Last night, under pressure from a matriarchal mother, my entire family (about 15 of us) were 'treated' to tickets for an Olde Time Musical Hall evening at my local theatre. For our colonial cousins, this is in effect a Victorian evening of mixed entertainment - singing, comedy, monologues, more singing, sketches, can-can girls, ventriloquism, magic, yet more songs, a strong man, even more songs, all in Victorian style and dress, with gas lamp lighting and roughly hewn and painted sets and drops. You are encouraged - nay, it is demanded of you - to boo the villains and cheer the heroes in the sketches and sing along with an interminable number of cockney songs that have rhyming slang in them ('apples and pears' for stairs, 'plates of meat' for feet, 'X Factor' for crap actor, that sort of thing).
"It's tradition that everyone dresses Victorian, " said my mother.
With a due sense of exhaustion and dread I found a 1900's policeman's uniform and trimed my beard into handlebars (if you feel this last is going over the top for an evening I wasn't even remotely looking forward to, you don't know my mother. When angered she has been known to bite the heads off rabid tigers. And if you tell me that there aren't any tigers with rabies, you now know why.)
My wife, after much coercion, bribery (don't ask) and jewellery wore a long dress and long-sleeved blouse. She drew the line at the hat but then, frankly, it did look like a wicker basket with a three-week old dead hen in it, so I let her off so long as she took her hair up. More jewellery. They don't call her Credit Card Cressida for nothing. In fact, they don't call her that at all, and her name is Julie, but somehow you just feel they should do so.
My children dressed as street urchin chimney sweeps; ragged clothes, dirty faces and tatty shoes. In short, what is known in the UK as 'school uniform'.
I decided to get to the theatre early and sneak into the Green Room where there was just a chance that anyone who knew me might confuse us with cast (I act there from time to time, the frequency dictated by how bad I was in the previous show and the memory of the directors - so I've only acted there once, actually).
My brother arrived. He looked like WC Fields on a bad day, but then he normally does. His girlfriend was wearing something that looked vaguely like an 1880's streetwalker's outfit (you've seen them on any Jack the Ripper film - I think she got this one from a post-ripping party) and their son... well, Oliver Hardy is all I can say. And he's been dead for fifty years.
My father, to be fair, wore an immaculate Cavalry Officer's dress uniform. Wish he hadn't brought the horse, but you can't have everything.
In the half hour before we went into the theatre I managed to down four pints of perspective, and so felt slightly less uncomfortable when the three bells rang. I asked not for whom the bell tolled, but drained my glass.
I opened the door in my policeman's uniform, Strange place to keep a door, but it's my way.
We passed from the Green Room to the auditorium.
To find that we were the only party who had dressed.
You just knew it was coming, didn't you?
Wish I had.
And we were in the front row, so I had to suffer an interminable collection of comments about my 'big helmet' as we went to sit down.
The performance started at 7.45 and finished at 11. The first paragraph gives an accurate indication of the content.We were told we had to do all the embarrassing things on the list - sing the songs, link arms with our neighbours, whistle for the can-can girls, hiss the baddy, cheer the goody and laugh at the truly awful gags of the act link-man comedian.
I had four streetwise kids with me - my two daughters 14 and 16, and their boyfriends - for whom anything older than my newest pair of pants is dated, boring and tedious, and whose general idea of entertainment revolves around some sort of tv/pc/gameboy screen. And a wife who just wanted to be back home scanning the necklace pages of the Harrods internet.
We've rarely laughed so much in our whole lives, ever.
Fifteen in your family sounds like an old time Victorian family.
Great! This made me laugh.
When I was very young [this was a long time ago]; I supplemented my university grant [grant- note, not loan- I told you this was long long ago] by working nights at
The Lyceum in The Strand, London, at that time still a Mecca Ballroom.
But, twice each week it became old time Music Hall- and I was promoted to ASM.
This involved making sure that the band got the right music for each artiste and that the acts got their meals and were sober enough to go on.
The highlight of my time there was Julie Fisher. She was a young "male impersonator". She started her act with Burlington Bertie in top hat and tails and then changed into uniform. It was my job to go onto the stage and help her change.
I became part of the act.
I should add that amazingly, they paid me to do this.
It was fun while it lasted.
And once anyone has been on stage, well, you are hooked.
Oh, the strangest act was a comic, George Williams. He was permanently drunk and it was touch and go whether or not he got through his act without falling over.
He died a couple of years ago and to my surprise had a quarter page obit in the London Times.
It seems he was a big big star in the ninety forties and was hired to front the first TV variety show after the war.
His TV career never happened.
He was caught in a park with a young (male) soldier and in those days it was a crime.
On his release from prison, it was years before anyone would book him.
No wonder he drank.
Anyone seen it? I am taking a course now on USA and The Middle East for the last 100 years. It fits right in.
Also, I just watched Alfred Hitchcock's "39 Steps" the other night for about the jilliointh time just because I always have found it a great movie. So lean. A tension-filled drama of the era that holds up so well today. A little British Music Hall in that one, too.