I recently had a long chat with Lola Wingrove, our collaborator on ‘The Vital Spark’ and an expert on women in Victorian music-hall performance. Many interesting issues were raised in this conversation, which we hope will come through in the finished work. We’ll be posting some of this discussion here, to give you some background, and also as a window into some of the things we think about when putting together a play about the past.
Laura Rice: I think it’s kind of hard to get one’s head around music halls today, we just don’t have anything like it. We don’t have different theatres for different socio-economic classes. Theatre is generally thought of as a middle and upper class thing now, because of prices, and the theatre of the common, for everybody, is television and film, so we don’t have relationship with the idea that there could actually be separate theatres based on who you are.
Lola Wingrove: It’s quite interesting because things like film was basically what killed music halls, film and then television, and television is blamed a lot for the downfall of film nowadays, because if you’ve got it in your front room why would you bother going out. Most people seem to be staying in their houses and aren’t really interacting in the same kind of way. One of the biggest draws in music halls was their sense of community spirit and bringing everyone together and making everyone feel like they’re sort of mucking in together, so to speak. Yes, I think it’s something that’s quite foreign to us now, when we think about it, it doesn’t quite work out. It’s a really interesting theatre format, but people can’t quite understand it so much now.
LR: Do we have anything analogous? I feel like there are different programmes that are aimed at different groups, but it’s not quite the same in live performance.
LW: No. I know people [have compared] the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” to the variety performance, because it’s the same sort of set-up of having people doing different kinds of performance, and you’ve still got that interactive quality, with people ringing in and voting and people talking about it in the street, and they’ll chat to eachother about it and read about it in the paper, so you’ve got that kind of weird community, in that it draws everybody in to talk about something in common. But one of the really great things that music halls did was actually reflect everyday life, a bit like soap operas do today, only the live format made it all even more immediate. They would have performers on stage that were performing for the people as the people you’d see selling stuff on the markets, or in the coffee shops. So although the kind of classed analogy is sort of there, it doesn’t totally work in that same sort of way. That’s why I think people have a difficulty understanding music hall.
LR: And the idea of variety, in a performance, because you don’t go to something where you’re going to see seven or eight different things, on potentially completely different themes in one night, we just don’t really have that anymore.
LW: That’s the thing, [there were] professionals going around and doing these different acts, and they would perform all across the country, so you’ve got professionals- animal trainers, acrobats, dancers, singers, comedians. And on the bills, quite often, especially towards the late Victorian period, the music halls would normally include a section from a ballet or an opera or something, so we tend to think of music halls as being these sort of rowdy, working-class kind of thing, and [we often think they were] a suppression, a way of keeping the working class away from the fine arts, but it wasn’t that at all. I mean, they were much better versed in ballet and opera and things like that than a lot of us probably are today, because of the fact that they would see it on a regular basis and get all these different acts. And we tend to think of the halls as being quite xenophobic because of the amount of patriotism and stuff like that, but for a lot of the halls, they actually employed lots of different acts from all over Europe, and there was a cultural exchange happening through the halls, which is quite often neglected and ignored as well, so it was quite a sort of novel and interesting experience. There are some acts that are just a little bit weird. Like, there was one guy and his whole act was just jumping up and down on the spot. No one has quite worked out why that was so popular, but he apparently just jumped up and down and everyone thought it was wonderful. But that’s the problem with performance history and archives, you can’t quite see how he did it in a way that was so hilarious.
LR: Where do their performers fit into the bigger arts picture of the times, and into society on the whole? I assume Jenny Hill wasn’t someone Queen Victoria was going to invite over for coffee, but maybe she would, I don’t know!
LW: Well, not Hill, but [her contemporary] Bessie Bellwood, she was invited by Princess Louise, by royal appointment, to sing one of her songs, because she’d heard the servants singing it and enjoyed it, so she invited Bessie Bellwood to go and sing to her. That’s how far it could go, if you had a really good, catchy song! Even royalty could invite you to perform.
I think at that particular time, because this is long before the royal command performance occurred, a lot of the middle and upper classes just tended to think of the performers as low and just weren’t particularly interested in them. They’d almost be sort of our idea of the reality show stars today, where if you were middle or upper class you’d probably have heard of Jenny Hill, and there are certain songs that you might even buy to play on your piano by her, but you wouldn’t exactly think of her in particularly high esteem. However, amongst the working classes… That is arguably a much wider base, because most of the classes would go to the halls, that was their main source of entertainment. Especially in the winter time when at home it would be very dark or you wouldn’t have enough money to get a fire going, you could go to these halls which were all beautiful and glittery and well-heated, so people would often go to the halls several times a week.
[With] that kind of audience base, performers like Jenny Hill were exceptionally well known, I mean they were really, really hugely famous, to the extent that when they died, in the funeral procession, they would have ten thousand people lining the street for them, these sorts of amounts. Definitely for Hill. Marie Lloyd was a very famous, she had twenty or thirty thousand lined up, lining the streets for her. So they were hugely popular and influential, with women in particularly. [Women would be] waiting for them backstage to give them presents. They had a lot of groupies, a lot of people were really sort of obsessed with them, and they were the stars who were used the most for advertising. They were the ones who were put onto cigarette cards or used to advertise [other things], in Vesta Tilley’s case it was clothes. And advertising gives you some power as well, so they were enormously famous, probably just because of that wide base, probably even better known that some of the legitimate performers, who arguably had the smaller audience base really.
LR: Is there any permeability between those two worlds theatrically?
LW: There was. Each year for pantomime the legitimate theatres stole a lot of the music hall and variety performers for their pantomimes, in order to get quite a lot more people in, and so even the middle and upper classes would have seen Jenny Hill in her numerous amounts of pantomime, so they did cross over to the mainstream theatres there, and there’s a lot of evidence of music hall performers being asked to perform, because even the legitimate theatres, they’d have a main play, but they’d quite often have a little bit of variety warm-up stuff before the main event happened, so they’d get performers like Jenny Hill to perform there. So there were definitely cases of that. And also, both amongst opera and ballet stars, there’s a lot of them finishing performing, and then going around to a hall around the corner and deciding to have a sort of knees-up but still perform again, and so there was quite a lot of moving across in that way. I don’t think there were so many legitimate actress who’d want to be seen on the music hall stage, so there’s a bit less in terms of cases of it going that way, but definitely in the other way it did work, and in fact I know they often said with Jenny Hill, that she was good enough and had been invited to perform in legitimate theatres as an actress.