Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

December Books 10) My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall, by John Major

This is a detailed and yet very readable survey of the British music hall, from early days in the 1850s to death by competition from cinema and broadcasting after the first world war. I was surprised by both how little I knew about this - I had read about some of the stage magicians, but otherwise it's basically The Talons of Weng Chiang and my childhood memory of trailers for The Good Old Days and The Black and White Minstrel Show. In particular, the music hall is absent from my distant cousin Frederic's survey of British (and American) actors of much the same period; he describes the 1860s, when music hall was in its first full burst of vigour, as a low point in British theatrical history. (Major does refer to the classical theatre; it was a rich source of material for music hall, especially parody and impressions.)

I had not fully realised just how rooted British popular culture is in music hall, even today. It was the source of many well-known catch-phrases. Harry Champion sang "Any Old Iron", "Boiled Beef and Carrots", and "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am". Harry Clifton wrote "Paddle Your Own Canoe", "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel", "Up With the Lark", and "Where There's a Will, There's a Way". Major credits Dan Leno, "the Funniest Man in the World", with inspiring the surreal stream-of-consciousness humour of the Goons and Monty Python. Basically all later twentieth-century and twenty-first century British comedy draws from this well.

The book is neatly structured, looking at the origins of music hall from pleasure garden, glee clubs and legislative attempts at social control; then at the development of music hall culture, with particular focus on the most celebrated performers (Marie Lloyd gets a chapter to herself, Dan Leno and Little Tich share one), and he looks thematically also at female cross-dressers, comedians, blackface and various other styles of performance. At the end he devotes a short chapter to the career of his own father, who was half of a celebrated double act in the early twentieth century, until his co-star, also his first wife, died as the result of a scenery accident. The book movingly starts and finishes with the death in 1962 of 83-year-old Tom Major, his son and second wife at his side, also surrounded by the shades of his past in spirit and occasionally in body.

Major comments ruefully that "Whatever gifts my parents passed on to their children, the talent to entertain was not among them... although I often reflected that my chosen career was akin to show business." It is more than twenty years ago that he rose without trace to become prime minister of the United Kingdom, and served seven forgettable years in the job. Yet I always felt that he was probably the only British prime minister of my lifetime who would be genuinely pleasant company in person. and on the evidence of this book he is too modest about his own ability to entertain. It's a nice little gem of cultural history.
Tags: bookblog 2012

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