An 1893 programme for a music hall bill that includes the stars Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno

Music hall dad

John Major’s memoir of his father gives us a front row seat
October 17, 2012

An 1893 programme for a music hall bill that includes the stars Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno

This gent phoned me the other day. “Listen!” he ses, “D’you fancy doing a write-up for us? A review?”

“How d’you mean?” I ses.

“John Major has written a book about his dad and the old music hall. Now you know a bit about this! So how about it? We’ll give you a few bob,” he ses.

“Right,” I ses. “I’ll get up and get dressed. When do I start?”

The words “music hall” bring to mind the picture of a raucous mob, howling and bellowing their old familiar phrases, the same heckling lines you hear at prime minister’s question time: “Rubbish! Codswallop! Resign!” Back when he was in office, facing the hecklers at PMQs, John Major would endeavour to bring order, to calm things down with his patient and reasonable manner. He brings the same diligence and clear thinking to My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall, an account of one of our much-loved institutions told through the story of his father, Tom Major-Ball, who began his music hall career aged 17, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne.

This is a whimsical tome—an incongruity surely? A treatise penned by a politician about his father’s profession. How and where it all started. In the pleasure gardens and pubs, saloons and penny gaffs of the 19th century. Men and women joyfully raising their alcohol-fuelled voices in song.

Major has produced a wonderful show for us; a detailed history of the bawdy, boozy singalong halls of the good old days; show business, the Victorian way. He presents a cavalcade of colourful and eccentric characters from both sides of the footlights: the artistes, the managements and, most importantly, the audience.

I think slaving over a hot audience is a wonderful way of earning a crust. For thousands of years people have been fascinated by watching other people perform—dancing, speaking, acting. The Greeks, the Elizabethans, Shakespeare’s theatre. People have always loved to dress up and down, to sing, to speak their lines and tell their jokes. Singing is best enjoyed with other people. Telling jokes to yourself is very unsatisfactory. Ah! Where would we be without them, the customers? Probably locked away in a secure place—or back in the House of Commons debating town and country planning, the third runway, et cetera.

The music hall chairman, Sir John, for the purpose of his book, has produced for your delight and at ENORMOUS expense a cornucopia of star names, biographies and anecdotes of these fabulous eccentrics. Marie Lloyd, née Matilda Wood, queen of the music halls. Her world-renowned success in variety and the variety of her love life entertained everybody. Dan Leno, a little man with a giant talent. His bill matter proclaimed him as “the funniest man in the world.” George Robey, the prime minister of mirth. Gertie Gitana and Nellie Wallace and many others.

All these entertainers were like little one-man businesses: very independent, trying to make a living with their act, anxiously looking for their next engagements—fiercely proud and protective of their position. And a few of them did make it and became the “lions” of the music hall, and the girls too. Some indeed married into the aristocracy and became titled ladies, even duchesses.

So what makes a star? Nobody really knows. I’ve heard hard-hearted agents—gilded impresarios, bossy managers—all try to explain why this woman or that man is a Star—a Top of the Bill, a Draw. All these pundits end up with the same word: “Magic!” Most entertainers have skill, talent, polish, but the greats, the stars, have magic. Charisma, magnetism, call it what you will—it’s still magic.

The early music halls were very like the social clubs where I first served my apprenticeship. These were great places to learn, with eye-to-eye contact, how to love and respect your audience. You try to charm them. They’re like a big, warm, shaggy dog. If they like you they’ll be friendly, encouraging, asking for their favourite joke. “Give us the three-legged chicken Doddy!” They’ll be with you, even shouting the punchline of the gag before you can get to it.

But if you don’t give them what they want—if your jokes aren’t funny and you don’t sing their favourite song—you’ll “get the bird.” At Glasgow Empire—the “house of terror”—they would shout, “Away hame and bile yer heed!”

Variety acts in the past and now share a lot. Each one of the performers Major describes worked assiduously, polishing, burnishing their act until it shone. So in a variety show you got gold, the result of so much hard work, diligence and wishing for their big break. We’re all dreamers, optimists—we know that one day we’ll make it to the big time! The wheel of fortune spins around and nowadays the intrepid “turns” find work in all sorts of venues. An amazing number of entertainers now work on cruise ships, the maritime music halls!

The old music halls may have crumbled away but they left us a priceless legacy: the songs. They are our heritage and we still sing them today at family parties round the piano, round the campfire, in pubs and clubs, even in civic leisure centres. Great tunes, lovely lyrics. “If You Were the Only Girl in the World,” “You Made Me Love You,” “I’m Shy Mary Ellen, I’m Shy.” They weren’t all love songs though. Some had intellectual titles like, “When It’s Night Time in Italy It’s Wednesday Over Here,” “Yes We Have No Bananas” and “How Does a Hen Know the Size of an Eggcup When it Lays an Egg?”

Throughout this book, John Major reveals his love and respect for his father, and his mother Gwen, herself an accomplished artiste and dancer. He tells us of his dad’s amazing rollercoaster career, recounts lots of show business gossip and gives us plenty of peeps behind the scenes; recalling the good times and the sad times, the laughter and the tears.

Sir John has booked front seats for us at the best live show in town. The nostalgic world of tinsel and tights, red noses and funny men, all gigs and gags. Now the stars come out for us. “Overture and beginners please!” “Curtain up—on with the show!” “Don’t dilly dally!” Read it and enjoy the acts. Variety IS the spice of life!