In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.
Wilson, Keppel and Betty
The supreme eccentric dance act of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Wilson, Keppel and Betty still hold sway fifty years after their disbandment. Theirs is a remarkable achievement. Many speech-based comedy routines of that period now appear to be resoundingly awful, their jokes no better than those found in juvenile comics.
But Wilson, Keppel and Betty created something new, the appeal of which seems ageless. They were sand dancers, who established a routine they called Cleopatras Nightmare.
It was carefully constructed over several years. The common view now is that it was immutable just like other music hall and variety acts who were able to travel throughout Britain never needing to change their routines. All that is wrong. Wilson, Keppel and Betty did alter their act, although the changes were mostly cosmetic. Their followers were happy to watch their turn time and time again and demand nothing very much different.
Laura Ormiston Chant
Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant is known above all else for her attack on the Empire Music Hall in Leicester Square, which led to it closing for a short period in 1894. This has given her a reputation for being a killjoy enemy of the music hall that she does not deserve. A better reflection of her true views can be found in her only novel, Sellcuts Manager, which she published five years after the Empire furore.
In fact, Mrs Chant was more moderate in her attitude to the music hall than were some of her colleagues in the National Vigilance Association, which organised the campaign against the Empire. Nevertheless, she, more than any other single person, was identified with the campaign. She was a woman and, worse, a woman chosen to be the NVA spokesperson. Whereas the Empire management employed a lawyer to speak for them in the hearings to decide whether their licence should be renewed, Mrs Chant spoke for the other side. She had a formidable reputation as a public speaker and was clearly a better choice than any available man, given that the Association could not or would not employ an expensive lawyer.
Almost everyone has heard of Harry Clifton. They know Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green. They use the phrase he popularised, Paddle Your Own Canoe, and they recognise the tune of Work, Boys, Work and Be Contented, even if they have sung different words to it.
But what else? There is astonishingly little about Harry in reference books on Victorian music hall — even in his obituary in The Era. Having encountered Harry in such otherwise unrecorded situations as stage manager to Thomas Youdan of Sheffield and lessee designate of one of the most famous inns in Bristol, we have tried to put some flesh on these very scanty, scattered bones.
Naomi Jacob wrote more than 70 books, including the first biography of Marie Lloyd and several volumes of reminiscences. She freely admitted that she made mistakes and that she could not remember details properly. So, many of the so called facts in her books have to be treated with great caution. However, through Bransby Williams, Georgie Wood and Marguerite Broadfoote, one of her lovers, she met many music hall stars and recorded her memories and impressions of them, uncluttered by such tedious things as facts. These are more trustworthy.
Harry Ford was without question a star of some magnitude in the music hall firmament. He sang some of the most original and amusing songs the halls had ever heard and his brother, Bert, played a significant supporting role as composer of many of those songs. Even though Harry was at his peak while the likes of Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and George Robey dominated bill-topping positions at the Tivoli, Oxford and Pavilion, he regularly took his place on these bills for several years in the late 1890s and early 1900s and held his own. Indeed, at the London Pavilion in particular, he was a recognised favourite for many years. He frequently did top bills just about everywhere else in London, as well as in the major provincial cities. He was, as The Variety Theatre once described him, a true star of the Metropolis.