The Good Old Days

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The BBC are to revive music hall entertainment with Down at the Old Clapham Grand this month. Tim Clark and Simon Jennings head to Leeds to trace the history of the only surviving music hall in Britain.

Above the clutter of teapots and coffee jars, a hotchpotch of multicoloured lamps glow like odd ends left over from a tupperware party. Aged theatregoers sip tea and swap memories in mock-Edwardian booths. Nineteenth century bill posters and photos of forgotten performers adorn the walls.
 
We have reached an impasse in an (otherwise genial) conversation about times gone by, here in Leeds' City Varieties music hall. Stern costume-maker Clarice Ernshaw has dressed every comedian to grace the stage in the last 20 years, but insists she will take her backstage secrets to the grave. "As for telling you anything personal no, I can't." She beams proudly.
 
The Last Music Hall
 
Dating back to 1865, City Varieties is the last surviving music hall in Britain. While other venues closed in the twenties to give way to more plush, modern theatres, Varieties continued to play host to scores of comedy legends. Clarice's photos of Jimmy Cricket, Ken Dodd, and Jon Inman (dressed as a fairy) are strewn across the table. An eight-year-old Charlie Chaplin danced here with local troupe 'The Lancashire Lads'. And the place is also famous for the BBC show The Good Old Days, which was performed here from 1953 to 1983.
 
During the swinging sixties, The Good Old Days was a fantasy of Edwardian-era comedy, replete with pinstriped suits, straw boaters, comedy acts using snuff, and doves appearing out of jackets. Played to an audience dressed in almost laughably period costume, it was a BBC dream of music hall theatre that never really existed.
 
Back in the late 1800s, the theatre was actually more like a working men's club where men came after work in their silks to have a drink and be entertained. "It was basically an alehouse," manager Peter Sandeman explains. "Entry was thrupence and you got in for your drinks." A far cry from the "television manifestation" with its glamorous costumes.
 
The reconstruction The Good Old Days saw the audience get in for free if they came in period costume but left well out of camera shot if they didn't. People flew in from as far away as Scandinavia to see the TV show, arriving from Oslo on the evening flight with their moustaches in suitcases before speeding to the theatre in chartered coaches. Faux-Edwardian Britain was a hit all over the world: the show even aired in Australia.
 
Smoke and Mirrors
 
Like the performance itself, the elaborate décor of this ageing theatre is also a reconstruction. Redecorated during the sixties, all around you is an illusion of a theatre that never actually existed.
 
Backstage, the threadbare passages retain the character of the coach house this theatre used to be. Cramped performers used to vie for a slot in dressing rooms, all squeezed one on top of the other. The lower a performer was on the bill, the higher they had to climb into the pokey loft to get dressed.
 
All around the auditorium the layers of peeling paint expose the gloss of previous decades. Caretaker Alan Pickett provides a running commentary as we clamber past dimmed stage lights and along the gantries where he chatted with Roy Hudd. Ken Dodd took an eternity to prepare his act, he says. We clamber round the back of the stage and past the royal box where Prince Edward reputedly ogled at Lily Langtry as she performed back in the thirties. "When he was having his alleged affair the Prince of Wales used to visit incognito, and watch Lily before retiring back to Lord Harewood's house," Pickett chuckles.
 
Restoration Comedy
 
Today, the auditorium bears the scars of its illustrious past with its nicotine-stained ceiling and rusty hooks used to carry filming wires from wall to wall.
 
Volunteers have set up the Friends of the Varieties group to raise funds for a much-needed revamp, to restore the theatre to its former glory. In a new age where scores of comedians perform every night, the dilapidated surroundings are losing their appeal. A modern audience demands more.
 
The Good Old Days show still runs twice a year, but the likes of Daniel Kitson and Sean Hughes pack the house more regularly. Even those who detest modern comedy and idealise the past cannot ignore the new age of stand-up. "It's crude and vulgar, but it is popular," Clarice says. "We could not keep this theatre going with old-time theatre fifty-two weeks a year. We are well aware of that."
 
Feature originally written by Tim Clark and Simon Jennings in April 2007
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