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The Story of Variety, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The Story of Variety, BBC Four

The Story of Variety, BBC Four

Michael Grade's funny but poignant documentary about the bygone art form

For those whose only knowledge of the form is the Royal Variety Performance, this programme (part of BBC Four’s variety season) gave a nice, if all too brief, overview. The first of a two-parter was presented by Michael Grade, whose family is variety royalty - generations of Grades were performers and agents, and latterly television executives.

Grade is not a natural TV performer but knew to keep his pieces to camera to a minimum (clearly a memo that failed to reach Alan Yentob’s desk) and instead was happy to listen to the anecdotes - and joyfully there were lots of them. Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd, Val Doonican, Mike Winters and Doreen Wise (the former dancer who is Ernie Wise’s widow) reminisced, alongside people such as Maurice Sellar, performer and agent, and agent Peter Pritchard.

It was a treat to hear these old troupers’ stories, but Grade wasn’t fronting a reminiscence hour - this well-researched programme, which I suspect had hours of extraneous material, charted variety’s success and explained its demise. After variety’s post-war heyday, with two shows a night at hundreds of theatres across the country, the advent of rock‘n’roll music did for this family-friendly entertainment. Turns spinning plates, unfurling flags or telling decades-old jokes simply couldn’t compete with sexy young singers gyrating their hips.

Various old troupers and agents explained variety’s hierarchy; Moss Empire theatres, including the London Palladium and the Hackney Empire, were top of the tree, while the long-defunct music hall at Ashton under Lyme, a number-four theatre, had rats in the dressing rooms.The size of a performer’s lettering on a bill, meanwhile, determined how big their dressing room was; when Bruce Forsyth was bottom of the bill at the start of his career he was given a changing room with the collies from a performing-dogs act.

Talking of animals, several people recalled Karimba, who “charmed” snakes and crocodiles - “She used to drug them, of course,” said a stage manager, laughing heartily at the memory - and some of the speciality acts recalled were simply bizarre. One involved a man coming on stage with a bull and asking the audience to guess its age.

It was estimated that acts could tour the British Isles for 18 months non-stop and appear at a different theatre each week. But there was one - the Glasgow Empire - that even Max Miller, the greatest variety comic of all time, would baulk at. When his agent offered him a booking there Miller replied, "I'm a comedian, not a missionary," while Ken Dodd recalled the instruction he was given by the stage manager before going on. "No football gags - we need the seats." A young Des O'Connor even pretended to faint rather than continue being barracked by the notoriously aggressive crowd.

‘Roy Hudd recalled one digs where the landlady served up baked beans on toast for his supper every night’

The funniest stories were about theatrical digs, where landladies were notoriously mean and snobbish. “Once-nightly” acts - actors in plays - were treated to tablecloths and cruets in the dining room while “twice-nightly” variety performers had to make do. But performers would make their mark; anything signed off with “quoth the raven” (nobody knew why this phrase was used) in visitors’ books meant “this is a shithole”, and Roy Hudd recalled one digs where the landlady served up baked beans on toast for his supper every night, generously throwing in a chipolata sausage on Christmas Eve.

Despite the laughs, this was a sad programme in many ways. When variety theatres closed many of the several thousand variety acts in the UK had no homes to go to - they had lived in digs all their lives - while some of Britain’s most beautiful theatres became homes to seedy nude shows or bingo halls or, worse, were knocked down.

  • Watch The Story of Variety on BBC iPlayer
  • The Story of Variety continues on BBC Four on 7 March

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Comments

''Quoth the Raven '' goes on ''Never more '' as written by Edgar Allen Poe . Its first use is attributed to George Robey. Other damning comments to land ladies were '' Thanks Mrs G you have done us proud '' and '' Multi kateeva Letti '' = '' Bloody awful digs '' often taken as a compliment as presumed being written in Latin

Great programme my only comment on the review is that the artist mentoined as Karimba is actually Koringa - the only female Fakir and mesmerist who worked with Bertram Mills Circus in the 1930s and other companies until the 1950s. For anyone interested in the variety history we have much material at the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield including 2000 posters from the 1880s onwards

Loved the show,Hope they will show Morton fraser harmonica gang in next program.I was lead harmonicaist All through the sixties Greatest time of my life.Ron Eadie

My grandfather was Archie Glen the comedian mentioned on this programme i would be most grateful if anyone could give me more information about him. Many Thanks Anne

Anne Archie Glen was my grandfather´s brother. I have started to do some research into the family. Do you want to get in touch? Pat

Hi Pat Put original message on in 2011 and didn't check back I now see you have posted and would be most grateful for any information you have Many thanks Anne

Hi Anne Like you, I came back to this page after quite a while as I have just picked up doing some family history again. If you'd like to get in contact my email is pat.laing@gmx.com. I hope you get this message.

Correct email address Pat

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