'Always Merry and Bright': A Reflection on English Music-Hall
Like the cup that cheers, there is something profoundly comforting about English music-hall. When my Cockney grandfather was a teenager during the twenties, the tradition, also known as Variety (particularly in the north), was on the wane. Nevertheless, he developed a passion for it that would last his entire life, talking wistfully of stars like Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. Granddad was not unusual in this nostalgia. Despite the loss of many music-hall theatres in the early and mid twentieth century, the tradition itself—its theatricality, mild subversion, humour, indomitable cheerfulness, and knowingness—exerted a powerful influence over English twentieth-century popular culture. In his recent, magisterial White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, Dominic Sandbrook argues that music-hall was one of the defining elements in the Englishness of groups like the Kinks and the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper, he believes, is steeped in it). He adds that the first English rock-and-rollers served their apprenticeships in Variety's surviving fringes, and points out that sixties rock concerts attracted precisely the same demographic as the Edwardian music-hall: urban lower-middle-class and working-class young people with a little bit of disposable income.
When I myself was a teenager, I was spellbound by a bargain-bin discovery of Graham Nown's When the World Was Young, written to accompany the Granada television adaptation (starring a very young Colin Firth) of J. B. Priestley's novel Lost Empires, about the pre-war music-halls. With its coverage both of the Edwardian social situation and the various acts --acrobats, conjurors, and musical turns— who made up the typical music-hall bill, Nown's book is still one of the most entertaining, accessible, and empathetic books on English music-hall available. At about the same age, I somehow became acquainted with hits such as Waiting at the Church, My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and Any Old Iron; the success of Peter Sellers' sixties recording of the latter speaks to the enduring twentieth-century popularity of music-hall, as does the career of Stanley Holloway.
The music-hall tradition produced many larger-than-life figures. Some of the original stars are all but forgotten: Marie Lloyd, the 'Queen of Comedy,' died on stage at the age of fifty-two, during a performance of One of the Ruins that Cromwell Knocked About a Bit. According to Nown, Londoners lined the route of her funeral "in their tens of thousands." Gracie Fields, George Formby, Stan Laurel --of Laurel and Hardy— and, of course, Charlie Chaplin, who developed his famous walk during his stint with the comedy clog-dancing troupe the Lancashire Lads, are names that still resonate today, and all of them cut their teeth in music-hall and Variety.
According to Laurence Olivier, who created the role of the broken-down music-hall artist Archie Rice in The Entertainer by John Osborne, the ever-gloomy playwright viewed the end of the music-hall era as the end of England's greatness. It is certainly true that the demise of the Edwardian music-hall and the upheaval of World War I are twinned in the popular imagination, partly because the music-halls never regained their pre-war influence, partly because they were notoriously responsible for feeding the insanity of 1914. (It was in fact a music-hall song that gave rise to the term 'jingoism.') Osborne's Eeyore-ishness aside, however, and as Sandbrook suggests, wherever there is an end-of-pier show or a pantomime, there is a surviving wisp of a tradition that fostered much of what, even today, is distinctive about English popular and working-class culture.
For me, the song that best sums up the spirit of the Edwardian music-hall is not in fact an authentic music-hall song, but I've Gotter Motter, a pastiche in Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot's 1909 operetta The Arcadians. On my old LP of the play it is sung by Jon Pertwee in an affecting performance capturing all the plaintive schmaltz of a characteristic music-hall vocal style. The song still has the power—particularly this side of the Great War—to put a lump in the throat, with its chorus:
I've gotter motter - Always merry and bright! Look around and you will find Every cloud is silver lined; The sun will shine Although the sky's a gray one. I've often said to meself, I've said, 'Cheer up, Cully, you'll soon be dead! A short life and a gay one!'
(This version is taken from the online pdf of the entire Arcadians libretto, at math.boisestate.edu/GaS/british/arcadians/arcadians_libretto.rtf Full of Edwardian playfulness, the play contains some wonderfully silly stuff, particularly the delightful All Down Piccadilly.)
Many believe that English nonsense writing only starts with Lear and Carroll, but a vein of gnomic silliness runs through English poetry back to the Middle Ages. Those who can decipher Middle English will get a charge out of the rowdy burlesque The Tournament of Tottenham, in which, to win the hand of a flighty-sounding damsel called Tyb, the local bachelors brawl and carouse. Among other fascinating historical details, it summons up an image of the villages that London later absorbed:
It befell in Totenham on a dear day There was made a shurting [feast] by the highway. Thither came all the men of the country Of Hyssyltoun, of Hygate, and of Hakenay And all the sweet swinkers [labourers]: There hopped Hawkyn, There danced Dawkyn, There trumped Tomkyn; And all were true drinkers.
(The rest of this modernised version can be read at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/sirthop/totten.html)
Some of the more obscure English nursery rhymes are full of strange surrealism, though they probably had a meaning originally:
I saw a peacock with a fiery tail I saw a blazing comet drop down hail I saw a cloud with ivy circled round I saw a sturdy oak creep upon the ground I saw a pismire swallow up a whale I saw a raging sea brim full of ale I saw a Venice glass sixteen foot deep I saw a well full of men's tears that weep I saw their eyes all in a flame of fire I saw a house as big as the moon and higher I saw the sun even in the midst of night I saw the Man that saw this wondrous sight.
There is also this manic little ditty by Anon, which asks some unanswerable questions:
Hey nonny no! Men are fools that wish to die! Is't not fine to dance and sing When the bells of death do ring? Is't not fine to swim in wine, And turn upon the toe And sing Hey nonny no, While the winds blow And the seas flow? Hey nonny no! Hey nonny no!
It really is hard to escape the conclusion that frivolity is an enduring component of the national character.--Isabel Taylor