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Music Hall Morality

G. Durand, ‘Saturday night at the Victoria Theatre’, The Graphic, 26 October 1872

Source: James Greenwood, ‘Music Hall Morality’, London Society, vol. XIV, December 1868, pp. 486-491

Text: Twenty years ago amusement for the people was at low-water mark. Railways were less numerous and extensive, and railway directors had not yet thought of working the profitable field suggested by the little word ‘excursion.’ ‘Eight hours by the seaside,’ to be compassed comfortably within a holiday of a single summer’s day was a miracle scarcely even dreamt of by the most sanguine progressionist. Thousands and tens of thousands of London-born men and women lived and laboured through a long life-time, and never saw the sea at all. Sheerness, twenty years ago, was the working man’s seaside; and his knowledge of sea sand was confined to as much of it as was unpleasantly discovered lurking within the shells of the plate of winkles served up at his shilling tea at Gravesend. Even the green country ‘far removed from noise and smoke,’ was, if not a sealed book to him, at least a volume placed on so high a shelf that, after some experience, he was driven to the conclusion that the pains and penalties attending a climb for it were scarcely compensated by success and temporary possession of the prize. The only conveyance at his service—and that only on recognized holiday occasions—was the greengrocer’s van, newly painted and decorated for the event, and in which a mixed company of the sexes crowded, and were dragged along the hot and dusty road at the rate of five miles an hour, towards Hampton Court or Epping Forest, there to huddle on the grass, and partake of a collation that, but for its four hours’ grilling on the van roof under a blazing sun, would have been cold, with flask liquor or luke-warm beer out of a stone jar as liquid accompaniments. Twenty years ago a Crystal Palace had existence nowhere but within the cover of that book of wonders, the ‘Arabian Nights’ Entertainments,’ and the soil out of which the museum at South Kensington has sprung was devoted to the growth of cabbages.

In that dark age, however, it is questionable if the inconveniences enumerated were regarded as such. The people knew no better. The Jack of the past generation was a Jack-of-all-work, according to the strictest interpretation of that term. So seldom did he indulge in a holiday that he went at it as a teetotaller broke loose goes at hard drinking, and it unsettled him for a week afterwards. His play-time imposed on him more real hard labour than his accustomed jog-trot worktime, and he was an unhappy, despondent man until his excited nerves grew calm, and the tingling of his blood subsided. Such were the alarming effects on him that it seemed a happy dispensation that Whitsun and Easter came each but once a year.

As a man who earned his bread by the sweat of his brow, and who consequently was in a violent condition of perspiration during twelve hours in each twenty-four, it is scarcely likely that the question of evening amusement would much trouble the working man of that period. Jaded and weary, he was by necessity a hearth and homeloving man. He had neither the pluck nor the inclination to be anything else. The evening saw him plodding homeward, and all his desire was to remove his heavy boots from his tired feet, and engage with all speed in the demolition of his tea-supper, after which there was nothing for it but for him to drag his chair to the chimney-corner, and there sit and smoke or doze till bedtime. If he were inclined for an hour or so of away-from-home recreation, where could he find it? There were the theatres; but he so rarely went to such places that ‘going to the play’ was an event not to be treated in an off-hand manner, or to be decided on without due deliberation. Besides, it was a dear treat. Supposing that he went into the pit (he would take the ‘missus’ of course), there would go two shillings, and at least another one for a drop of something to take in and a mouthful of something to eat, and three shillings is a large sum. Being a Briton and a loyal man, and as such recognizing ‘the social glass and the cheerful song’ as chief among the supporting pillars of the Constitution, he would very willingly have contributed his share towards it; but where, as a sober and proper person, was his opportunity? Truly, he might drink long life and prosperity to the Queen, and confusion to her enemies, as he sat at home over the pint of beer fetched from the public-house; but amidst the distracting influences of domesticity how much of heartiness would there be in the patriotic sentiment? He might, as he sat with his feet on the home fender-bar, raise his voice harmonically in praise of his wife and ‘the troop of little children at his knee,’ or of ‘Tom Bowling,’ or ‘Old John Barleycorn;’ but he would grow weary in less than a week of such pastime, under repeated reminders that the baby was asleep, or that his fellow-lodgers were complaining. Even twenty years ago there were ‘concert rooms’ where ‘professional talent’ was engaged, and where sixpence was charged for admission; but, as a rule, these were dirty, low, disreputable dens, where liquor little better than poison was sold, and where the company consisted chiefly of the riff-raff of the town, both male and female. He had neither the means nor the inclination to resort to a place of this description. All, then, that was left to him was the tavern parlour ‘sing-song,’ or free-and-easy, usually celebrated on Mondays and Saturdays, these being the times when he was most likely to have a shilling in his pocket. But what amount of satisfaction was to be got out of it? Excepting for the inordinate quantity of malt or spirituous liquors the working man felt bound to imbibe for the good of the house, the ‘free-and-easy’ was as tame as tame could be. The same individual—the landlord—occupied the chair invariably; the same men sang the same songs (it would have been regarded as a most unwarrantable liberty if Jones had attempted to render a ditty known as Wilkins’s); the same jokes were exchanged; the same toasts and sentiments found utterance. It was not enjoyment at all that occupied the company, but a good-natured spirit of forbearance and toleration. Scarcely a man in the room came to hear singing, but to be heard singing. This was the weakness that drew the members of the ‘ free-and-easy’ together, and every man, out of tender consideration for his own affliction, was disposed to treat an exhibition of the prevalent malady on the part of a neighbour with kindly sympathy. But the morning’s reflection ensuing on such an evening’s amusement never failed to disclose the dismal fact that there was ‘nothing in it’—nothing, that is, but headache and remorse for money wasted.

Of late years, however, the state of the British handicraftsman has undergone an extraordinary change. He is not the same fellow he used to be. He has cast aside the ancient mantle of unquestioning drudgery that so long hung about his drooping shoulders. He has straightened his neck to look about him, a process which has elevated his view of matters generally at least three inches (and that is a good deal in the case of a man whose nose from boyhood has been kept at the grindstone, and whose vision has been always at a bare level with the top of that useful machine). It was no more than natural that’ work’ being the theme that had so long occupied his attention, he should, having satisfactorily settled that matter, turn to its direct antithesis, ‘play,’ and make a few inquiries as to what amendment were possible in that direction. It became evident to him that this portion of the social machine, no less than the other, was out of order. It appeared all right from a superficial view; but when you came closely to examine it there were loose screws in every direction, and many of the main wheels were so clogged with objectionable matter, that no decent man could safely approach it. This was serious. The reformed handicraftsman had leisure now, and considerably more money than in the old time. Offer him a fair evening’s amusement, and he would pay his shilling for it cheerfully But, mind you, it must be fit and proper amusement, and such as chimed harmoniously with his newly-developed convictions of his respectability and intellectual importance. But, looking to the right and to the left of him, he failed to discover what ho sought; and probably he would to this very day have been vainly inquiring which way he should turn, had it not been for certain enterprising and philanthropic persons, who, ascertaining his need, generously undertook the task of providing for it.

The arguments used by the disinterested gentlemen in question showed beyond a doubt that they thoroughly understood the matter. ‘What you want,’ said they to the working man, ‘is something very different from that which now exists. You like good music, you have an affectionate regard for the drama; but if at the present time you would taste of one or the other you are compelled to do so under restrictions that are irksome. The theatre is open to you, but you cannot do as you like in a theatre. You must conform to certain rules and regulations, and, in a manner of speaking, are made to “toe the mark.” If you want a glass of beer—and what is more natural than that you should?—you can’t get it. What you can get for your sixpence is half a pint and a gill of flat or sour stuff in a black bottle, and to obtain even this luxury you must creep noiselessly to the shabby little refreshment-room and drink it there and creep back again to your seat in the pit as though you had been guilty of something you should be ashamed of. You would like a pipe or a cigar; you are used to smoking of evenings, and deprivation from the harmless indulgence disagrees with you. No matter; you must not smoke within the walls of a theatre; if you attempted it the constable would seize you and never loose his hold on your collar till he had landed you on the outer pavement.

‘Now what you require, and what you shall have, is a happy blending of the theatre and the opera house and the highly-respectable tavern parlour, a place the atmosphere of which shall be so strictly moral that the finest-bred lady in the land may breathe it without danger, and at the same time a place where a gentleman accompanying a lady may take his sober and soothing glass of grog or tankard of ale and smoke his cigar as innocently and peacefully as though he sat by his own fireside at home. We will have music both vocal and instrumental, the grand singing of the great Italian masters, ballad-singing, touching and pathetic, and funny singing that shall promote harmless mirth while it not in the least offends the most prudish ear. We will have operas; we will have ballets. Should the public voice sanction it occasionally we will have chaste acrobatic performances and feats of tumbling and jugglery; but in this last-mentioned matter we are quite in the hands of our patrons. Enjoyment pure and simple is our motto and by it we will stand or fall.’

This, in substance, was the prospectus of the first music hall established in London, and the public expressed its approval. How the fair promises of the original promoters of the scheme were redeemed we will not discuss. Undertakings of such magnitude are sure to work uneasily at the first. It will be fairer to regard the tree of twenty years’ growth with its twenty noble branches flourishing in full foliage and melodious with the songs of the many songsters that harbour there. We cannot listen to them all at once, however sweet though the music be. Let us devote an hour to one of the said branches. Which one does not in the least matter, since no one set of songsters are confined to a branch. They fly about from one to another, and may sometimes be heard—especially the fanny ones—on as many as four different boughs in the course of a single evening. Simply because it is the nearest let us take the Oxbridge, one of the most famous music halls in London, and nightly crowded.

Either we are in luck or else the talent attached to the Oxbridge is something prodigious. Almost every vocal celebrity whose name has blazoned on the advertising hoardings during the season is here tonight—the Immense Vamp, the Prodigious Fodgers, the Stupendous Smuttyman, the Tremendous Titmouse, together with ‘Funny’ Freddys, and ‘Jolly’ Joeys, and ‘Side-splitting’ Sammys by the half-dozen. Some of these leviathans of song were authors of what they sang, as, for instance, the Prodigious Podgers, who had recently made such a great sensation with his ‘Lively Cats’-meat Man.’ As I entered the splendid portals of the Oxbridge the natty ‘turn-out’ of Podgers, consisting of three piebald ponies in silver harness and a phaeton that must have cost a hundred and fifty guineas at least, was there in waiting, ready to whirl the popular Podgers to the Axminster as soon as the Oxbridge could possibly spare him.

The Oxbridge, as usual, was crowded, the body of the hall, the sixpenny part, by working men and their wives, with a sprinkling of ‘jolly dogs’ and budding beardless puppies of the same breed, whose pride and delight it is to emulate their elders. As regards the audience this is the worst that may be said of the body of the hall. It was plain at a glance to perceive that the bulk of the people there were mostly people not accustomed to music halls, and only induced to pay them a visit on account of the highly-respectable character the music halls are in the habit of giving themselves in their placards and in the newspapers. In the stalls and the more expensive parts of the house, and before the extensive drinking bar, matters were very different. Here were congregated selections from almost every species of vice, both male and female, rampant in London. Here was the Brummagem ‘swell’ with his Houndsditch jewellery and his Whitechapel gentility, and the well-dressed blackguard with a pound to spend, and the poor, weak-minded wretch of the ‘Champagne Charlie’ school, and the professional prowler hovering about him with the full intent of plucking him if he finds the chance. As for the females of this delightful clique, it is sufficient to say that they plied their trade without the least attempt at concealment. And why should they not? who is to check them? Not the proprietor of the Oxbridge. It is a fact that he admits them without charge, seeing his interest therein. What else should take Champagne Charlie to the Oxbridge, and the host of ‘swells’ who order neat little suppers and recklessly fling down their sovereigns to pay for wine that in sufficient quantity would sicken a hog? Of what use is ‘the body of the hall’ to the proprietor? How far do paltry sixpences go towards paying Podgers his three guineas a night? What profit is there on the price charged Bill Stubbs for his pint of stout? Not but that the frequenters of the sixpenny part are very useful; indeed, to speak truth, the Oxbridge could not get on well without them. They keep up appearances, and present a substantial contradiction to the accusation that the music hall is nothing better than a haunt for drunkenness and debauchery.

‘But surely,’ the reader may exclaim, ‘unless the company for whom the music hall was originally designed found the worth of their money they would cease to patronise the place. They go for the purpose of hearing songs adapted to their taste and they are not disappointed.’ I am loth to say as much in the face of the Popular Podgers and the Immense Vamp, but I should be vastly surprised if the only element of respectability frequenting the Oxbridge was not only disappointed but shocked and disgusted, and that very often. I cannot explain why, after being shocked, they should make a second attempt, except that they are lured to ‘try again,’ and that folks of not over sensitive mind grow used to shocks. If these music hall songs were really written for the respectable portion of the auditory there would not be the least occasion why they should be composed almost entirely of indecency and drivel; but the fact is these are the persons whose tastes are not at all studied in preparing the evening bill of fare. The individuals the song-writer writes up to and the singer sings up to are the heedless, and abandoned, and disreputable ones who have money to squander. The proprietor knows his customers. Where would be the use of setting before a tipsy ‘swell’ (unless indeed he had arrived at the maudlin, in which condition he is profitable to no one) a wholesome, simple ballad? He would howl it down before the first verse was accomplished. He must have something to chime with the idiotic tone of his mind, no matter how low, how vulgar, or how defiant of propriety, and he can obtain it at the music hall. The Immense Vamp is his obedient servant, as is the Prodigious Podgers and the Tremendous Titmouse—even the ‘P— of W—’s Own Comique.’ Any one would think, and not unreasonably, when he sees year in and year out flaming announcements of the engagements here and there of these gentry, that there must be something in them; that, however peculiar their talent, it is such as recommends itself to something more than the passing admiration of those who witness it; but it is nothing of the kind. Take any half-dozen of the most popular of our ‘comic singers’ and set them singing four of their most favourite songs each, and I will warrant that twenty out of the full number will consist of the utterest trash it is possible to conceive. It would not so much matter if the trade were harmless—not unfrequently it is most pernicious. Take a batch of these precious productions, and you will find the one theme constantly harped on: it is all about a ‘young chap’ and a ‘young gal,’ or an ‘old chap’ and an ‘old gal’ and their exploits, more or less indecent. A prolific subject with these ‘great’ artists is the spooney courtship of a young man who is induced to accompany the object of his affections to her abode, and when there gets robbed and ill-used. As the Immense Vamp sings—

‘I was going to go when in come a feller
And he smashed my hat with his umbrella
And blacked my eye, and didn’t I bellow.’

But this peculiar line Vamp makes his own, and it is not to be wondered at that he shines therein before all others. Popular Podgers has a vein of his own, and how profitable the working of it is let the piebald ponies and the silver-mounted phaeton attest. He goes in for vocal exemplifications of low life—the lowest of all. His rendering of a Whitechapel ruffian, half costermonger half thief, filled the Oxbridge nightly for more than a month. You may see Podgers arrayed in the ruffian’s rags portrayed on a music-sheet in the windows of the music-shops, and underneath is inscribed the chorus of this wonderful song:—

‘I’m a Chickaleary Bloke with my one, two, three,
Whitechapel is the village I was born in,
To ketch me on the hop, or on my tibby drop,
You must get up very early in the morning.’

But inasmuch as the effusions of Podgers are as a rule unintelligible except to the possessors of a slang dictionary, he is less obnoxious than others of his brethren. What these productions are need be no more than hinted to ears polite. The mischief is that the ten thousand ears unpolite are opened for the reception of the poison night after night in twenty music halls in and about London, and no one says nay.

The male singer of the music hall, however, whether he takes the shape of the impudent clown who pretends to comicality, or of the spoony sentimentalist who tenderly gushes forth such modern enchanting melodies as ‘Maggie May’ or ‘Meet me in the Lane,’ is not the most pernicious ingredient that composes in its entirety the music hall hero. Time was, when with a liberal steeping of Vamps, and Podgers, and Smuttymans, the decoction proved strong enough, but, like indulgence in other poisons, what is a sufficient dose this year is useless as water next. It was found necessary to strengthen the mixture—to make it hotter of that kind of spice most grateful to the palate of the vulgar snob with a pound to spend. To effect this, there was nothing for it but to introduce the comic female element, or, as she more modestly styles herself, the’ serio-comic.’ The ‘serio,’ however, is not obtrusive. You seek for it in vain in the brazen pretty face, in the dress that is exactly as much too high as it is too low, in the singer’s gestures, looks, and bold advances. Decent men who, misled by placards and newspaper advertisements, take their wives and daughters to the Oxbridge or the Axminster, may, as they listen, tingle in shame at the blunder they have committed; but the dashing, piquant, saucy delineator of ‘What Jolly Gals are we’ has the ears and the yelling admiration of the brainless snobs and puppies before alluded to, and the mad noises they make, demanding a repetition of the detestable ditty, quite drown the feeble hisses of remonstrance the decent portion of the auditory may venture to utter. Some time since, during the theatre and music hall controversy, a worthy London magistrate announced from his judicial bench that on the evening previous he had visited one of the most popular of the halls, and found everything creditable, and discreet, and decorous: a pretty penny it must afterwards have cost somebody for champagne, to pacify the patron snobs and puppies for depriving them of their evening’s amusement.

But—and it is alarming to remark it—even the indecent, impudent ‘serio-comic’ female, who, going the full length of the tether allowed her, might have been supposed equal to all demands, is palling on the palate of the Oxbridge habitué. He must have something even more exhilarating; and, ever ready to oblige, the music hall proprietor rigs up a trapeze, and bribes some brazen, shameless woman to attire in man’s clothes, and go through the ordinary performances of a male acrobat. Rivalling the new idea, a South London music hall proprietor is advertising the ‘Sensational Can-can, exactly as in France.’ What is the next novelty in preparation?

Comments: James Greenwood (1832-1929) was a British novelist and campaigning journalist, known for his investigations into the lives of London’s poor, sometimes using disguise. There was no ‘Oxbridge’ (or ‘Axminster’) music hall – the hall described here may have been inspired by the Oxford Music Hall in London’s Oxford Street, but at the time of this article the Oxford was not in operation, having burned down in March 1868 and not re-opening until August 1869. The artists named are likewise semi-fictions. The Immense Vamp would appear to be Alfred Vance, the Great Vance, ‘lion comique‘ star of the Oxford in the 1860s, whose signature song was ‘I’m a Chickaleary Bloke’, though it is attributed here to ‘Popular Podgers’. Vance’s great rival of the period was George Leybourne, whose signature tune was ‘Champagne Charlie’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Our Recent Actors

“George Almar as Carnaby Cutpurse in ‘The Cedar Chest'” (1834), attributed to Robert William Buss, University of Bristol Theatre Collection via Art UK

Source: Westland Marston, Our Recent Actors: being recollections critical, and, in many instances, personal, of late distinguished performers of both sexes (Boston: Roberts brothers, 1888), pp. 2-8

Production: Possibly George Almar, The Cedar Chest; or, The Lord Mayor’s Daughter, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, July 1834

Text: To speak in the first person, which, spite of its necessary egotism, is the most convenient form of narrative, I came from the Lincolnshire seaport and market-town of Great Grimsby to London in the year 1834, having at that time attained my fifteenth year. It had been arranged that I should be articled to my uncle, a solicitor, who, with his partner, had offices near Gray’s Inn. The partner’s house was my first abode, and here I found—or perhaps I should say, took—more liberty of action during my evenings than was quite suitable in the case of so mere a boy.

Two years previously, on my first visit to London, I had been arrested by the playbills of the great patent theatres and by the magical name—then still a sound of lingering greatness—of Edmund Kean. “Drury Lane!” “Covent Garden!” “Mr. Kean!” Strange how these words of romance had some way penetrated to me through the seclusion of a “serious” home in the country, where my excellent parents never mentioned the stage, except to warn me, or others, of its dangers and seductions. Now that at a too early age I was, in many respects, my own master, and could indulge, if I chose, my longing to visit a theatre, I began to ask myself what there was in dramatic performances that should make them necessarily objectionable. I recalled my own annual displays when, as a lad of eleven or twelve, I had appeared with my schoolmates at the Theatre Royal, Great Grimsby, in various dramatic characters, at one time sustaining on “breaking-up day” the part of Juba in “Cato,” and another that of Electra in the tragedy of “Sophocles,” and afterwards that of Miriam (the Christian convert) in Milman’s “Jerusalem Delivered.” I remembered, too, how much my father, a zealous lover of Sophocles, though a foe to the stage, had praised my rendering of Electra. Was it possible, I argued, that a mode of composition allowable and, indeed, admirable in Greek, should be censurable in English, or that dialogue which was innocent when read should become injurious when spoken in public, with dresses and scenery to assist the impression? If the theatre might have its bad side, so also had literature, art, and even trade. If no judicious parent would put “Tom Jones” into a boy’s hands, was that a reason for withholding the novels of Scott? Must “Don Quixote” be forbidden because the word “fiction” applied also to “Gil Bias”? With this kind of logic I extorted a reluctant permission from my conscience for an act which, if allowable in itself, was still one of grave disobedience towards affectionate parents. I can still recall the boyish sophistry which prompted me to choose Sadler’s Wells Theatre for my first visit. It was a small theatre, and it was situated in a suburb—facts which, as they were likely to diminish my pleasure, seemed in the same degree to make my transgression a slight one. I might have gone to Covent Garden, I reasoned, and, at that renowned theatre, have revelled in the best acting of the day, whereas I self-denyingly contented myself with Sadler’s Wells. On the night when I entered that (to me) enchanted palace, I found there a new opiate for my restless conscience. The title of the piece represented I quite forget, but its main situation is as fresh as ever in my memory. A girl, deeply attached to her betrothed, learns his life is at the mercy of a villain (of course, an aristocrat), whom she has inspired with a lawless passion. She implores his pity for her lover, only to find that the sacrifice of her honour is the price of his ransom. I remember how my heart came into my throat and the tears into my eyes when the noble-minded girl, striking an attitude of overwhelming dignity, before which the wretch naturally abased himself, spurned his offer, and committed her cause to that Providence which, in the good, honest melodrama of that day, never delayed to vindicate the trust reposed in it. What most comforted me during the evening was the conviction that my father, could he have seen the piece, would heartily have applauded it and recanted at once his unqualified enmity to the theatre. I fancied how cordially, had he been behind the scenes, he would have shaken hands with Miss Macarthy (afterwards Mrs. R Honner), who had no inconsiderable skill in painting the struggles of virtuous heroines. I might certainly, however, have trembled for the consequences had he encountered a certain Mr. G. Almar, who, if my memory serves me, personated the miscreant of the drama.

I was curious enough, even on the first night of attending a theatre, to ask myself why Mr. Almar made such incessant use of his arms. Now they were antithetically extended, the one skyward, the other earthward, like the sails of a windmill; now they were folded sternly across his bosom; now raised in denunciation; now clasped in entreaty, and considerately maintained in their positions long enough to impress the entire audience at leisure with the effect intended. I was critical enough to ask myself whether the more heroic attitudes of this gentleman would not have been heightened by the contrast of occasional repose, and whether there were, in his opinion, any fatal incompatibility between easy and natural gestures and effective acting. On quitting the theatre, my inquiring mind received some light upon these points, for in the window of a confectioner, who was also a theatrical printseller, my attention was arrested by coloured portraits of local, or other stage favourites, in their principal characters. Here figured “Mr. Cobham, as Richard the Third,” with a frown to spread panic through the ranks of “Shallow Richmond.” Here was Mr. T. P. Cooke, as William in “Black-eyed Susan,” in that renowned hornpipe which illustrates William’s happier days, ere Susan and he had dreams of a court-martial. And here figured my friend of “The Wells,” Mr. G. Almar, in various characters, in all of which the use of his arms was so remarkable, that it might easily be inferred he acted less for the sake of his general audience than for that of the artist who depicted him, and who probably would have thought little of an actor who did not supply him with attitudes. I was glad, moreover, to find from one of the prints that Mr. Almar’s arms were not always employed to illustrate sinister characters, but that on occasions they could be virtuously engaged. In this particular instance they represented the action of the noble Bella in “Pizarro,” as he bears Cora’s rescued child triumphantly over the cataract.

Comments: John Westland Marston (1819-1890) was a British dramatist and critic, the son of a dissenting minister. Our Recent Actors in an autobiographical account of the stage performances he had witnessed. Sadler’s Wells Theatre was at a low point in its fortunes in the 1830s, located on the rural fringes of London and struggling to compete with the three patent theatres (Covent Garden Drury Lane, Haymarket). The manager at this time was the actor George Almar. A later manager was Robert Honner, who married the actress Maria Macarthy (1812-1870). The melodrama Marston saw was possibly The Cedar Chest; or, The Lord Mayor’s Daughter, written by Almar, which featured him in the lead male role alongside Maria Macarthy.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

An Evening at Collins’s

Source: James Agate, ‘An Evening at Collins’s’, in Alarums and Excursions (London: G. Richards, 1922), pp. 153-164

Text:

Vulgarity is an implicit element of the true music-hall. . . . Out of the vulgarity of the people did the music-hall arise, nor will anyone be so foolish as to contend that, by tampering with its foundations, we shall go one step towards refining the people.

Max Beerbohm.

That delicate and penetrative writer, Dixon Scott, imagines in one of his playful essays the more than cosmopolitan Mr Walkley for the nonce desorienté. The Five Towns it is which bring to a disconcerting standstill this “picked man of countries.” “Where are they?” he asks wearily and a trifle shamefacedly, after the manner of a schoolboy stumped for the whereabouts of Carthage. I, in my turn, no “student of the drama” since there is little on the English stage left to study save Mr Oscar Asche’s sham orientalism and Mr Hichens’s real camels, must confess to a singular ignorance of theatrical activity outside the quarter-mile radius. “Where is Collins’s?” and “Who is Mr George Carney?” would therefore have risen naturally to my lips, and not at all in the judicial manner, pour rire, when a youth, engaged in mending my bicycle, hopelessly confused his tale of the machine’s defects with references to a place called Collins’s, that fellow Carney, and a certain history confided by some colonel to his adjutant. Would have risen to my lips, I say – but here some explanation is necessary.

I have from youth up cherished an extreme dislike for lack of definition in the things that matter, and an equal repugnance for a pedantic accuracy in the things which do not matter at all. I abhor all those befogged conceptions and blurred declarations of faith which are the stock-in-trade of half the philosophers and three-fourths of the clergy. Tell me definitely that Space is curved and I will believe it, though truth wear a German complexion. Deny that Space is curved, and certify the same on the Royal Society’s proper form for denials, and I will consider to which camp I will belong. But let there be no “iffing and affing,” as they say in Lancashire. It annoys me that people can turn the careless side of their intelligence to such fundamental affairs as Time and Space, the nature of matter, the impasse of a self-existent or a created universe, whilst taking the most passionate interest in such trivia as dates and places, the addresses of tradespeople and the hours of trains. I do not ever hope to remember the name or number of the street in which I live, nor have I for years been able to discriminate between the keepers of my lodging- houses. All landladies are one, co-equal, co- eternal and co-incomprehensible. I hate to decide what I shall do on Saturday, to determine whether the air will be fresher at Ramsgate or Margate, Southend or Clacton-on-Sea. I am in complete ignorance of the geography of London, and invariably take what is called a hackney coach from King’s Cross to St Pancras. I have for many years left the choice of place of amusement to the discerning cabby. “Anywhere you like,” say I, “except Chu Chin Chow. Wherever one may be set down, the prime condition of life will be fulfilled — to see yet more of an amusing world and its humanity. Few people have shown a more philosophic appreciation than Bernard Clark and Ethel Monticue when they “oozed forth” into the streets. The phrase accurately describes my first attempt to find Collins’s music-hall.

I had always “placed” Collins’s as lying vaguely south of the river, somewhere between the Elephant and the Obelisk, Now the game of inattention to the trivialities of life has its rules, and one of them is that having made your intellectual bed so you must lie on it. You are to have the courage of your lack of mental industry. You have not attended to the lesson; you may not crib the answer. To dine at Princes’ and bid the commissionaire whistle an instructed taxi were outside the code. No; I had placed Collins’s near the Obelisk, and near the Obelisk I must find it, first dining befittingly and then oozing forth afoot. This may not be the place to describe a dinner “at the Obelisk.” Sufficient to say that if the cuts were not prime, the manners of my fellow-guests undoubtedly were. They did their meal the courtesy of being hungry; they ate, but not because it was the polite hour. They made no conversation, because they were not afraid of silence. My neighbour, an itinerant musician — in plain English he played a fiddle in the gutter — was, I judged, a man of uncertain character, but definite education. He forbore to relate his history. I discovered that he spoke French perfectly when, apropos of the oeillades of some poor draggle-tail at a neighbouring table, we fell to discussing the efficacy of the Duchess’s revenge in Barbey d’Aurevilly’s story — a good tale, but sadly lacking the American quality of “uplift.” I let slip, as they say, that I was bound for Collins’s, and my friend took occasion to point out that I was very much out of my course. I thanked him and listened to his indications for the following evening, it being a dispensation of the Inattentivists that you are not bound to reject information thrust upon you. We talked until the hour at which a paternal Government decrees that polite conversation in public places shall cease. And separated. But not before my fellow-artist had warmed sufficiently to me to hint that he was “doing well,” and that he hoped next year to enter his son for Eton.

Islington I found to be perfectly well informed both as to the locality of Collins’s and the reputation of Mr Carney. If not within a stone’s-throw of the Angel, the hall yet contrives to be at so nice a distance that one may transfer oneself from one house of entertainment to the other without, as old Quex has it, the trouble of drawing on one’s gloves. There is nothing of listless, well-bred indifference in a visit to Collins’s; you must be prepared to take the red plush benches by storm if you would be in at North London’s taking to heart of that rarity among comedians, an actor with a comic sense. I like to watch the curtain go up, having first enjoyed my fill of its bewitching advertisements. I like to watch the musicians file in, to see the flute-player put his instrument together, and that honest workman, the double-bass, spit on his hands, as all honest workmen should. I adore the operation of tuning-up, the precision of those little runs and trills executed in as perfect light-heartedness as the golfer’s preliminary swing. The conductor at these places is a captivating personage; he epitomises the glory of suburbia — dinner jacket, “dickey,” and white, ready-made bow. The overture at Collins’s, perfunctory, gladiatorial, had a familiar air about it, although the programme was not helpful. I should hate to think that a piece with which I am familiar can really be The Woodbine Willie Two-Step. Followed turns of which, or of whom, the chief were a juggler striking matches on his skull, a stout lady with a thin voice, prima donna of some undisclosed opera company, and a Versatile Comedy Four having to do with bicycles. At length and at last, Mr George Carney.

The first of his two “song-scenas” is a study of grandeur and decadence, of magnificence on its last legs, dandyism in the gutter, pride surviving its fall; in plain English, a tale of that wreckage of the Embankment which was once a gentleman. He wears a morning coat which, in spite of irremediable tatters, has obviously known the sunshine of Piccadilly, has yet some hang of nobility. The torn trousers still wear their plaid with an air. Enfin, the fellow was at one time gloved and booted. There is something authentic, something inherited, something ghostly about this seedy figure. Trailing clouds of glory does he haunt the Embankment. The ebony cane, the eyeglass with the watered ribbon, the grey topper of the wide and curling brim — all these fond accoutrements of fashion bring back the delightful nineties, so closely are they the presentment, the counterfeit presentment, of the swell of those days. “Bancroft to the life!” we mutter. And our mind goes back to that bygone London of violet nights and softly-jingling hansom cabs, discreet lacquer and harness of cheerful brass—nocturnes, if ever such things were, in black and gold — the London of yellow asters and green carnations; of a long-gloved diseuse, and, in the photographer’s window, a delicious Mrs Patrick Campbell eating something dreadfully expensive off the same plate as Mr George Alexander; of a hard-working Max with one volume of stern achievement and all Time before him; of a Cafe Royal where poets and not yet bookmakers forgathered; of a score of music- halls which were not for the young person. … But I am getting away from Mr Carney.

The matter is not very much above our heads — something about a Count who has “taken the count.” The purest stuff of the music-hall, as a music-hall song should be. “There’s a n’ole ‘ere!” pipes with fierce glee the cherub boot-black, bending over the broken boots and abating the deference to the broken swell no jot of his Trade Union rate of “frippence.” How it hurts, the contempt and raillery of this pitiless infant? Enfant goguenard if ever there was one, a capitalist in his small way, and with all the shopkeeper’s scorn of failure. “There’s a n’ole ere!” he insists, and we are reminded of Kipps’s tempestuous friend, “a nactor-fellow.” “Not a n’ole — an aperture, my dear fellow, an aperture,” corrects the noble client, “the boots were patent, but the patent’s expired.” Here the Count drops his cigar and indulges in unseemly scuffle with the urchin. “No, you don’t,” says the riper smoker, regaining possession, “that’s how I got it.” But the child has yet another arrow. “Landlady says as ‘ow you’ve got to share beds wiv a dustman.” But the shaft fails to wound; clearly our hero is of the Clincham mould to whom social distinctions are as “piffle before the wind.” “Want a pyper?” goads the boy, and his client lays out his last remaining copper. He unfolds the sheets and instinctively his eye runs over the fashionable intelligence. “Know Colonel Br’th’l’pp at all?” he inquires. This one recognises as the delightful touch of the man of the world anxious to put a social inferior at his ease. Something after this manner, one imagines, Royalty. “Doing very well in Russia. Was up at Cambridge with his brother, the elder Br’th’l’pp, don’ cher know.” And so to babble of the day’s gossip to the scornful child at his feet. The courtesy, I submit, of one man of polish to another.

Night falls, the river puts on its jewels, the result of a cunning arrangement of n’oles and n’apertures in the back-cloth, it draws very cold. More pitiful than the accustomed heir of destitution, but with stiff upper lip, our déclassé shivers, draws his rags more closely about him and moves on.

But it is the second song which brings down the house. Here the actor appears as an Army cook, and at Islington we have all been Army cooks in our time. A couple of dixies, the stew in which is discoverable last week’s “Dickey Dirt,” talk of “jippo ” and “the doings ” — all the familiar traffic of the camp rises to the mind’s eye and sets the house in a roar. We are not, we gather, in any theatre of war, but safely at home in halcyon, far-off training days. Almost you can hear the cheerful clatter of the canteen, the thud and rattle of the horse-lines. The wording of the song is in no sense precious.

“What was the tale the Colonel told the Adjutant
What did the Adjutant say to Major Brown?”

There is a chorus, also serving as corps de ballet, and consisting first of the inveterate grumbler who objects to the presence in his coffee of so harmless a beastie as a “drahned mahse “— the accent is a mixture of Devon and Berkshire with a dash of Cockney. Then comes the superior youth of ingratiating, behind-the-counter manner, the proud possessor, we feel sure, of a manicure set in ivory — does he not abstractedly polish his nails with the end of the towel? After him the “old sweat” who will neither die nor fade away, and lastly our rosy boot-black, now the dear brother-in-arms of the immortal Lew and Jakin. This nucleus of an Army has but a single mind: to know what has become of its blinking dinner. Many and various are their ways of putting it, and it appears that they are no more than Messengers or Forerunners of the cohorts pressing on their heels. But the orderly beguiles their impatience.

“What did the Major whisper to the Captain?
The Captain told the Subs to hand it down.”

The orderly is the slipshod, inefficient, imperturbable “bloke” we know so well; with him we are to rise to what Mr Chesterton calls “the dazzling pinnacle of the commonplace.” I am not sure that this is not the best of all this author’s fireworks; it is so stupendous a rocket that the stick has cleared the earth, never to return but to go on whirling around us for evermore. Mr Carney is the embodiment of the commonplace civilian turned warrior. He is the cook who will drop into the stew all manner of inconsidered [sic] trifles: cigarette ash, match ends, articles of personal attire. He is the hero who will be up to all the petty knavery and “lead-swinging” that may be going, who will “work dodges ” with the worst of them, and, on occasion, join with the best in such deeds — he would still call them “dodges” — as shall put terror into the hearts of a ten times outnumbering foe. Of that order of heroic cooks which held Ypres. But it is part and parcel of this actor’s generalship that he will have no truck with heroics. Tell Mr Carney that he raises tears and he will make a mock of you. Or more probably he will continue his song.

“What did the Quarter-master tell the Sergeant?
The Sergeant told the Corp’ril, it appears;
The Corp’ril told the Private and the Private told his girl,
Now she’s looking for Mademoiselle from Armenteers.”

Have I over-glorified my subject, whose talent is not more remarkably expended than on a dixie and a soldier’s ration of stew? Ah, but was not always one of the great tests for comic acting the power to throw a preternatural interest over the commonest objects of daily life? “What,” say you, pricking your ears at the familiar phrase, “surely at this time of day you are not going to dish up that old stuff about kitchen tables and constellatory importance, joint-stools and Cassiopeia’s chair?” Oh, but I am, and let appositeness be my apology. “So the gusto of Munden antiquates and ennobles what it touches. His pots and his ladles are as grand and primal as the seething-pots and hooks seen in old prophetic vision.” Why should I not elevate, an it please me, Mr Carney’s pot and ladle to the same high category? I do not ask you to see in this actor an image of primeval man lost in wonder of the sun and stars, but I do ask you to believe that a tin of “bully” contemplated by him amounts, or very nearly amounts, to a Platonic idea. Grant at least that he understands a dixie in its quiddity. It may be that in my estimate of this conscientious comedian I have overshot the just mean. Well, granting that my little appraisement is an error, it seems to me to be an error on the right side. I have a comfortable feeling that Islington at least is with me, that I have a solid popular backing. Collins’s pit and stalls, circle and gallery would have borne me out that the actor diffused a glow of sentiment “which made the pulse of a crowded theatre beat like that of one man”; would have probably agreed that he had “come in aid of the pulpit, doing good to the moral heart of a people.”

I do not think that in expanding Islington’s approval I have misread it. Its ecstatic hand-clapping and shouts of “Good ole George! Good ole George!” cannot deceive an ear attuned to shades of applause. The civilian on my left with the wound-stripes on his sleeve is dumb with appreciation. His lips are parted, his breath comes in short gasps, his eyes are fixed on the stage seeing and not seeing, his whole soul in some setting of the past. I am sure he hears once more the clatter of the canteen and the cheerful rattle of the horse-lines. The soldier on my right, still in the Army’s grip and not yet victim of the nostalgia to come — a very small fly in demobilisation’s ointment, but there it is — is drunk, simply, uncomplicatedly drunk, with the lilt and swing of the tune. He rises half out of his seat, puts a steadying hand on my arm, and with the other wildly conducts the house now singing in chorus:

“What was the tale the Colonel told the Adjutant?
What did the Adjutant say to Major Brown?
What did the Major whisper to the Captain?
The Captain told the Subs to hand it down.
What did the Quarter-master tell the Sergeant?
The Sergeant told the Corp’ril, it appears,
The Corp’ril told the Private and the Private told his girl,
Now she’s looking for Mademoiselle from Armenteers.”

There is a limit to the number of recalls even the most grateful servant of the public may permit himself, and at last Mr Carney is allowed to retire in favour of the next turn. But my friend on the right takes some little time to simmer down. “Good ole George!” he continues to mutter under his breath. “Oh, good ole George!” And as the tumblers who come next are a dull pair, I wend my way out.

Comments: James Agate (1877-1947) was a British theatre critic, essayist and diarist. George Carney (1887-1947) was a British music hall entertainer and film actor, particularly known for his portrayal of working class characters. Collins’s Music Hall was located in Islington, London, and had a history going back to 1794. It ceased operating after having been damaged by fire in 1958. Mr Walkley is the theatre critic Arthur Bingham Walkley. Bernard Clark and Ethel Monticue are characters from Daisy Ashford’s juvenile novel The Young Visiters, as is the Earl of Clincham. Bancroft refers to the Victorian actor-manager Squire Bancroft. Lew and Jakin are drummer boy characters in Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘The Drums of the Fore and Aft’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

London Particulars

Source: C.H. Rolph, London Particulars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 113-116

Text: [I]t was Jim who introduced me to the music hall, a process which involved deception at home. I forget what the pretence or deception had to be, but my mother in particular would never have allowed me to go into a music hall. I had never been inside a theatre, not even to a pantomime. I had wondered why we were taught at school to revere the plays of Shakespeare but were not allowed to see them performed in the places built for them. I pondered about the play-titles on the hoardings and on the sides of buses. Martin-Harvey in The Only Way, Are you a Mason?, The Blue Bird; there must have been something sinister or indecent about these. A young woman who lived across the road had given a song and dance at a Scouts’ concert (we were not there) and a neighbour had told my mother in a low voice that she had ‘tights right up to her thighs’. Harold and I thought they wouldn’t have been very interesting any lower down, but we had come to understand how it was that there were Two Worlds, to be acknowledged and talked about only on rigidly separate occasions and in separately recruited company.

I simply could not understand what could be evil about a hall with music in it. I did understand that the music halls had bars where you could drink during the intervals or (if you preferred it) throughout the evening; and my mother had sad memories of what drunkenness had meant to some of her childhood friends. It was her belief, and Grandma Speed’s, that the theatre and the music hall were mere devices for encouraging people to drink. Charlie Chaplin records in his autobiography that every music-hall entertainer, after his act, was expected to go to the bar and drink with the customers – and would get no further engagements if he didn’t. Many of the Fulham pubs advertised ‘musical evenings’, and those with gardens made a special feature of open-air concerts in summer. My mother thought this was where a great number of young people began a lifetime, usually a short one, of drunkenness. And she was probably right.

But the music hall, having begun as a sing-song in a pub, had already become the Palace of Varieties, and its progress from drunken knees-up to theatrical respectability was nearly complete. Charles Booth had written as early as 1889 in his Life and Labour of the People in London that ‘the story of progress in this respect may be traced in many of the existing places which, from a bar parlour and a piano, to an accompaniment on which friends “obliged with a song”, have passed through every stage to that of music hall; the presiding chairman being still occasionally, and the call for drinks in almost every case, retained. But the character of the songs on the whole is better, and other things are offered: it becomes a “variety” entertainment.’ In 1912 King George V decreed (or perhaps merely acquiesced in) the first of all the Royal Command Performances. But if this was intended as the music hall’s final accolade of respectability it was not so regarded in our house, and indeed it may well have been that the reputation of royal households was such that even a King of England couldn’t decree anything into respectability.

By 1911 the ‘presiding chairman’ was a thing of the past; and for my part, far from being seduced into drunkenness, I never even saw the bar. (Jim was a non-drinker.) I think the biggest surprise of my first music-hall visit – at the Hammersmith Palace of Varieties – was the orchestra. I was accustomed by this time to the sound of a band or orchestra tuning up, and to me it has always been a strangely pleasant and exciting cacophony, full of mouth-watering promise and chaotic splendour. The orchestra at the Hammersmith Palace spent less time over this than I had expected, but it was still effective enough as a musical aphrodisiac. And then it played! Its speed was ludicrous, maniacal, contemptuous. The raucous ‘Overture’ lasted about thirty deafening seconds and ended with an irrelevant crash of cymbals. I was extremely disappointed and scornful, but I was to discover that all music-hall orchestras did it; and that, indeed, these places were not halls of music but theatres where entertainers told funny stories, enacted funny sketches, abused each other, conjured, juggled, contorted themselves, sang and danced, performed highly dangerous acrobatics and – very occasionally – played popular classics on piano, violin, trumpet, or mouth-organ. I thought they were all utterly enchanting.

Fred Karno was then at the height of his fame as producer of the ‘Birds’ series of comedy sketches – Early Birds, Jail Birds, Mumming Birds, and others; and on these he constructed a huge theatrical empire of over thirty companies, fostering such outstanding performers as Charlie Chaplin, George Graves, Harry Weldon, and Billie Reeves. On that first evening at the Hammersmith Palace we saw Bransby Williams in a series of the impersonations for which he was renowned – Uriah Heep, Micawber, and the Abbé Liszt. In the last-named, for some reason, he staggered about the stage playing a concertina, and someone in the gallery threw a coin on to the stage. A dropped coin in those days made a bright and unmistakable ringing sound. Bransby Williams stopped playing. ‘That’, he shouted, ‘is an insult, and I’m not accustomed to insults.’ I was petrified. He strode off the stage to cries of ‘Come back Bransby’, ‘Come on mate, get on with it’, ‘Good old Bransby’, etc. And after a while, encouraged no doubt from off-stage, he graciously came back to complete his act.

On other Saturday evenings in those exciting years I was taken to the Granville at Walham Green, the Putney Hippodrome and Shepherds Bush Empire, seeing the same variety artistes (as they liked to be called) time after time: Ernie Mayne, Sam Mayo, T.E. Dunville, Ernie Lotinga, and a host of less famous names. I have before me a Granville Theatre of Varieties programme for 18 August 1911, in which Fred Karno presented ‘Mumming Birds’, with a caste including the now forgotten names of Fred Arthur, Wheeler and Wilson, The Martins, Terry and Birtley, Arthur Clifton, Madoline Rees (most of whom I saw on other occasions) and ‘The Cinematograph Showing New Pictures’. Seats in the Orchestra Stalls cost one shilling, Pit Stalls ninepence, Circle Sixpence, Gallery threepence. ‘Mumming Birds’ was the mildly bawdy sketch in which, three years earlier, Charlie Chaplin had played, at the age of eighteen, the part of a comedy drunk in a highly individual way that ensured his future and his fortune. But I never saw Charlie Chaplin on the stage.

I remember being astonished at the coarseness and the sexual innuendos of T.E. Dunville and Sam Mayo; I could outdo them both (I believed) in suitable company, but it was probably because of them and their imitators that, while I was uncomfortable when female artistes were on the stage (I suppose I didn’t like to think they had to associate with the Dunvilles and the Mayos), I positively hated the females who impersonated males, the Vesta Tilleys and the Hetty Kings. I was unable to see why all comedians couldn’t be as unembarrassing as Billy Merson. I never saw pantomimes until I took my own children to them, and even then they were spoiled for me by the transvestite principal boy and pantomime dames, theatrical eccentricities I have simply never understood. To this day Danny La Rue, gifted as I’m sure he must be, makes my flesh crawl. George Robey was reputed to be the supreme pantomime dame, but his double handicap was that I regarded him anyway as a self-satisfied bore. And although I saw Harry Lauder only once, I thought him a bore too: his success and réclame have always mystified me.

Comments: C.R. Rolph (real name Cecil Rolph Hewitt) (1901-1994) was the son of a policeman. His family lived in Southwark, then Finsbury Park, then Fulham. He became a Chief Inspector in the City of London Police, Vice-President of the Howard League for Penal Reform and served on the editorial staff of the New Statesman. London Particulars is the first of two classic volumes of autobiography.