Even Uglier

Terry Eagleton

  • My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall by John Major
    Harper, 363 pp, £20.00, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 00 745013 8

It was the 19th-century Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell who first turned politics into mass entertainment. His so-called Monster Meetings were carnivals as much as demonstrations, and mark the beginning of mass politics in the modern age. When he wasn’t haranguing thousands of small farmers about Catholic emancipation or the repeal of the Union, O’Connell practised as a barrister, the most theatrical of the professions. Tony Blair was also a barrister, his wife is the barrister daughter of an actor, and Blair’s headmaster at Fettes remembered him as a consummate performer. Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father, was said to have an ‘almost music-hall style of speaking’, while his son greatly admired the music-hall comic Dan Leno and would sing his songs with what this book enigmatically describes as ‘teddy bear gestures’.

Harold Macmillan could do a superb impersonation of the languid patrician he actually was, while Harold Wilson could imitate his true identity as a bluff, plain-speaking Yorkshireman to perfection. David Cameron once worked for a public relations agency and looks as though he was assembled by one. From Reagan to Schwarzenegger, the line between politics and performance has become increasingly blurred: during the US presidential debates, a soi-disant scientist appeared on television to reveal the layout of Mitt Romney’s facial muscles and their complex interactions as he spoke, all the way down to the contraction of his eyebrows.

In one sense, then, the fact that John Major’s father spent thirty years in music hall isn’t surprising. In another sense, it is as astounding as it would be to learn that Sir Peter Tapsell began his career as a plumber’s mate. ‘Whatever gifts my parents passed on to their children,’ Major remarks in My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall, ‘the talent to entertain was not among them,’ which must be one of the understatements of the decade. The title ‘Prime Minister of Mirth’ was awarded not to Major but to the music-hall comic George Robey, with his red nose and half-moon eyebrows. The two men have little in common beyond their right-wing views. It is true that many actors spring to life only when they step on stage. Yet one could be forgiven for thinking that even a couple of chartered accountants would be too emotionally extravagant to produce a man like Major. (There are photos of his father, Tom, looking like a cross between George Formby and Norman Wisdom, in the book.) What his parents did bequeath him, however, was a consuming interest in popular entertainment, which this lucid, erudite study distils to excellent effect.

An impressive amount of research underpins the volume, though Major conceals his sources with the zeal of an investigative journalist, supplying not a single reference. He is well informed about the prehistory of music hall, which had its origins in pleasure gardens, music houses, catch clubs, glee clubs, supper rooms, variety rooms, free-and-easies and penny gaffs (or tatty shops). The first purpose-built music hall opened in Lambeth in 1852 in a squalid pub said to have been frequented by Burbage, Jonson and Shakespeare, and the institution, which had its heart across the river in the East End of London and soon spread throughout the provinces, reached its zenith in the 1890s. The respectable Victorian entrepreneurs who ran the theatres, Major remarks, were not in show business but in business, bringing pub, choral society, restaurant, theatre, comedy venue and betting shop under one roof to reap a sizeable profit. Their highly paid stars, some of whom might play three or four halls in a single evening, were a far cry from the eccentric German entertainer Herr von Joel, who in the interlude between the decline of the pleasure garden and the rise of music hall made his money by jumping out at people from behind bushes in London parks. It was not the most lucrative way of earning a living. Von Joel was no match for Little Tich, who at his peak was pulling in £400 a night. The celebrated Scottish comedian Harry Lauder, who began his career in a rope factory, was at one point the highest-paid performer in the world, commanding $5000 a week on one tour of the United States. Some of his wealth stemmed from his legendary meanness. He once presented a doorman with a signed photograph of himself in place of a tip.

A career in music hall seems almost to have guaranteed a short, turbulent life. Major’s family, who lived for a while in two rented rooms in Brixton, struggled with debt, bankruptcy, failing health and the loss of their home. Bessie Bellwood, who began as a rabbit skinner in Bermondsey, rose to fame as a blowsy, loud-mouthed, proudly proletarian singer, had numerous affairs with aristocrats and narrowly avoided debtors’ prison. She died of heart disease at the age of 39. Vesta Victoria, who started as a clog dancer and made her name with the song ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow’, took to drink and frittered away most of her fortune. Lottie Collins, who accompanied her trademark song ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’ with a flurry of provocative high kicking, died at 44 after 18 years of non-stop erotic athleticism. (Collins’s song was also a hit at the Moulin Rouge, quaintly translated as ‘Tha-ma-ra Boom-di-hé’.) Dan Leno, whom Chaplin called the greatest comedian since Grimaldi, died exhausted, alcoholic and insane, while Marie Lloyd took to the bottle and died at the age of 52, broken by stress, overwork and a series of profligate lovers.

Mark Sheridan, who shot to fame with ‘I Do Like to Be beside the Seaside’ and ‘Who Were You with Last Night?’, sank into depression and shot himself. T.E. Dunville, having overheard someone in the audience say he was a fallen star, drowned himself in the Thames. Jules Leotard, whose name lives on only in the form of his costume, died of smallpox at the age of 28. Houdini, whom Tom Major knew and admired, died at 52, having been punched by a member of the audience before he had time to brace his body. Major writes that one formerly popular performer slipped progressively down the bill and died at 70 after a season at Blackpool, though it’s unclear whether a causal relation between the last two facts is intended. If Vesta Tilley stands out in this roll-call of drunks, coronary cases and serial philanderers, it is because she died at the age of 89, untainted by the slightest breath of scandal. Having started out as an impoverished 11-year-old impersonator of men, she became the wife of the Tory MP Sir Walter de Frece, hobnobbed with high society, amassed a huge fortune and retired to Monte Carlo. Kitty Grant, the music-hall and real-life partner of Major’s father, was not so lucky: she was struck on stage by a falling steel girder and sustained fatal brain damage.

Music hall was nothing if not diverse. As well as singers and comedians, some of them blacked-up, there were cheeky Cockney chappies, a mind-reading duck, dancing Quakers, Daisy Squelch and her Big Brass Six and a motley crew of salamanders (fire-eaters), siffleurs (whistlers), dentalists (acrobats who hung by their teeth), water spouters (who could spout water from their anuses) and fartistes, who could blow out candles with their farts and release subtly cadenced bursts of music from their rear ends. Such ribaldry was much in vogue. The song ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow’, as the audiences would have understood from Vesta Victoria’s lewd gestures, is really about how the singer enjoys masturbation (‘I’ve got a little cat, and I’m very fond of that’), but would prefer sexual intercourse. ‘I haven’t had it up for ages,’ Marie Lloyd would complain to the audience, unfolding her umbrella. One impresario observed that she could have made the 23rd Psalm sound indecent. ‘Do you want to see our pussies?’ the Barrison sisters, dressed as little girls, used to cry, and raised their skirts to reveal kittens cradled in pouches in their groins.

Even so, music hall was an intriguing mix of high and popular culture. A typical evening’s fare might include opera and ballet alongside animal acts and nigger minstrels. Popular arias by Verdi and other composers became a regular part of the entertainment. On one music-hall stage, George Robey, Harry Lauder, Dan Leno and Vesta Tilley rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sir Henry Wood, Sarah Bernhardt and the Ballets Russes. Dickens was fascinated by the performing style of Charles Mathews, a blacked-up minstrel, and put it to use in his own public readings, though without the burned cork. T.S. Eliot revered Marie Lloyd, and the present queen’s grandmother, the hatchet-faced Queen Mary, was an improbable fan of Albert Chevalier’s East End knees-up ‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road’. Walter Sickert was obsessed with music hall, and Rudyard Kipling modelled some of his ‘Barrack-Room Ballads’ on the songs he heard there. Bransby Williams delivered monologues from Shakespeare, Fielding and Dickens and bridged the gap between music hall and legitimate theatre by impersonating various leading actors of the day. To consummate this marriage of high and low, he would sometimes impersonate George Formby, one of the biggest music-hall acts in the country, playing Hamlet.

Other members of the intelligentsia were less impressed. ‘The aim of the music hall,’ Max Beerbohm wrote, ‘is to cheer up the lower classes by showing them a life uglier and more sordid than their own.’ The theatre critic William Archer described it as displaying ‘elaborate ugliness, blatant vulgarity, alcoholic humour and rancid sentiment’. Its songs, he declared, would not survive. As a child, I heard a few music-hall numbers at the Salford Palace (an oxymoron if ever there was one), and like many people of my age I can still recall them. Dan Leno, Major points out, influenced Max Miller, Al Read, Les Dawson, Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd. Other heirs to the halls were Gracie Fields, George Formby Jr, the Crazy Gang, Tommy Trinder, Max Wall, Vera Lynn, Ken Dodd and Bruce Forsyth. Shirley Bassey’s ‘suggestive lyrics and sassy self-confidence’, Major believes, are a direct legacy of Marie Lloyd and Bessie Bellwood.

Music hall may have started out raucous, but it gradually became more refined. The early theatres presented young women dressed only in flesh-coloured body stockings and one venue had to close when Wiry Sal danced the cancan with an enthusiasm deemed excessive by London County Council. Music halls offered easy pickings for rent boys and prostitutes and were denounced by the National Vigilance Association, led by the splendidly named Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant. By the turn of the century, however, most venues were owned by a few reputable entrepreneurs, women were admitted to the audience, and a general air of respectability settled on the shows. Some were already glancing nostalgically back to a golden age of unmitigated sleaze. The leading music-hall company, Moss Empires, opened theatres with fabulously opulent interiors and vast auditoriums capable of holding thousands. By the time Edward Moss died in 1912, suitably knighted, music hall had, in Major’s words, ‘completed its journey from backroom tavern to sumptuous palace, from working class to middle class, from foundry, pit and dock to drawing room, salon and theatre’. Not many former Tory leaders can produce chunks of sociology like that. Margaret Thatcher might have found it politically unsound.

There are ideological reasons why Major’s music-hall background is less improbable than it seems. It was, after all, a deeply conservative institution. As he puts it, it was ‘sentimental, vulgar, class-conscious, insular – but always patriotic, and on the side of the underdog’. Perhaps those last two loyalties are less mutually compatible than he thinks. Music hall took root in a period when there was a real fear of revolution and, as Major writes, ‘helped to turn sour resentment into a patriotic roar of joy’. Who cared about overthrowing the state when you could catch a glimpse of Lottie Collins’s knickers? Tom Major’s real name was Ball, ‘Major’ being his stage name; as his son wryly notes, he would have been born John Ball, and shared a name with one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt, were it not for this extraordinary cultural form.

In a time-honoured English tradition, music hall combined deference and debunkery. One of its genres was the ‘swell’ song, performed by theatrical peacocks who swaggered around the stage in monocles and spats. ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ and ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ are among the few examples that have survived. Yet the swell song envied toffs as well as sending them up. In this sense, it reflected the divided political sensibility of Fin-de-Siècle popular culture, torn between a contempt for chinless wonders and a desire to outdo them in pulling high-born women and swigging champagne. Class animus was everywhere in these theatres, but it was for the most part harmlessly defused. It is in the nature of carnival to allow the common people to vent their frustrations in a monstrous spasm of satire before putting their shoulders to the wheel the following morning.

George Robey, a social elitist who was firmly on the political right, was called ‘a toffee-nosed twat’ by a fellow comic. Yet if the late Victorian age was the heyday of jingoism and imperialism, it also saw the rise of labour militancy; and that spirit of revolt had a friend on the music-hall stage in the shape of Marie Lloyd, the true heroine of the institution. One of nine children of a Hoxton artificial flower-maker, Lloyd made her professional debut in 1885 at the age of 15, just as music hall was on the brink of mass popularity. With her roguish ringlets, fetchingly prominent front teeth, formidably powerful voice and impeccable phrasing, she was regarded by her adoring working-class audiences as one of their kind. One of her best-loved songs, ‘My Old Man (Said Follow the Van)’, conceals a bitter tale of eviction beneath its jaunty rhythms. Her act became more saucy as her reputation grew, not least because of her trick of larding apparently innocuous lyrics with outrageous double entendres. The Bournemouth Town Corporation banned her performance as ‘not consistent with the dignity of the corporation’, while the manager of the Norwich Hippodrome was eager to remind her that she was in a cathedral city. After receiving a vicious review in the Vancouver Sun while on tour, she was said to have horsewhipped the editor.

Lloyd had a reputation for generosity to those in need, and championed the cause of underpaid performers. When a strike broke out in the music-hall business in 1907, she became one of its leaders, alienating theatre owners and impresarios and so spurring them to seek revenge by banning her from a royal command performance. Keir Hardie and the dockers’ leader Ben Tillett lent the strikers their support, and Lloyd kept up her comrades’ spirits by singing to them on the picket line. When war arrived in 1914, she was tireless in entertaining the troops, plied them with drink and cigarettes and paid for outings out of her own pocket. Stout, bald and arthritic, with her private life in its customary mess, she collapsed on stage in 1922 and died of suspected stomach cancer three days later. Tens of thousands lined the route of her funeral cortège.

Music hall didn’t long survive the First World War. It collapsed in the face of radio, cinema, football, variety shows and recorded music. One of its finest achievements, as Major notes more than once, was the intimately dialogic relationship it fashioned between performers and audiences, which was absent from most of the cultural forms that followed in its wake. With radio and recorded music, popular oral culture was for the first time taking on the non-reciprocal nature of reading. In this sense, the pop or rock concert reinvented what threatened to be lost with the decline of the music halls. Legitimate theatre has always been a compromise in this respect, as actors are alert to the reactions of their audiences while pretending they are not there.

My Old Man has its embarrassing moments. Major speaks toe-curlingly of his father as a man ‘with a song in his heart and joy in his soul’, and observes of music-hall performers that ‘the glad hand proffered to the multitude often hid a lonely soul.’ This may well be true, but as Tom Major might have remarked, it’s the way you tell them. Despite these lapses, the book signally fails to confirm what many must suspect on glancing at the cover – that, like the dog walking on its hind legs, it is not done well but surprising in being done at all. On the contrary, this learned, affectionate narrative is done very well indeed, and the old man has cause to be proud of his old son.