Music hall

Music hall
The Oxford Music Hall, ca. 1875

Music Hall is a type of British theatrical entertainment which was popular between 1850 and 1960. The term can refer to:

  1. A particular form of variety entertainment involving a mixture of popular song, comedy and speciality acts. British music hall was similar to American vaudeville, featuring rousing songs and comic acts, while in the United Kingdom the term vaudeville referred to more working-class types of entertainment that would have been termed burlesque in America.
  2. The theatre or other venue in which such entertainment takes place;
  3. The type of popular music normally associated with such performances.


Origins and development

The Eagle Tavern in 1830

Music hall in London had its origins in entertainment provided in the new style saloon bars of public houses during the 1830s. These venues replaced earlier semi-rural amusements provided by fairs and suburban pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall Gardens and the Cremorne Gardens. These latter became subject to urban development and became fewer and less popular.[1]

The saloon was a room where for an admission fee or a greater price at the bar, singing, dancing, drama or comedy was performed. The most famous London saloon of the early days was the Grecian Saloon, established in 1825, at The Eagle (a former tea-garden), 2 Shepherdess Walk, off the City Road in north London.[2] According to John Hollingshead, proprietor of the Gaiety Theatre, London (originally the Strand Music Hall), this establishment was "the father and mother, the dry and wet nurse of the Music Hall". Later known as the Grecian Theatre, it was here that Marie Lloyd made her début at the age of 14 in 1884. It is still famous because of an English nursery rhyme, with the somewhat mysterious lyrics:

Up and down the City Road
In and out The Eagle
That's the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel.[3]

The interior of Wilton's (here, being set for a wedding). The lines of tables give some idea of how early music halls were used as supper clubs.

Another famous "song and supper" room of this period was Evans Music-and-Supper Rooms, 43 King Street, Covent Garden, established in the 1840s by W.H. Evans. This venue was also known as 'Evans Late Joys' - Joy being the name of the previous owner. Other song and supper rooms included the Coal Hole in The Strand, the Cyder Cellars in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden and the Mogul Saloon in Drury Lane.[1]

The music hall as we know it developed from such establishments during the 1850s and were built in and on the grounds of public houses. Such establishments were distinguished from theatres by the fact that in a music hall you would be seated at a table in the auditorium and could drink alcohol and smoke tobacco whilst watching the show. In a theatre, by contrast, the audience was seated in stalls and there was a separate bar-room. An exception to this rule was the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton (1841) which somehow managed to evade this regulation and served drinks to its customers. Though a theatre rather than a music hall, this famous establishment later hosted music hall variety acts.[4]

The first music halls

Interior of the Canterbury Hall, opened 1852 in Lambeth

The establishment often regarded as the first true music hall was the Canterbury, 143 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth built by Charles Morton, afterwards dubbed "the Father of the Halls", on the site of a skittle alley next to his pub, the Canterbury Tavern. It opened on 17 May 1852: described as "the most significant date in all the history of music hall".[5] The hall looked like most contemporary pub concert rooms, but its replacement in 1854 was of then unprecedented size. It was further extended in 1859, later rebuilt as a variety theatre and finally destroyed by bombing in 1942.[6]

Another early music hall was The Middlesex, Drury Lane (1851). Popularly known as the 'Old Mo', it was built on the site of the Mogul Saloon. Later converted into a theatre it was demolished in 1965. The New London Theatre stands on its site.[7]

Several large music halls were built in the East End. These included the London Music Hall, otherwise known as The Shoreditch Empire, 95-99 Shoreditch High Street, (1856–1935). This theatre was rebuilt during 1894 by Frank Matcham, the architect of the Hackney Empire.[8] Another in this area was the Royal Cambridge Music Hall, 136 Commercial Street (1864–1936). Designed by William Finch Hill (the designer of the Britannia theatre in nearby Hoxton), it was rebuilt after a fire in 1898.[9]

The construction of Weston's Music Hall, High Holborn (1857), built up on the site of the Six Cans and Punch Bowl Tavern by the licensed victualler of the premises, Henry Weston, signalled that the West End was fruitful territory for the music hall. During 1906 it was rebuilt as a variety theatre and renamed as the Holborn Empire. It was closed as a result of enemy action in the Blitz on the night of 11–12 May 1941 and the building was pulled down in 1960.[10] Significant West End music halls include:

  • The Oxford Music Hall, 14/16 Oxford Street (1861) - built on the site of an old coaching inn called the Boar and Castle by Charles Morton, the pioneer music hall developer of The Canterbury, who with this development brought music hall to the West End. Demolished in 1926.[11]
  • The London Pavilion (1861). Facade of 1885 rebuild still extant.[12]
  • The Alhambra, Leicester Square (1860), in the former premises of the London Panopticon. This sophisticated venue was noted for its alluring corps de ballet and was a focal point for West End pleasure seekers. It was demolished in 1936.[13]

Other large suburban music halls included:

  • The Old Bedford, 123-133 High Street, Camden Town (1861). Built on the site of the tea gardens of a pub called the Bedford Arms. The Bedford was a favourite haunt of the artists known as the Camden Town Group headed by Walter Sickert who featured interior scenes of music halls in his paintings, including one entitled 'Little Dot Hetherington at The Old Bedford'. The Old Bedford was demolished in 1969.[14]
  • Collins', Islington Green (1862). Opened by Sam Collins, in 1862, as the Lansdowne Music Hall, converting the pre-existing Lansdowne Arms public house, it was renamed as Collins' Music Hall in 1863. It was colloquially known as 'The Chapel on the Green'. Collins was a star of his own theatre, singing mostly Irish songs specially composed for him. It closed in 1956, after a fire, but the street front of the building still survives (see below).[15]
  • Deacons in Clerkenwell (1862).

A noted music hall entrepreneur of this time was Carlo Gatti who built a music hall, known as Gatti's, at Hungerford Market in 1857. He sold the music hall to South Eastern Railway in 1862, and the site became Charing Cross railway station. With the proceeds from selling his first music hall, Gatti acquired a restaurant in Westminster Bridge Road, opposite The Canterbury music hall. He converted the restaurant into a second Gatti's music hall, known as "Gatti's-in-the-Road", in 1865. It later became a cinema. The building was badly damaged in the Second World War, and was demolished in 1950. In 1867, he acquired a public house in Villiers Street named "The Arches", under the arches of the elevated railway line leading to Charing Cross station. He opened it as another music hall, known as "Gatti's-in-The-Arches". After his death his family continued to operate the music hall, known for a period as the Hungerford or Gatti's Hungerford Palace of Varieties. It became a cinema in 1910, and the Players' Theatre in 1946.[16]

By 1865 there were thirty-two music halls in London seating between 500 to 5000 people plus an unknown, but large, number of smaller venues. In 1878 numbers peaked, with seventy-eight large music halls in the metropolis and 300 smaller venues. Thereafter numbers declined due to stricter licensing restrictions imposed by the Metropolitan Board of Works and LCC, and because of commercial competition between popular large suburban halls and the smaller venues, which put the latter out of business.[17]

Variety theatre

A new era of 'variety theatre' was developed by the rebuilding of the London Pavilion in 1885. Contemporary accounts noted:

Hitherto the halls had borne unmistakeable evidence of their origins, but the last vestiges of their old connections were now thrown aside, and they emerged in all the splendour of their new-born glory.

The highest efforts of the architect, the designer and the decorator were enlisted in their service, and the gaudy and tawdry music hall of the past gave way to the resplendent 'theatre of varieties' of the present day, with its classic exterior of marble and freestone, its lavishly appointed auditorium and its elegant and luxurious foyers and promenades brilliantly illuminated by myriad electric lights

—Charles Stuart and A.J. Park The Variety Stage (1895)

One of the most famous of these new palaces of pleasure in the West End was the Empire, Leicester Square, built as a theatre in 1884 but acquiring a music hall licence in 1887. Like the nearby Alhambra this theatre appealed to the men of leisure by featuring alluring ballet dancers and had a notorious promenade which was the resort of courtesans. Another spectacular example of the new variety theatre was the Tivoli in the Strand built 1888-90 in an eclectic neo-Romanesque style with Baroque and Moorish-Indian embellishments. "The Tivoli" became a brand name for music-halls all over the British Empire.[18] During 1892, the Royal English Opera House, which had been a financial failure in Shaftesbury Avenue, applied for a music hall license and was converted by Walter Emden into a grand music hall and renamed the Palace Theatre of Varieties, managed by Charles Morton.[19] Denied by the newly created LCC permission to construct the promenade, which was such a popular feature of the Empire and Alhambra, the Palace compensated in the way of adult entertainment by featuring apparently nude women in tableau vivants, though the concerned LCC hastened to reassure patrons that the girls who featured in these displays were actually wearing flesh toned body stockings and were not naked at all.[20] One of the grandest of these new halls was the Coliseum Theatre built by Oswald Stoll in 1904 at the bottom of St Martin's Lane.[21] This was followed by the London Palladium (1910) in Little Argyll Street. Both were designed by the prolific Frank Matcham.[22] As Music Hall grew in popularity and respectability, and as the licensing authorities exercised ever firmer regulation,[23] the original arrangement of a large hall with tables at which drink was served, changed to that of a drink-free auditorium. The acceptance of Music Hall as a legitimate cultural form was established by the first Royal Variety Performance before King George V during 1912 at the Palace Theatre. However, consistent with this new respectability the best-known music hall entertainer of the time, Marie Lloyd, was not invited, being deemed too 'saucy' for presentation to the monarchy.[24]

'Music Hall War' of 1907

The development of syndicates controlling a number of theatres, such as the Stoll circuit, increased tensions between employees and employers. On 22 January 1907, a dispute between artists, stage hands and managers of the Holborn Empire worsened. Strikes in other London and suburban halls followed, organised by the Variety Artistes' Federation. The strike lasted for almost two weeks and was known as the Music Hall War.[25] It became extremely well known, and was advocated enthusiastically by the main spokesmen of the trade union and Labour movement - Ben Tillett and Keir Hardie for example. Picket lines were organized outside the theatres by the artistes, while in the provinces theatre management attempted to oblige artistes to sign a document promising never to join a trade union. The strike ended in arbitration, which satisfied most of the main demands, including a minimum wage and maximum working week for musicians.

1907 poster from the Music Hall War between artists and theatre managers

Several music hall entertainers such as Marie Dainton, Marie Lloyd, Arthur Roberts, Joe Elvin and Gus Elen were strong advocates of the strike, though they themselves earned enough not to be concerned personally in a material sense.[26] Lloyd explained her advocacy:

We (the stars) can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken. Marie Lloyd, on the Music Hall War[27][28]

The pressure for greater rewards for music hall songwriters resulted in the application of copyright law to musical compositions. This in turn increased the profitability of the music publication industry, and the sale of music in printed form. The term "Tin Pan Alley" for the music publication industry gained currency from the practice of rival publishers of banging together pots and pans in order to disrupt their competitors' musical auditions.[citation needed] The music publishers at the time (Feldman, Francis and Day...) were large, extremely profitable companies. They sold the right to sing songs to particular artists, and no other person had the right to sing the songs in public.


May 1915 poster by E. V. Kealey, from the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee
See also Recruitment to the British Army during World War I

World War I may have been the high-water-mark of music hall popularity. The artists and composers threw themselves into rallying public support and enthusiasm for the war effort. Patriotic music hall compositions like Keep the Home Fires Burning (1914), Pack up Your Troubles (1915), It's a Long Way to Tipperary (1914) and We Don't Want to Lose You (but we think you ought to Go), were sung by music hall audiences, and sometimes by soldiers in the trenches.[29]

Many songs promoted recruitment (All the boys in khaki get the nice girls, 1915); others satirised particular elements of the war experience. What did you do in the Great war, Daddy (1916) criticised profiteers and slackers; Vesta Tilley's I've got a bit of a blighty one (1916) showed a soldier delighted to have a wound just serious enough to be sent home. The rhymes give a sense of grim humour (When they wipe my face with sponges/ and they feed me on blancmanges/ I'm glad I've got a bit of a blighty one).[30]

Tilley became more popular than ever during this time, when she and her husband, Walter de Frece, managed a military recruitment drive. In the guise of characters like Tommy in the Trench and Jack Tar Home from Sea, Tilley performed songs like The army of today's all right and Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who Loves a Soldier. This is how she got the nickname Britain's best recruiting sergeant - young men were sometimes asked to join the army on stage during her show. She also performed in hospitals and sold War Bonds. Her husband was knighted in 1919 for his own services to the war effort, with Tilley becoming Lady de Frece.[31]

Possibly the most notorious of music hall songs from the First World War was Oh! It's a lovely war (1917), popularised by male impersonator Ella Shields.


Music hall continued during the interwar period, but no longer as the single dominant form of popular entertainment in Britain. The improvement of cinema, the development of radio, and the cheapening of the gramophone damaged its popularity greatly. It now had to compete with Jazz, Swing and Big Band dance music. Licensing restrictions also changed its character. In 1914 the LCC enacted that drinking be banished from the auditorium into a separate bar and during 1923 even the separate bar was abolished by parliamentary decree. The exemption of the theatres from this latter act prompted some critics to denounce this legislation as an attempt to deprive the working classes of their pleasures, as a form of social control, whilst sparing the supposedly more responsible upper classes who patronised the theatres (though this could be due to the licensing restrictions brought about due to the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, which also applied to public houses as well).[32] Even so, the music hall gave rise to such major stars as George Formby, Gracie Fields, Max Miller, Will Hay, and Flanagan and Allen during this period.

In the early 1950s, Rock and Roll, whose performers initially topped music hall bills, attracted a young audience who had little interest in the music hall acts while driving the older audience away. The final demise was competition from television, which grew very popular after the Queen's coronation was televised. Some music halls tried to retain an audience by putting on striptease acts. In 1957, the playwright John Osborne delivered this elegy[33]:

The music hall is dying, and with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.

—John Osbourne, The Entertainer (1957)

Moss Empires, the largest British Music Hall chain, closed the majority of its theatres in 1960, closely followed by the death of music hall stalwart Max Miller in 1963, prompting one contemporary to write that: "Music-halls...died this afternoon when they buried Max Miller".[34][35] Miller himself had sometimes said that the genre would die with him. Many music hall performers, unable to find work, fell into poverty; some didn't even have a home, having spent their working lives living in digs between performances.

Stage and film musicals, however, continued to be influenced by the music hall idiom, including Oliver!, Dr Dolittle and My Fair Lady. The BBC series The Good Old Days, which ran for thirty years, recreated the music hall for the modern audience, and the Paul Daniels Magic Show allowed several speciality acts a television presence from 1979 to 1994. Aimed at a younger audience, but still owing a lot to the music hall heritage, was the late '70s series The Muppet Show.[36]

History of the songs

The musical forms most associated with music hall evolved in part from traditional folk song and songs written for popular drama, becoming by the 1850s a distinct musical style. Subject matter became more contemporary and humorous, and accompaniment was provided by larger house-orchestras as increasing affluence gave the lower classes more access to commercial entertainment and to a wider range of musical instruments, including the piano. The consequent change in musical taste from traditional to more professional forms of entertainment arose in response to the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of previously rural populations during the industrial revolution. The newly created urban communities, cut off from their cultural roots, required new and readily accessible forms of entertainment.[37]

Music halls were originally tavern rooms which provided entertainment, in the form of music and speciality acts, for their patrons. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the first purpose-built music halls were being built in London. The halls created a demand for new and catchy popular songs that could no longer be met from the traditional folk song repertoire. Professional songwriters were enlisted to fill the gap.

The emergence of a distinct music hall style can be credited to a fusion of musical influences. Music hall songs needed to gain and hold the attention of an often jaded and unruly urban audience. In America from the 1840s Stephen Foster had reinvigorated folk song with the admixture of Negro spiritual to produce a new type of popular song. Songs like Old Folks at Home (1851)[38] and Oh, Dem Golden Slippers (James Bland, 1879)[39] spread round the globe, taking with them the idiom and appurtenances of the minstrel song. Other influences on the rapidly-developing music hall idiom were Irish and European music, particularly the jig, polka, and waltz.

Typically a music hall song consists of a series of verses sung by the performer alone, and a repeated chorus which carries the principal melody, and in which the audience is encouraged to join.

In Britain, the first music hall songs often promoted the alcoholic wares of the owners of the halls in which they were performed. Songs like Glorious Beer,[40] and the first major music hall success, Champagne Charlie (1867) had a major influence in establishing the new art form. The tune of Champagne Charlie became used for the Salvation Army hymn Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free (1881). When asked why the tune should be used like this, William Booth is said to have replied, Why should the devil have all the good tunes?. The people the Army sought to save, knew nothing of the hymn tunes or gospel melodies used in the churches, but "the music hall had been their melody school".[41]

By the 1870s the songs were free of their folk music origins, and particular songs also started to become associated with particular singers, often with exclusive contracts with the songwriter, just as many pop songs are today. Towards the end of the style the music became influenced by ragtime and jazz, before being overtaken by them.

Music hall songs were often composed with their working class audiences in mind. Songs like My Old Man (Said Follow the Van), Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road, and Waiting at the Church, expressed in melodic form situations with which the urban poor were very familiar. Music Hall songs could be romantic, patriotic, humorous or sentimental, as the need arose.[37] The most popular Music Hall songs became the basis for the Pub songs of the typical Cockney "knees up".

Although a number of songs show a sharply ironic and knowing view of working class life, no doubt a larger number were repetitive, derivative, written quickly and sung to make a living rather than a work of art.

Famous music hall songs

For a fuller list see Music hall songs

Music hall songwriters

  • Harry Dacre, composer of "Daisy Bell"
  • Augustus Durandeau, writer of "If You Want To Know The Time, Ask A Policeman", "Come Where The Booze Is Cheaper", "Never introduce yer Donah to a pal"
  • Noel Gay, writer of "Lambeth Walk", "There's Something About a Soldier", "Leaning on a Lamppost"
  • Fred Gilbert, composer of "The Man that Broke the Bank At Monte Carlo"
  • Harry Lauder, writer of "Stop your Tickling Jock", "I Love A Lassie"
  • George Le Brunn, writer of "Oh! Mr Porter!"
  • Fred W Leigh, composer of "Don't Dilly Dally" and "The Army of Today"
  • Arthur Lloyd, over 100 songs.
  • Lionel Monckton, composer of "Moonstruck", "Soldiers in the Park", "The Pipes of Pan"
  • C.W. Murphy, composer of "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?"
  • Felix Powell, writer of "Pack up Your Troubles"
  • George Alex Stevens , writer of "On Mother Kelly's Doorstep", "Mother I Love You", "Chump Chop and Chips" and "When the Harvest Moon is Shining".
  • Joseph Tabrar, writer of "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow Wow"
  • Harry Wincott, writer of "The Old Dun Cow"
  • Joseph Bryan Geoghegan born 1816 Barton upon Irwell, Lancashire (musician and songwriter) writer of "Down in a Coal Mine", "John Barleycorn", "Ten Thousand Milesaway", "Pat works on the Railway", "Johnny, I hardly knew ya", and many others. In later life he managed Music Halls including Bolton Music Hall.
  • Matthew Hall (Merry Matt Hall) born 1849 Batley,West Yorkshire. Music Hall comic, married Joseph B Geoghegan's daughter Kathleen. Their many children became actors and entertainers.]]

Music hall comedy

The typical music hall comedian was a man or woman, usually dressed 'in character' to suit the subject of the song, or sometimes attired in absurd and eccentric style. Until well into the twentieth century the acts were essentially vocal, with songs telling a story, accompanied by a minimum of patter. They included a variety of genres, including:

  • Lions Comiques: essentially, men dressed as a 'toff', who sang songs about drinking champagne, going to the races, going to the ball, womanising and gambling, and living the life of an Aristocrat.
  • Male and female impersonators, perhaps more in the style of a pantomime dame than a modern drag queen. Nevertheless these included some more sophisticated performers such as Vesta Tilley, whose male impersonations communicated real social commentary.

'Stand up', spoken wisecracking acts and double acts with one performer being prompted and interrupted by a 'straight' partner, belong to later developments, derived partly from pantomime and partly from the importation of American comedy styles. The phrases 'I don't wish to know that!' and 'kindly leave the stage!' and some of today's habits, such as finishing on a song, belong to this later period. Inter-war radio programmes such as Band Waggon adapted the music hall and variety traditions to the new medium, while later, 'The Goon Show' took radio comedy into the surreal. Early television variety show picked up some of the pieces, but this was at a time when music hall was already on its last legs. Nearer to today, the spirit of music hall genre has enjoyed a new kind of life in television's The Muppet Show.

In the modern comedy world the music hall is represented by Ida Barr, a fictional pensioner from the East End. Ex Music Hall singer who has relaunched her career singing rap songs. She has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4 with her show Artificial Hip Hop.

Speciality acts

The vocal content of the music hall bills, was, from the beginning, accompanied by many other kinds of act, some of them quite weird and wonderful. These were known collectively as speciality acts (abbreviated to 'spesh'), which, over time, have included:

Jules Léotard - The Daring Young man on the Flying Trapeze
  • Aerial acts, of the sort usually seen at the Circus
  • Adagio: essentially a sort of cross between a dance act and a juggling act, consisting usually of a male dancer who threw a slim, pretty young girl around. Some aspects of modern dance choreography evolved from Adagio acts.[42]
  • Magic acts and escapologists, such as Harry Houdini.
  • Cycling acts: again, a development of a Circus act, consisting of either a solo or a troupe of trick cyclists. There was even seven-piece a cycling band called Seven Musical Savonas, who played fifty instruments between them, and Kaufmann's Cycling Beauties, a troupe of girls in Victorian swim wear.
  • Ventriloquists, or Vent acts as they were called in the business.
  • Electric acts, using the newly discovered phenomena of static electricity to produce tricks such as lighting gas jets and setting fire to handkerchiefs through the performers fingertips.
  • Drag artists. Female entertainers dressed as men, such as Vesta Tilley. Or male entertainers dressed as women, such as impressionist, Danny La Rue, or comedian, Rex Jameson, in the character of Mrs Shufflewick
  • Knife throwing and sword swallowing. The most spectacular of its time was the Victorina Troupe, who swallowed a sword fired from a rifle.
  • Juggling and plate spinning acts. Another variation was the Diabolo.
  • Feats of strength by both strongmen and strongwomen.
  • Fire eaters and other eating acts, such as eating glass, razor blades, goldfish etc.
  • Wrestling and jujitsu exhibitions were both popular speciality acts, forming the basis of modern professional wrestling.
  • Mentalism acts. Commonly a male mentalist, blindfolded on stage, and an attractive female assistant passing among the audience. The assistant would collect objects from the audience, and the mentalist would identify each by 'reading' the assistants mind. This was usually accomplished by a clever system of codes and clues from the assistant.
  • Mime artists and impressionists.
  • Trampoline acts.
  • Animal acts: Talking dogs, Flea circuses, and all manner of animals doing tricks.
  • Stilt walkers.
  • Puppet acts, including human puppets and living doll acts.
  • Comic pianists, such as John Orlando Parry and George Grossmith.
  • Cowboy/Wild West acts.
  • Shadow puppet acts.

Music hall performers

1867 Poster from the National Standard Theatre, Shoreditch. Not strictly a Music hall, but a theatre where many of these artists performed their Music hall acts.
1910 Hetty King - sheet music cover.

The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America a London based theatre charity, strives to care for and restore the final resting places of Music Hall artistes.

Cultural influences of music hall: Literature, drama, screen, and later music

The music hall has been evoked in many films, plays, TV series and books.

  • About half of the film Those Were The Days (1934) is set in a music hall. It was based on a farce by Pinero and features the music hall acts of Lily Morris, Harry Bedford, the gymnasts Gaston & Andre, G.H. Elliott, Sam Curtis and Frank Boston & Betty.
  • A music hall with a 'memory man' act provides a pivotal plot device in the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller The 39 Steps.[43]
  • The Arthur Askey comedy film I Thank You (1941) features old time music hall star Lily Morris as an ex-music hall artiste now ennobled as "Lady Randall". In the last scene of the film, however, she reverts to type and gives a rendition of "Waiting at the Church" at an impromptu concert at Aldwych tube station organised by Askey and his side-kick Richard "Stinker" Murdoch.
  • The Victorian era of music hall was celebrated by the 1944 film Champagne Charlie.[44]
  • Charlie Chaplin's 1952 film Limelight, set in 1914 London, evokes the music hall world of Chaplin's youth where he performed as comedian before he achieved worldwide celebrity as a film star in America. The film depicts the last performance of a washed-up music hall clown called Calvero at The Empire theatre, Leicester Square. The film premiered at the Empire Cinema, which was built on the same site as the Empire theatre.[45]
  • The Good Old Days (1953 to 1983) was a popular BBC television light entertainment programme recorded live at the Leeds City Varieties which recreated an authentic atmosphere of the Victorian–Edwardian music hall with songs and sketches of the era performed by present-day performers in the style of the original artistes. The audience dressed in period costume and joined in the singing, especially the singing of Down at the Old Bull and Bush which closed the show. The show was compered by Leonard Sachs who introduced the acts. In the course of its run it featured about 2000 artists. The show was first broadcast on 20 July 1953. The Good Old Days was inspired by the success of the Ridgeway's Late Joys at the Players' Theatre Club in London: a private members' club that ran fortnightly programmes of variety acts in London's West End.[46]
  • John Osborne's play The Entertainer (1957) portrays the life and work of a failing third-rate music hall stage performer who tries to keep his career going even as his personal life falls apart. The story is set at the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956, against the backdrop of the dying music hall tradition, and has been seen as symbolic of Britain's general post-war decline, its loss of its Empire, its power, and its cultural confidence and identity. It was made into a film in 1960 starring Laurence Olivier in the title role of Archie Rice.[47]
  • In Grip of the Strangler (1958), set in Victorian London, the raunchy can-can dancers and loose women of the sleazy "Judas Hole" music hall are terrorised by the Haymarket Strangler, played by Boris Karloff.
  • J. B. Priestley's 1965 novel Lost Empires also evokes the world of Edwardian music hall just before the start of World War I; the title is a reference to the Empire theatres (as well as foreshadowing the decline of the British Empire itself). It was recently adapted as a television miniseries, shown in both the UK and in the U.S. as a PBS presentation. Priestley's 1929 novel The Good Companions, set in the same period, follows the lives of the members of a "concert party" or touring Pierrot troupe.
  • The parodic film Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), based on the stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963) by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, featured the music hall turns and songs that had provided support for the British war effort in World War I.[48]
  • The popular British television series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–1975) and its spin-off Thomas & Sarah (1979) each dealt frequently with the world of the Edwardian music hall, sometimes through references to actual Edwardian era performers such as Vesta Tilley or to characters on the show attending performances, and other times through the experiences of the popular character Sarah Moffat, who left domestic service several times and often ended up going on stage to support herself when she did.
  • Between 1978 and 1984 BBC television broadcast two series of programmes called The Old Boy Network.[49] These featured a star (usually a Music Hall performer, but also some younger turns like Eric Sykes) performing some of their best known routines while giving a slide show of their life story. Artistes featured included Arthur Askey, Tommy Trinder, Sandy Powell, and Chesney Allen.
  • The modern Players' Theatre Club provides a brief impression of contemporary music hall in the film The Fourth Angel, where Jeremy Irons' character creates an alibi by visiting a show.[50]
  • Sarah Waters's book Tipping the Velvet (1998) revolves around the world of music halls in the late Victorian era, and in particular around two fictional "mashers" (drag kings) named Kitty Butler and Nan King.[51]
  • Music hall had a profound influence on The Beatles through Paul McCartney, who is himself the son of a music hall performer (Jim McCartney, who led Jim Mac's Jazz Band). Many of McCartney's songs are indistinguishable from music hall except in their instrumentation. When I'm Sixty-Four and Honey Pie are two fine examples, as are Your Mother Should Know and Maxwell's Silver Hammer.
  • Herman's Hermits, led by Peter Noone, also incorporated music hall into their repertoire, scoring a major hit with their cover of the Harry Champion music hall standard I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am in 1965 (but Noone's version included only the chorus, not the many verses of the original).
  • In James Joyce's short story The Boarding House, Mrs. Mooney's boarding-house in Hardwicke Street accommodates "occasionally (...) artistes from the music halls". The Sunday night "reunions" with Jack Mooney in the drawing-room create a certain atmosphere.
  • In Vivian Stanshall and Ki Longfellow-Stanshall's musical, Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera, the lead performer is an ageing music hall artiste named Soliquisto.
  • Legendary soul singer Michael Jackson openly admitted his admiration for music hall performers such as Charlie Chaplin.
  • British rockers Queen incorporated music hall styles into many of their songs, most notably 1974's Killer Queen.
  • Garry Bushell's punk pathetique band, The Gonads, did rock versions of music hall songs. Many punk pathetique acts were indebted to the music hall tradition.
  • The Theatre of the absurd was heavily influenced by music hall in its use of comedy, as well as avant-garde cultural forms (such as surrealism) being a more obvious influence.
  • The spirit of the music hall lives on in the form of pensioner rapper, Ida Barr who mashes up music hall and rap. Based on a real artiste, the act is performed by Christopher Green.

Surviving music halls

The Hackney Empire, August 2005

London was the centre of Music Hall with hundreds of venues, often in the entertainment rooms of public houses. With the decline in popularity of Music Hall, many were abandoned, or converted to other uses, such as cinemas and their interiors lost. There are a number of purpose built survivors, including the Hackney Empire, an outstanding example of the late Music Hall period (Frank Matcham 1901). This has been restored to its moorish splendour and now provides an eclectic programme of events from opera to "Black Variety Nights". A mile to the south is Hoxton Hall an 1863 example of the saloon-style. It is unrestored but maintained in its original layout, and currently used as a community centre and theatre.[52] In the neighbouring borough, Collins Music Hall (built about 1860) still stands on the North side of Islington Green. The hall closed in the 1960s and currently forms part of a bookshop.[53]

In Clapham, The Grand, originally the 1900 'Grand Palace of Varieties', has been restored, but its interior reflects its modern use as a music venue and nightclub.[54] The Greenwich Theatre was originally the 'Rose and Crown Music Hall' (1855), and later became 'Crowder's Music Hall and Temple of Varieties'. The building has been extensively modernised and little of the original layout remains.[55]

In the nondescript Grace's Alley, off Cable Street, Stepney stands Wilton's Music Hall. This 1858 example of the giant pub hall survived use as a church, fire, flood and war intact, but was virtually derelict, after its use as a rag warehouse, in the 1960s. The Wilton's Music Hall Trust has embarked on a fund-raising campaign to restore the building.[56] In June 2007 the World Monuments Fund added the building to its list of the world's "100 most endangered sites".[57] The music video of the Frankie goes to Hollywood single Relax was shot here.

Many of these buildings can be seen as part of the annual London Open House event.

1904 London Coliseum, Matcham theatre with London's widest proscenium arch

There are also surviving music halls outside London, a notable example being the Leeds City Varieties (1865) with a preserved interior. This was used for many years as the setting for the BBC television variety show, based on the music hall genre, The Good Old Days. The Alhambra Theatre, Bradford was built in 1914 for theatre impresario Frank Laidler, and later owned by the Stoll-Moss Empire'. It was restored in 1986, and is a fine example of the late Edwardian style. It is now a receiving theatre for touring productions, and opera.[58]

In Northern Ireland, the Grand Opera House (Belfast). Frank Matcham 1895, was preserved and restored in the 1980s.[59] The Gaiety Theatre, Isle of Man is another Matcham design from 1900[60] that remains in use after an extensive restoration programme in the 1970s. In Glasgow, the Britannia Music Hall (1857), by architects Thomas Gildard and H.M. McFarlane remains standing, with much of the theatre intact but in a poor state having closed in 1938. There is a preservation trust attempting to rescue the theatre.[61]

One of the few fully functional music hall entertainments, is at the Brick Lane Music Hall in a former church in North Woolwich. The Players' Theatre Club is another group performing a Victorian style Music Hall show at a variety of venues and The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America stage music hall-style entertainments.[citation needed]

See also

The term "Music hall" is also used to describe some large musical venues, such as the Paris Olympia, Radio City Music Hall, and Music Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio (see Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra).


  1. ^ a b Diana Howard London Theatres and Music Halls 1850-1950 (1970)
  2. ^ The Night Side of London: The Eagle Tavern J. Ewing Ritchie (1858) accessed 1 November 2007
  3. ^ Pop Goes the Weasel World Wide Words accessed 1 November 2007
  4. ^ The Making of the Britannia Theatre - Alan D. Craxford and Reg Moore accessed 1 November 2007
  5. ^ Benny Green (ed) (1986) The Last Empires: A Music Hall Companion pp. 7 (Pavilion, 1986) ISBN 1-85145-061-0
  6. ^ Canterbury Music Hall (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 23 October 2007
  7. ^ New London Theatre accessed 31 May 2007
  8. ^ Shoreditch Empire (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 23 October 2007
  9. ^ Royal Cambridge Music Hall (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 23 October 2007
  10. ^ British Library on Weston's accessed 31 Mar 2007
  11. ^ Oxford Music Hall (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 23 October 2007
  12. ^ Shaftesbury Avenue, Survey of London: volumes 31 and 32: St James Westminster, Part 2 (1963), pp. 68-84 accessed: 24 October 2007.
  13. ^ Alhambra Theatre (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 23 October 2007
  14. ^ The Bedford Music Hall (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 23 October 2007
  15. ^ Collins Music Hall (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 23 October 2007
  16. ^ Gatti's In the Road, and Under the Arches, Music Halls (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 23 October 2007
  17. ^ Jerry White (2007) London in the Nineteenth Century: 280
  18. ^ Benny Green (1986) The Last Empires: A Music Hall Companion: 42-3
  19. ^ Pages about Morton's management in feature on the theatre (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 27 March 2008
  20. ^ Gavin Weightman (1992) Bright Lights, Big City: 94-5
  21. ^ London Coliseum (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 24 October 2007
  22. ^ London Palladium (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 24 October 2007
  23. ^ Principally, entertainment was governed by the Theatres Act 1843, but this also gave more powers to local magistrates to impose conditions.
  24. ^ The Royal Variety Performance (London Theatre Museum accessed 24 October 2007
  25. ^ Music Hall Strike of 1907 (Theatre Museum London) accessed 15 November 2007
  26. ^ The Music Hall War (Stage Beauty) accessed 24 October 2007
  27. ^ Strike of the month: Marie Lloyd and the music hall strike of 1907 (Tribune Magazine) 22 September 2007 accessed 25 November 2007
  28. ^ Gillies Midge Marie Lloyd, the one and only (Gollancz, London, 1999)
  29. ^ Popular Music in England, 1840-1914: A Social History Dave Russell (1997 Manchester University Press) ISBN 0-7190-5261-0 accessed 24 October 2007
  30. ^ Vesta Tilley Biography accessed 24 October 2007
  31. ^ Vesta Tilley, Sarah Maitland (1986 Virago) p14 ISBN 0-86068-795-3
  32. ^ Lucinda Jarret (1997): Stripping in Time: A History of Erotic Dancing: 107
  33. ^ John Osbourne (1957) The Entertainer: 7. Faber and Faber, London
  34. ^ Stoll-Moss Theatres Ltd (Company History) accessed 2 November 2007
  35. ^ Clarkson Rose (1964) Red Plush and Greasepaint: 136
  36. ^ The Muppet Show Music Hall accessed 2 November 2007
  37. ^ a b The Songs of the Music Hall (Music Hall CDs) accessed 2 November 2007
  38. ^ Old Folks at Home (Center for American Music) accessed 2 November 2007
  39. ^ Golden Slippers Music for the Nation (Library of Congress) (1998) accessed 2 November 2007. Oh, Dem Golden Slippers was a minstrel parody by James Bland of an earlier spiritual by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Golden Slippers.
  40. ^ Beer, Beer, Glorious Beer words and music by Harry Anderson, Steve Leggett, and Will Goodwin, published 1901
  41. ^ Why Should The Devil Have All The Best Tunes? (Salvation Army History) accessed 2 November 2007. The origin of the quotation is problematic, it is first attributed to Martin Luther (1483-1546), and also to sermons preached by both Rowland Hill (1744-1833), and John Wesley (1703-1791)
  42. ^ DanceSport UK accessed 10 May 2007
  43. ^ The 39 Steps (1935) at the Internet Movie Database
  44. ^ Champagne Charlie (1944) at the Internet Movie Database
  45. ^ Limelight at the Internet Movie Database
  46. ^ 1950's British TV Milestones (Whirligig, 2003) accessed 24 October 2007
  47. ^ The Entertainer at the Internet Movie Database
  48. ^ Oh! What a Lovely War at the Internet Movie Database
  49. ^ The Old Boy Network accessed 10 May 2007
  50. ^ The Fourth Angel at the Internet Movie Database
  51. ^ BBC Drama - description accessed 10 May 2007
  52. ^ Hackney Empire Art and Architecture accessed 1 November 2007
  53. ^ Islington: Social and cultural activities, A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 8: Islington and Stoke Newington parishes (1985), pp. 45-51 accessed: 1 November 2007
  54. ^ The Stage Guide and Directory (1912)
  55. ^ Theatres and Halls in Greenwich, London (Arthur Lloyd) accessed: 1 November 2007
  56. ^ Peter Honri John Wilton's Music Hall, The Handsomest Room in Town (1985)
  57. ^ In praise of Wilton's music hall The Guardian, 8 June 2007
  58. ^ Alhambra Theatre and Majestic Cinema, Morely Street, Bradford, West Yorkshire (Arthur Lloyd) accessed 1 November 2007
  59. ^ Over 106 Years of Theatre Going at Northern Ireland's Premier Theatre (Grand Opera House) accessed 1 November 2007
  60. ^ The Gaiety Theatre (Isle of Man) accessed 1 November 2007
  61. ^ Scotland's Last Surviving Music Hall (Britannia Theatre Trust) accessed 1 November 2007

Further reading

  • Alexander, John, Tearing Tickets Twice Nightly:The Last Days of Variety (Arcady Press, 2002)
  • Bailey, Peter, ed., Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure, (Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1986)
  • Bergen, Edgar, How To Become a Ventriloquist, (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2000)
  • Bratton, J.S., ed., Music Hall: Performance & Style (Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1986)
  • Bruce, Frank, More Variety Days: Fairs, Fit-ups, Music hall, Variety Theatre, Clubs, Cruises and Cabaret (Edinburgh, Tod Press, 2000)
  • Busby, Roy, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who's Who from 1850 to the Present Day (London: Paul Elek, 1976)
  • Cheshire, D.F., Music Hall in Britain, (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1974)
  • Connor, Steven, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Earl, John, British Theatres and Music Halls (Princes Risborough, Shire, 2005)
  • Earl, John and Stanton, John, The Canterbury Hall and Theatre of Varieties (Cambridge, Chadwyck-Healy 1982)
  • Earl, John and Sell, Michael (eds.) The Theatres Trust Guide to British Theatres, 1750-1950 (A & C Black Publishers Ltd, 2000)
  • Garrett, John M., Sixty Years of British Music Hall, (London, Chappell & Company in association with Andre Deutsch, 1976)
  • Green, Benny, ed., The Last Empires: A Music Hall Companion (London, Pavilion Books Ltd. in association with Michael Joseph Ltd., 1986)
  • Honri, Peter John Wilton's Music Hall, The Handsomest Room in Town (1985)
  • Howard, Diana London Theatres and Music Halls 1850-1950 (1970)
  • Hudd, Roy, Music Hall (London, Eyre Methuen, 1976)
  • Maloney, Paul, Scotland and the Music Hall, 1850-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2003)
  • Mander, Raymond, and Mitchenson, Joe, British Music Hall (London, Gentry Books, 1974)
  • Mellor, G.J., The Northern Music Hall (Newcastle Upon Tyne, Frank Graham, 1970)
  • Mellor, G.J., They Made us Laugh: A Compendium Of Comedians Whose Memories Remain Alive (Littleborough, George Kelsall, 1982)
  • O'Gorman, Brian, Laughter in the Roar: Reminiscences of Variety and Pantomime (Weybridge, B. O'Gorman, 1998)
  • Scott, Harold, The Early Doors: origins of the music hall (London, Nicholson & Watson 1946)
  • Stuart, C D and Park, A J, The Variety Stage (London, Unwin 1895)
  • Wilmut, Roger, Kindly Leave The Stage - The story of Variety 1919-1960 (London, Methuen 1985)

External links

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  • MUSIC-HALL — Au milieu du XIXe siècle, un cabaretier londonien a l’idée de présenter sur une scène des chanteurs professionnels. Il ouvre un établissement sous le nom de Canterbury Music Hall. Le terme est lancé, il fera le tour du monde. Music hall se dit du …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Music-Hall — Le music hall est une grande salle de spectacle où se produisent des artistes de variétés. Anglicisme au départ, ce mot sera utilisé par Joseph Oller pour désigner un spectacle de variétés. Sommaire 1 Théorie 2 Histoire 2.1 À Londres …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Music hall — Le music hall est une grande salle de spectacle où se produisent des artistes de variétés. Anglicisme au départ, ce mot sera utilisé par Joseph Oller pour désigner un spectacle de variétés. Sommaire 1 Théorie 2 Histoire 2.1 À Londres …   Wikipédia en Français

  • music hall — music halls also music hall 1) N UNCOUNT: oft N n Music hall was a popular form of entertainment in the theatre in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It consisted of a series of performances by comedians, singers, and dancers. [mainly… …   English dictionary

  • Music hall — Music Mu sic, n. [F. musique, fr. L. musica, Gr. ? (sc. ?), any art over which the Muses presided, especially music, lyric poetry set and sung to music, fr. ? belonging to Muses or fine arts, fr. ? Muse.] 1. The science and the art of tones, or… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Music hall — A place for public musical entertainments; specif. (Eng.), esp. a public hall for vaudeville performances, in which smoking and drinking are usually allowed in the auditorium. [Webster 1913 Suppl.] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • music hall — n BrE 1.) [U] a type of entertainment in the theatre in the 19th and early 20th century consisting of performances by singers, dancers, and people telling jokes = ↑vaudeville 2.) a theatre used for music hall shows …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • music-hall — (del inglés; pronunciamos miúsic jol ) sustantivo masculino 1. Espectáculo de variedades en el que alternan los números musicales con los cómicos y los de magia: Santiago quería trabajar como ilusionista en un music hall …   Diccionario Salamanca de la Lengua Española

  • music hall — [n] concert hall amphitheater, auditorium, opera house, theater; concepts 263,293,439,448 …   New thesaurus

  • music hall — music hall. (Voz ingl.). m. Sala que ofrece espectáculos de variedades. || 2. Espectáculo de variedades. || 3. Género al que pertenece este tipo de espectáculos …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • music-hall — / mju:zik hɔl/, it. /mjuzi k:ɔl/ s. ingl. (propr. sala di musica ), usato in ital. al masch. (teatr.) [tipo di spettacolo di intrattenimento che alterna brani recitati e brani cantati e, anche, il locale in cui si allestiscono tali spettacoli]… …   Enciclopedia Italiana

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