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London Pavilion programme, 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

London Pavilion programme, 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the early 20th century, new purpose-built theatres, many designed by Frank Matcham, sprang up across Britain. These were the Empires, Palaces and Hippodromes, beautiful Edwardian theatres with chandeliers, gold leaf decorations and red plush velvet seats. Unlike music halls where the audience sat at tables, the Edwardian theatres had proscenium arches, with fixed seats and separate bar and auditorium.

The traditions of eating and drinking during the performance disappeared. Audiences sat in rows in a darkened auditorium which discouraged audience participation. The old spirit of Music Hall gradually faded away and was replaced by variety.

The London Pavilion, on Piccadilly Circus in the centre of London, started life as a song and supper room, attached to the Black Horse pub. It became a music hall in 1861.

The word 'jingoism', meaning aggressive English nationalism, was coined here when The Great Macdermott sang a song about the English intervention in the Turko-Russian war of 1877.

Oswald Stoll, 1914. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Oswald Stoll, 1914. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Oswald Stoll

Variety artists were employed by the season to perform on a circuit of theatres controlled by producers. By 1925 Moss Empires controlled 24 theatres, Oswald Stoll 16.

Oswald Stoll started his career at the age of 14, assisting his mother in running the Parthenon Music Hall in Liverpool, and ended it owning a string of vast music halls. From 1898 to 1910 he was the Managing Director of Moss Empires. Sir Edward Moss was the other giant in the world of music hall management at the time.

In many ways, Stoll was an unlikely music hall manager. He spent most of his life in a little suburban house in Putney in South West London. He did not drink or smoke, and not only did he not swear, he had signs put up backstage prohibiting his employees from using any coarse language.

He was well known among performers as a strict manager, and one who paid his performers as little as he could.

Oswald Stoll built the London Coliseum, designed by Frank Matcham, in 1904.

 
The Coliseum Theatre, London, photographic postcard, about 1920. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Coliseum Theatre, London, photographic postcard, about 1920. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

The Coliseum was at that time the only theatre in Europe that had lifts. It had a marble staircase and tea room on every tier. Oswald Stoll was a teetotaller who wanted to create entertainment for families. The seats in the Coliseum had armrests and for the first time could be booked in advance for performances. There were four performances of the variety show daily.

As well as traditional Music Hall acts, Stoll introduced musical spectaculars, ballets (including the Diaghilev Ballet), and short dramatic plays with major theatrical stars like Sarah Bernhardt.

At first many theatre stars did not wish to appear in a variety bill with acrobats, jugglers and animal acts. Sarah Bernhardt cabled Oswald Stoll before signing her first contract with the message ‘Between tigers. Not’. She was implying that she would not go on stage before or after any animal acts as this would not be appropriate for a woman of her status.

Some Music Hall artists never appeared at the Coliseum - including Marie Lloyd. When the first Royal Variety Performance took place at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End Marie Lloyd was not on the bill. She was considered too vulgar for a Royal audience. In anger she booked another theatre for the same night. The posters for the event proclaimed: ‘Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a Command Performance by Order of the British Public’. She played to a sell out audience.  

The Royal Variety Performance

The first Royal Variety Performance (known as the Royal Command Performance) took place on 1 July 1912 at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End.

King George V and Queen Mary attended. This was a lavish occasion; the theatre was decorated with 3 million roses which were draped around the auditorium and over the boxes. The performers included music hall stars Alfred Lester, Gus Elen, Dan Leno, Vesta Tilley, Vesta Victoria and the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova but with a few notable omissions such as Marie Lloyd (whose act was considered too risqué for the Royal party) and Albert Chevalier. In defiance Marie appeared on the same night at a nearby theatre billed as 'By command of the British public'. Chevalier took out a page in The Era newspaper explaining the unfairness of his omission and why he should have been included.

The Royal party by all accounts enjoyed the show. The only embarrassment occurred when Queen Mary saw Vesta Tilley appear on stage in trousers. Apparently she buried her face in her programme. Women were never seen in trousers until the First World War and it would have been considered most immodest in 1912.

The Royal Variety Performance still takes place every year, raising money for the Entertainment Artists’ Benevolent Fund.

Souvenir programme for the Royal Command Performance, 1 July, 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Souvenir programme for the Royal Command Performance, 1 July 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Ticket to the Royal Command Performance, 1 July 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Ticket to the Royal Command Performance, 1 July 1912. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cariacture of Gracie Fields by Gilbert Sommerlad, 23 April 1936. Museum no. S.131:41-2002, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cariacture of Gracie Fields by Gilbert Sommerlad, 23 April 1936. Museum no. S.131:41-2002, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Variety from the 1920s

The popularity of variety dwindled with the advent of the talking pictures. By the 1930s many theatres had closed or become cinemas. Other forms of entertainment, such as revue, had become popular and many variety performers made their names through radio, film and later, television. In World War I many former acrobats, aerialists and jugglers were killed or injured and could no longer perform, thus robbing the stage of the breadth and variety of acts previously available.

In the 1930s and 40s artists such as Ted Ray, Tommy Trinder, Nellie Wallace, Gracie Fields, Will Hay, George Formby, Sandy Powell and Max Miller appeared regularly in variety up and down the country. These were well known names made famous by radio.

Radio was seen as a way to encourage new audiences to come along to see the show, but because performers didn’t want to give away all their best jokes on the radio they would make the audience laugh at the recording sessions with visual jokes.

The Crazy Gang

The Crazy Gang in Clown Jewels, photographed by Houston Rogers, Victoria Palace Theatre, London, 1959. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Crazy Gang in Clown Jewels, photographed by Houston Rogers, Victoria Palace Theatre, London, 1959. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By 1959, the comedians who made up the Crazy Gang – the three double acts Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen, Jimmy Nervo and Teddy Knox, and Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold sometimes joined by “Monsewer” Eddie Gray - had been together for 27 years and were all aged between 60 and 72. They had been threatening to retire for years but kept being persuaded to do one more show.

Their shows were made up of sketches in which the gang appeared as different characters. Here Bud Flanagan is a vicar at a choir practice, prising open the collection box with a knife and allowing the boys to play his fruit machine. Many of the reviews agreed that the Gang's jokes were old, corny and frequently terrible, and yet irresistibly funny because of the charm of the performers. They were favourites of the Royal Family, and the Queen and Prince Philip made a surprise visit to the show.

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