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Music Hall Character Acts

Character songs

George Robey as a Mayor in The Sketch magazine, 18th May 1904. Museum no. NAL 131655 PP.10, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

George Robey as a Mayor in The Sketch magazine, 18t May 1904. Museum no. NAL 131655 PP.10, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the early music halls, songs were central to the performance. Singing was the heart of the music hall act and comic singers its most famous stars. Many songs, and much of the comedy, were a comment on social conditions. They reflected working class life. Marie Lloyd’s hit 'My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and Don’t Dilly-Dally on the Way' was about doing a moonlight flit to avoid paying the rent and Gus Elen’s 'If it Wasn’t for the Houses in Between' was about the overcrowded living conditions in London’s East End.

Music hall songs and jokes were about day to day life: lodgers, mothers-in-law, bailiffs, overdue rent, drink, debt, adversity, unfaithful wives (and husbands), hen-pecked husbands (and wives). Other songs were unashamedly patriotic or sentimental, about true love, mother love, moon and June, idyllic villages, shady trees and wandering streams.

Audiences would return again and again to hear the same song and the same patter. Actors made their name with only one or two songs – they needed very little material if they were successful. There were no recordings or radio or television so people could only hear the song if they went to the music hall.

Character songs, where the performer portrayed an individual or a character type, were interspersed with comic patter or chat with the audience. This was rarely improvised. Other songs, like those sung by the ‘swells’ George Leybourne and The Great Vance, were wish fulfilment songs, about the fashionable social world to which the vast majority of the working class could only aspire.

Great comic singers included Dan Leno, Gus Elen, Marie Lloyd and George Robey. Many great music hall singers went on to star in pantomime.

Lions Comiques

Lions Comiques were the heart throbs of the Victorian era. They had the same cult status as the boy bands of the 1990s. Known as ‘swells’ these character singers dressed as fashionable, swaggering young men and sang songs about high life and drinking champagne. While their songs boasted about being seen at the most fashionable places, their attitude was distinctly laddish. A critic in the late 19th century remarked that Lions Comiques were men who set women just a little higher than their bottle.

George Leybourne was the most famous Lion Comique. He sang the song ‘Champagne Charlie’. Another such swell was Arthur Lloyd. Leybourne’s greatest rival, The Great Vance, sang songs about fashionable places to be seen, including the Zoological Gardens. It was his song ‘Walking in the Zoo’ that popularised the word zoo. However, George Leybourne’s song ‘Lounging in the Aq’ failed to do the same for the word aquarium.

Male and female impersonators

Music sheet cover for 'The Boys that Mind the Shop' sung by Vesta Tilley, late 19th to early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Music sheet cover for 'The Boys that Mind the Shop' sung by Vesta Tilley, late 19th to early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As women began to feature in music hall programmes, male impersonation became a popular turn. Women had played male roles in theatre and opera throughout the 19th century but there was no doubt that they were really women. Vesta Tilley was so successful with her impersonations that rumour spread across London that she was really a man. She even became a trendsetter for male fashion. Her characters included soldiers, sailors, policemen and priests all of whom appeared in immaculately tailored outfits created by the best Savile Row tailors.

Her greatest rival was Hetty King, who was born in 1883. Although they were both great stars, Hetty never saw Vesta Tilley on stage until her farewell performance. Like Vesta, Hetty appeared as a fashionable young man, but her characters also included working class men. She was a keen observer of sailors, soldiers and navvies and prided herself that she portrayed individuals rather than a type. She greatly treasured moments when women would say to her, ‘That’s just like my son’. Her most famous song was ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor’. She was still performing a few months before she died in 1972.

Malcolm Scott was one of the most famous female impersonators. He started his career as a straight actor at the Theatre Royal in Margate in 1886 but soon began to specialise in playing women. His performances were not as caricatured as the typical dame parts in pantomime. Among his best loved characters were Elizabeth I, Nell Gwyn, Boadicea and Salome.

The Gibson Girl

The Gibson Girl began life in the 1890s as an American newspaper cartoon and was the creation of the artist and illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. She was a modern woman, fashionable, independent and sporty.

Gibson's pen and ink drawings outlined an ideal of femininity at that time. It was all about the hourglass silhouette, the slender neck and a huge sweep of hair on top. The pictures were very well known. So, when a music hall artiste appeared in an elegantly tight corset and paraded up and down, the audience would recognise the style instantly. The exaggerated shape was an easy target for caricature, to even greater effect if it were a man doing the impersonation. Clifford had an impressively curvaceous hour-glass figure which Scott reproduced by wearing a tightly laced corset.

Like Vesta Tilley’s, his performances were never grotesque caricatures of the opposite sex.

Malcolm Scott as Camille Clifford, early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Malcolm Scott as Camille Clifford, early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Postcard of a Gibson Girl, early 20th century. Museum no. 1973/A/155, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Postcard of a Gibson Girl, early 20th century. Museum no. 1973/A/155, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some cross dressing acts aimed to convince the audience that the male performer really was a woman. El Niño Farini, the boy trapeze artist who appeared as Lulu kept his real identity secret. When it was discovered by the general public that he was really a man there was much embarrassment amongst ‘her’ male admirers!

Other performers would reveal their true identity - Barbette the great trapeze artist would take off his wig at the end of his act to gasps from the audience. The public were asked to keep ‘her little secret’ so as not to spoil the illusion for future audiences.

Speciality acts

Publicity postcard for The Four Garricks, late 19th to early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Publicity postcard for The Four Garricks, late 19th to early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The star performers in music hall were usually character singers and comedians. Speciality acts were interspersed between the songs to provide a contrast. At the height of music hall there were so many inventive and weird acts that it is very hard to classify them. They included ventriloquists, aerial acts, one-legged dancers, adagio acts, jugglers, magicians, cyclists, sword swallowers, acts involving electricity, animal acts, slapstick sketches and illusionists. Many of the acts which we would today associate with circus were originally performed in the music halls.

While many of the great singers of music hall and their songs are still remembered, many speciality acts are forgotten, although they were very famous in their day. One of the biggest stars was Paul Cinquevalli, ‘King of the Jugglers’, who could catch a cannon ball on his neck. He first performed in England in 1885 and became so popular that he topped the bill above Marie Lloyd. His ‘Human Billiard Table’ act was a favourite with King George V and it was included in the first Royal Variety Performance in 1912.

Music halls were a nationwide phenomenon. The most successful acts tended to gravitate towards London, but they also  toured the provinces along with performers of all standards.

Many acts were contracted to a particular group of theatres for a season and toured the country to the Empires or the Hippodromes. In an era before radio or television, audiences around the country wanted to see the famous acts and expected  them to perform their routine of the moment. Manchester had several halls including three Hippodromes, the Palace, the Metropole, the Peoples' Music Hall and the Theatre Royal.

Aerial acts

Aerial acts would take place on a system of ropes over the stalls. In 1861 the great Léotard, who invented the flying trapeze act, set up his equipment at the Alhambra Theatre, where he created a furore, and gave rise to the song 'The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’. Tightrope walker Blondin walked from one balcony of the Canterbury Music Hall to the other.

Aerial acts became very popular in music halls. They included trapeze and tightrope acts. Pansy Chinery, one of The Flying Zedoras, was shot though a paper target to be caught by her sister on a trapeze. Many of the aerial, wire walking and animal acts had hitherto been performed at fairs or in the pleasure gardens of London, many of which had been closed by the mid-19th century.


Adagio acts were a cross between dance and acrobatics where the women were thrown, spun and swung around by the men. The most famous act was by the Ganjou Brothers and Juanita, called Romance in Porcelain. They performed from the 1930s until they disbanded in 1956 and were among the highest paid variety acts of the 1940s. Many similar acrobatic throws and spins can now be seen in dance and ice skating routines.

Magic acts

Alhambra Theatre programme featuring Houdini, printed by Weiners Limited, London, 1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alhambra Theatre programme featuring Houdini, printed by Weiners Limited, London, 1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Magicians and illusionists were popular acts. J.N. Maskelyne and his son Nevil Maskelyne ran the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly which specialised in magic and illusion. Here they developed acts that still intrigue audiences today, such as sawing a woman in half.

In 1893 they were joined at the Egyptian Hall by David Devant, who performed illusions such as ‘Vice Versa’ where he changed a man into a woman. He also performed the first stage performance in London of the Indian Rope Trick. Devant was the magician at the first Royal Variety Performance in 1912.

Houdini, the great American escapologist, was also very popular in Britain, appearing at the Alhambra Theatre in 1900 billed as ‘The Handcuff King’. His act included escaping from handcuffs provided by the local police.

Harry Houdini was born in Hungary in 1874, but he made his name as an escapologist in America. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a rope escape act in New York.

Houdini was a great self-publicist, challenging police departments in any town he visited to try to restrain him or lock him up. Whilst appearing at the Alhambra Theatre, Houdini escaped from regulation handcuffs fitted by Scotland Yard. Houdini could remove himself from a straitjacket while hanging from the end of a crane, escape from a high security prison cell in 30 seconds, and emerge from the inside of a burglar proof safe in 14 minutes. His most daring act was the 'Water Torture Cell' where his legs were secured in stocks and he was lowered headfirst into a tank of water. He escaped in three minutes.


The Kaufmann Troupe of Trick Bicyclists, 19th century

The Kaufmann Troupe of Trick Bicyclists, 19th century

Cycling acts developed when cycling became fashionable in the late 19th century. Cycling troupes would perform tricks on one or two wheels.

The Elliotts and the Seven Musical Savonas were famous in the 1880s for being the only cycling band. Later they split into two contrasting acts. The first was a trick cycling act, the second was The World’s Only Saxophone Band, playing over 50 instruments between the seven of them. Hatsley, The Boy Wonder, rode a unicycle on the high wire while playing the trombone.

Kaufmann’s Cycling Beauties were an all female formation cycling team who appeared wearing full Edwardian fashionable dress or tight-fitting short-legged garments that look surprisingly like modern sportswear.

Other acts

'Electric' acts, exploiting the new invention of electricity, also made an appearance in the halls. Volta would electrify himself and then light gas jets with the tips of his fingers or set fire to handkerchiefs by touch. The Victorina Troupe developed the sword swallowing act to include swallowing a bayonet fitted to a loaded gun. Miss Victorina swallowed a lit electric light bulb which shone through her flesh.

By the early 20th century the Bioscope began to feature on programmes. This was the film and projector system of the day and short films and newsreels became a part of the music hall experience.

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