uncommon mixture, a study of an artistic genre that is also family exploration and personal tribute.

“My Old Man” is a labour of love, intended literally. The acknowledgement speaks of “early-morning writing, late-night writing, lost weekends and lost holidays.” Its first sentence reads: “In March 1962, I sat with an old man as he lay dying.” Major returns to the same scene for the book’s final paragraph. The text in-between is an attempt to capture the origins, the rise, the spread, and the decline of music hall. “Telling…of story…has been my overall priority.” It may be an introduction to its subject but “My Old Man” is succinct and comprehensive.

Major illustrates just how deep and wide music hall dug itself into the culture. James Callaghan, Prime Minister, is here singing “There I was, waiting at the church” to a meeting of the TUC congress. Thackeray is in an early audience. T S Eliot pens a tribute to Marie Lloyd on her death. Little Tich is inspiration for a string quartet movement by Stravinsky. Harry Lauder’s friendships took in not just Charlie Chaplin but Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford.

The Duke of Windsor, later Prince of Wales, is another friend, just one of the line of aristocrats who make their appearance. The personal wealth that accrued to the stars, not far off comparable sums of today, had the effect of dissolving social difference.
Vesta Tilley may have started as Matilda Alice Powles. She ended as Lady De Frece, wife to a conservative MP, and living an opulent retirement in Monte Carlo. Socially upward marriage was regular. May Gates married into Norwegian aristocracy. Sylvia Storey married Earl Poulett. Gertie Millar became Countess of Dudley, Denise Orme Duchess of Leinster.

Music Hall became big money indeed. As Barnum was finding across the Atlantic “Every crowd has a silver lining”. In Major’s eloquent phrasing music hall moved “from back-room tavern to sumptuous palace, from working class to middle class, from foundry, pit and dock to drawing room, salon and theatre.”

Impresarios and entrepreneurs like Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss gave their names to eponymous theatre-owning companies. Lucasfilm’s development of merchandising that out-sells the show is nothing new. Dan Leno sold mugs, jugs and comics by the hundreds of thousands. His house in Clapham came with cook, housemaids, conservatories and stables.

Major traces the line of descent to these booming, pre-cinema years. Starting with supper clubs and the free and easies, he picks out an older London archaeology of entertainment. The Cyder Cellars, the Coal Hole, the Yorkshire Stingo, the Mogul Saloon, the Six Cans and Punchbowl graduate to John Nevil Maskelyne taking on the lease for Piccadilly’s grandiose Egyptian Hall.

The theatres of Frank Matcham are now revered. Major details his architectural innovations; the use of steel in place of pillars to improve sightlines, more seats, a feature to his clients’ liking. Matcham developed the push-bar exit lock, a desirable improvement in a period of endemic fire. The Surrey in Blackfriars was destroyed in 1865, the Royal Standard in Pimlico 1866, the South London Palace 1869. The Oxford burned down in 1869, was rebuilt and burnt down again in 1872. At Edinburgh’s Empire an exploding light resulted in the deaths of eleven performers. All were eclipsed by the fire at Exeter's Theatre Royal, where one hundred and eighty six died.

Music Hall spills over into the other arts. Major laments the loss of so many buildings, post-war planners being as much responsible as wartime bombers. The book reproduces Sickert’s sublime “Noctes Ambrosianae” and “Katie Lawrence.” Major traces the survival of songs; some are taken up by the Monkees and the Muppets. He attributes “I’m Henery the Eighth I am” to Manfred Mann in 1965 “one of their biggest hits.” It does not sound like the funky Manfreds- it was the sappy Herman’s Hermits. Music hall is still visible in a few Youtube tributes. A character is called John in order that Rita Hayworth may be a memorable pearly queen and sing “Poor John” for “Cover Girl” in 1944. Harry Champion’s “Any Old Iron” becomes the title for Anthony Burgess’ 1988 novel.

There are occasional phrasings that do not work: “music hall was, first and last, an intimate medium, in which performers and audience were locked in an intimate embrace.” Intimate is the tiny sixty-seat fringe venue. Music Hall was raucous, irreverent, drunken, a magnet for sexual services. Interestingly, the particular gifts of Frenchman Joseph Pujol did not transfer well. It is a little wince-making to read of “ladies of the night.”

Biography and family connection haunt this book. A good writer makes imaginative connection: "The flops, the let-downs, the days without work, the lash of critical opinion," Major writes of his parents. "It was not until years later, with the political critics poised, invective flowing and the national audience restive, that I fully understood all the emotions that had been so familiar to them."

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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