Music Hall and Me
By Nick Kathwaroon
This is about my experience with the Music Hall rather than a history of the Music Hall in Britain. My interest in the Music Hall coincided with its decline and so I watched this old entertainment disappear before my eyes. I had heard Music Hall entertainers on the radio and enjoyed the songs and sketches. However it was not until my teens in the late 30's, that I found the world of Music Hall,.
I had a friend who worked on a coffee stall underneath the arches of Kings Cross station and who served the LMS (London Midland & Scottish Railway} draymen who stabled their horses under the arches. Incidentally, these were wonderful horses, mainly Clydesdales, who pulled the wagons that delivered heavy goods around London.for the LMS . The relationship between these horses and drivers was remarkable. Once the horses were unharnessed at night, they knew which stall was theirs and they bedded down under the railway arches, in semi-darkness. It would be interesting to know more about these fine animals and their lives. Anyone out there remember?
The coffee stall (which only sold tea, meat pies and cakes) carried a large advertising poster for the Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town and was entitled to a free pass for two. It was in this manner that I was introduced to the world of Music Hall. We would go almost every week and saw a mixture of the old Music Hall greats,as well as a motley assortment of comedians, dancers,and singers who complemented each show. I am sure that we were underage for some of the performances but nobody challenged us.
The interior of the Bedford was all red plush and gilt . On both sides of the proscenium were a collection of the most voluptuous caryatids supporting the balconies I had ever seen. It was most distracting for a young man. I was surprised and sad when I visited Camden Town a few years ago to find that it had completely disappeared.
Some of the "artistes" I saw were George Robey ( "I stopped -and I looked - and I listened") Harry Tate and his famous Motoring sketch, Will Fyffe, (Scots comedian), Harry Champion '("Any Old Iron"), Rob Wilton ("The day war broke out"), and someone (whose name I cannot remember) who came on stage wearing a fireman's helmet and proclaimed he was "the happy laughing fireman" in a doleful voice. Can anyone enlighten me? I also remember the great Tod Slaughter in "Murder in the Red Barn". The show started with the lights dimmed. Then a scream from the back of the theatre and a young girl runs down the aisle picked up in a spotlight, then Tod slaughter, suitably villainous is picked up with a green spot, chasing her : then the inevitable "Bobby" with truncheon at the ready running a few yards behind. Real Victorian theatre.!!! There are more but my memory is not what it used to be.
Came the war and every thing changed - almost - Music Halls like the Collins Islington, The Bedford Camden Town, the Metropolitan in the Edgware Road, all of which I had visited, kept going. Collins was the most reputable as Queen Victoria is supposed to have visited it
At the beginning of the war before I was called up I was on " firewatch "at my employers twice a week. My fellow watcher was an old Music Hall pro who had worked with Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley .He used to regale me with tales of the "good old days". So I got a good feeling for Music Hall in its heyday.
During the war many of the old Music Hall entertainers came out of retirement to entertain the troops This was organized by E.N.S.A. I saw a few during my service. They tried hard but it was sometimes tough to please a bunch of young soldiers more accustomed to Joe Loss or Glen Miller; But they were good troopers and took the rough with the smooth, and at least they were "doing their bit"
Towards the end of the war and immediately after, most Music Halls were turned into cinemas. Collins carried on for little longer. I went there just after the war. There was still a crowd around the bar, and as I sat in my seat I received from the balcony a shower of orange peel and peanut shells. That's what I call atmosphere!
Where today, can you stand at the back of the theatre with a glass of beer in your hand and tell the entertainer what you think of him or her without being thrown out?.
Some of the stars of Music Hall kept up with the changing times by appearing on television which was contributing to the demise of the Old Music Hall. But for some of us we will still remember the old comedians and their songs and sketches. Go on the Internet and you will find sites which will give you the words of the songs that kept us smiling in the thirties and forties. i.e. ("Make 'Em Laugh")
Today there are pale imitations available of what was, but it ain't the same !!!
This article was kindly contributed by Nick Kathwaroon.
Happy Fireman - I've just been reading Nick Kathwaroon's article on the Bedford, Camden Town, an old wartime haunt of mine with my Uncle Jack. He mentioned a comedian, whose name he could not recall, who professed to be "the happy, laughing fireman." I think that this must have been HORACE KENNEY, who appeared not only on the halls but frequently on radio. Very droll. Hope this is of some use. Courtesy Bill Dengel.
Happy Fireman - I noted a comment about Horace
Kenny and a "Happy Fireman" sketch. The recalled association
of the two is correct - this act is one track of an LP I have of pre-war
British comedians. This particular track is called "A Music Hall
Trial Turn" where Kenny plays an old washed-out music-hall performer
trying to impress a stage manager with his act. He switches from the
fireman (in whose uniform he has up to then been performing) into the
"Jolly Singing Cobbler", with even less success. The LP is
one of a two-issue series called "LAUGHTER UNLIMITED" (Connoisseur
Vol. 1, Catalogue # CO 506) purchased in 1978. I wouldn't be surprised
if Kenny's voice was the inspiration for Spike Milligan's "mate"
character from "The Goon Show" 25 years later. They are virtually
identical! Incidentally, I was a fan of BBC's "My Word" and
"My Music" in their day. Occasionally Denis Norden would briefly
reminisce over some of the old pre-war performers. I was quite taken
by his encyclopedic knowledge of so many of these, a large number of
whom he had known personally. Courtesy Eddie Dwyer.
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