Old Time Variety (Hardback)

An Illustrated History

General History Photo Books

By Richard Baker
Imprint: Remember When
Pages: 256
ISBN: 9781844681242
Published: 4th May 2011
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As one of the richest sources of diversion for the people of Britain between the end of the First World War and the 1960s, the variety theatre emerged from the embers of music hall, a vulgar and rumbustious entertainment that had held the working classes in thrall since the 1840s. Music hall bosses decided they would do better business if a man going to theatres on his own could take his wife and children with him, knowing they would see or hear nothing that would scandalise them. So, variety, a gentler, less red-blooded entertainment was gradually established.

At the top of the profession were Gracie Fields, a peerless singer and comedienne, and Max Miller, a comic who was renowned for being risqué, but who, in fact, never cracked a dirty joke. They were supported by acts that matched the word ‘variety’: ventriloquists, drag artists, animal acts, acrobats, jugglers, magicians and many more. But the variety theatre was constantly under threat, first from revue, then radio, the cinema, girlie shows, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and finally television.

By the end of the 1950s, the variety business seemed to have given up, but the recent and extraordinary popularity of talent shows on television has proved the public appetite is still there. Variety could be about to start all over again.

Could there be anyone as knowledgeable as Richard Anthony Baker about century of light entertainment from about 1870 to 1970 when non-legit urban theatres ruled in profusion? In pursuit of his meritorious and definitive 2005 British Music Hall: An Illustrated History comes Old Time Variety: An Illustrated History. It is a rich plum pudding in a book, replete with tasty morsels and nourishing slices. Changing the metaphor, it tumbles along engagingly, easily accessible and clearly presented, racy and pacy at the same time, never allowing he reader to dawdle or meaner, all the while refreshing and satisfying.

The night in 1922 when Marie Lloyd died I the starting point, for that night Gracie Fields, doyenne of variety, was performing in Swindon – and we are up and running, with 'funny girls' like Gladys Morgan and Renee Houston next up, while Joan Rhodes finds herself in the goodly company of Claude Dampier, Jimmy Wheeler and Gillie Potter. The links are ingenious. Tales of Frank Randle introduce us to his drinking companion, Josef Locke, with Cavan O'Connor and Arthur Tracy just around the corner. The chapters are pert. George and the Dragon sums up very neatly the malfunctioning Formby household, while Bare-Faced Chic is a winning way of describing late variety’s nude revues, indeed, it would have been a better billing than some – The Bareway to Stardom – actually deployed. Happily, the nonpareil Wilson, Keppel and Betty, with a very strong profile, top the bill – but no, as Richard Anthony Baker reminds us, they never did, and thus we turn by way of finale to Donald Peers, Michael Holliday and David Whitfield.

So, while the text has no overriding organising principle and does not concern itself unduly with social comment or explanation, it touches the heart of what variety was, and, by its very format of bustling, colourful movement among various types of performers, it provides a fitting tribute, in framework as in content, to the glorious ebullience of variety.

Its vital ingredient is an amazing intelligence about the off-stage lives of the artists. Roy Hudd, in a lively foreword, hits the nail on the head. Describing himself as ‘dedicated old gossip’, he adores the ‘great gossipy anecdotes’, and he is right so to do. If variety was the spice of life, then Richard Anthony Baker understands how spicy was the life of many of those involved. Roy Hudd is delighted to discover that Lord Reith inclined to, in its modern sense, gaiety. As one who began by watching Albert Modley in 1936 and found that I had seen or heard the vast bulk of those mentioned along this exhilarating ride, I found the detail of Hutch’s transfers of affection among, interalia, Cole Porter and Edwina Mountbatten of interest, no less the news of the genital endowment of Stanelli. In converse to these louche fascinations there are also recorded many, many tragic and tawdry moments behind the glitter, ranging from suicide to alcoholism.

Indeed it is Richard Anthony Baker’s stern, curt conclusion that variety itself committed suicide. It is did, and the alternative verdicts include murder, accidental death and

The Call Boy, Summer 2011, Eric Midwinter

For baby-boomers, like me, this book will be a trip down memory lane, because more than half of the performers cited by Baker (not the Richard Baker who used to read the news) were still performing on the Light Programme and the Home Programme in the early 1950s. Elsie and Doris Waters, for example, were staples of the radio for many years after the war, and used to crop up on Workers' Playtime regularly. The others continued to fill the bottom end of the bill in the variety shows that started, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to showcase the emerging talents of the pop revolution. This is a trip that's a pleasure to make, with Baker providing so much information, including, in some cases, how much the performer left in his or her will. A priceless record of the people who entertained several generations between the wars and, for a brief time, after WWII. A most excellent record, thoroughly entertaining.

Books Monthly June

Old Time Variety is an illustrated history of good old-fashioned entertainment from names like Tessie O'Shea, George Formby and the early days of Bruce Forsyth. Your guide is BBC veteran Richard Anthony Baker with a foreword by our own Roy Hudd.

Yours, June 2011

This is one of those books which is a treasure trove of information and a privilege to own. Richard Anthony Baker certainly provides value for money when he delves deep in to the history of artistes who entertained us in the good old days of Variety.
He sets the scene brilliantly before regaling us with a rich miscellany of artistes' experiences who trod the boards of Britain;s old theatres from 1918 to the closing years of Variety in the 1960's.
I don't want to spoil your reading (because each page- and there are 250 of them) produce such wonderful memories, both joyous and sad, all painstakingly researched. You may know some of them, but Richard's book has plenty more to offer, along with important facts, figures and excellent illustrations. In his foreword, Roy Hudd, OBE, President of the British Music Hall Society, tells readers that Old Time Variety is a 'treasure trove to those who remember Variety so well.
To us, it is not just important documentation, it is a valuable piece of preserved history featuring comedians, comediennes, vocalists, magicians, jugglers, acrobats and chorus lines.

Beautifully produced, this book takes you step by step through the careers of all these artistes so that, at the end, you really do understand what life was like on the stage for them.

Old Theatres 38

There are other books on the history of Variety and Richard's hardback book is destined to be up there with the best of them as one of the definitive works of reference.

Richard;s style is immensely readable and this is a book that you can open at any of the 356 pages and find a fascinating story about any aspect of Variety you care to mention. Every chapter is backed up with notes identifying the source of the information, the bibliography runs to six pages and there is a thoroughly comprehensive index.

"They'll Never Be Another" Issue 2 Vol 13

This is a subject that is finally beginning to excite a degree of scholarly activity and Baker’s extensive research, although not his interpretation of the evidence, should inspire a more rigorous revaluation of this influential popular entertainment.

Theatre Notebook, Vol 66, 2012

About Richard Baker

During 30 years at the BBC, Richard Anthony Baker wrote and presented music hall and variety programmes for Radios Two and Three. For Radio Five Live, he devised the world’s first obituaries programme, Brief Lives, producing its first 300 editions. In 1990, he published a slim biography of Marie Lloyd to be followed in 2005 by a definitive history of music hall, British Music Hall: an Illustrated History. He contributes regularly to The Stage and the British Music Hall Society’s magazine, The Call Boy.

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