It’s just 150 years ago this year that a young girl was born to the comfort-able but large (nine children) Wood family in Hoxton, east London. Like so many young children who love to perform, she organised her brothers and sisters into a group who sang first at home and then in local venues, often offering temperance songs. This wasn’t enough for her, however, and she started appearing in local halls, first as Matilda Wood and then as Bella Delmere. By the 1880s she was singing songs like The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery and under the name by which she was to become famous: Marie Lloyd.
Marie Lloyd became perhaps the greatest of Music Hall stars. The origins of Music Hall tend to vary according to the authority consulted, but it seems to have developed from the entertainment provided in pubs known as song-and-supper rooms in the early years of the 19th Century, and most Music Halls were built with the idea that people should be able to smoke, eat and drink as they watched the performers. Halls like the Canterbury in Lambeth and the Middlesex in Drury Lane (on the site now occupied by the Gillian Lynne Theatre) led the way in London, and similar venues sprang up all round the UK.
Although today we often think of singers and comedians when we remember Music Hall, there were in fact all kinds of performances to be seen there: instrumentalists, dancers, ventriloquists, magicians, acrobats and all kinds of speciality acts could be seen. Music Hall lasted until variety took over after WWI. Although the art form faded as the halls disappeared, it was still seen from time to time and had quite a resurgence in the form of the television series The Good Old Days which ran for thirty years from 1953.
At a time when we are all looking for a way back to live performance, there’s a lot to be said for an art form where, for most of the time, there are only a small number of people onstage and yet many can participate during the evening: and one answer to that conundrum is Music Hall. Less often seen on the professional stage these days, Music Hall is still a popular choice for amateur groups and may well see something of a resurgence in the months ahead. After all, it’s very easy to maintain social distancing when rehearsing as each act can prepare separately, and if audiences are positioned around tables they will not be as close together as in rows of seating.
Until performances restart we can perhaps absorb some of the atmosphere of the Halls by visiting any of the surviving buildings. Many of the most famous venues have been lost although the façade of the London Pavilion is still there as is part of the front of Collins Music Hall in Islington, London, but perhaps the most evocative visit in the London area is to Wilton’s Music Hall. It has been restored just enough to let it come back into use but not so that its unique atmosphere is lost. To stand alongside the barley sugar cast iron columns holding up the gallery is a fascinating experience even when the theatre is empty. At the time of writing, Wilton’s hopes are to reopen from 1 September but check their website for the most up-to-date information.
Although created at a time when Music Hall was evolving into Variety, two of the grandest such theatres of all still survive: the London Coliseum (1904 and now the home of English National Opera) and the London Palladium (1910) – and both the work of the great theatre architect Frank Matcham. Both venues are at the forefront of finding a way forward for live performance, with Andrew Lloyd Webber experimenting with safe formats for live performance, and the ENO temporarily moving to Alexandra Palace (also the site of a theatre dating from the Music Hall years and with its original machinery) for drive-in opera.
Outside London, the City Varieties in Leeds, home of the televised Good Old Days series, is still in existence with performances planned to restart in the Autumn. In Nottingham, the Malt Cross has reverted to its roots and operates as a pub with live events and tours, which are not happening for the moment, but back soon we hope. The tour of the Malt Cross is a fascinating one and takes you under the building into part of Nottingham’s network of caves.
One of the most fascinating of UK survivals is the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow, saved from demolition and being painstakingly restored so that performances can once again be seen on the stage where Stan Laurel took his first steps. Walking up a flight of stairs from a warehouse in the city centre is all it takes to step back in time to a fascinating survival; well worth a visit. It has now reopened for booked tours and is recommended.
Real Music Hall enthusiasts of course – or anyone with an interest in this country’s performance history – would do well to join the British Music Hall Society. The BMHS has been around for almost sixty years and members receive its magazine Call Boy four times a year and can attend talks, events, shows and social occasions. During the current situation, those talks have moved online, making them even more accessible to people around the country.
Looking forward, however, the Society has some evocative events planned for 2021, including the annual Day by the Sea at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Eastbourne. Shows next year will include Gottle o’Geer – a tribute to ventriloquism, and talks are planned on Robb Wilton, Little Tich, Douglas Byng and Joan Turner.
So, in the words of the song, once we are able to do so, Let’s All Go to the Music Hall…
Wilton’s Music Hall: www.wiltons.org.uk
London Coliseum: londoncoliseum.org
London Palladium: lwtheatres.co.uk/theatres/the-london-palladium
Malt Cross, Nottingham: maltcross.com
City Varieties, Leeds: www.cityvarieties.co.uk
Britannia Panopticon: www.britanniapanopticon.org
British Music Hall Society: britishmusichallsociety.com