Sunday, 9 December 2012

The night of several thousand stars.. - 100 years of the Royal Variety Performance

2012 marks a significant anniversary for entertainment in Britain, as it is one hundred years since the first Royal Command Performance. But the Royal Family had been closed associated to the performing arts, his highness King Edward the Seventh had a love of those who performed in the theatre counting actress Lillie Langtry as one of his closest confidants. Though before that performers could be called to the royal residences could have been 'commanded' to perform for the Royal Family, amongst the performers called to do so was music hall comedian and actor Dan Leno. Leno famous for his appearances in music halls up and down the land and for his role at London's Drury Lane in its pantomimes between 1888 and 1904 was said to be one of the Royal Family's favourite performers.

Where as ballet and opera had royal patronage, where each had gala performances for them both, music hall and variety seemed out on a limb also as not quite a worthy thing for the Royal Family to lend their name to publicly at all. The likes of music hall giant Marie Lloyd, hugely popularly with the general public was not seen to be of the right taste for the royals with some people in higher society deeming her act as too vulgar to be performed in front of royalty. As when the first-ever Royal Command Performance was announced to take place in 1912, King George V and Queen Mary, Ms Lloyd was not invited to appear on the bill though it may have been her support for the 1907 strike that may have been the reason for her omission. Though Marie Lloyd did strike back robustly by saying 'All of my performances are by command of the British Public..'

The first-ever Royal Command Performance was held at the Cambridge Theatre in London in 1912, in aid of the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund who were raising money to build an extension to its home for elderly variety artists at Brinsworth House in Twickenham. Nearly all of Variety finest were present at this event, if they were not performing that night, they had a walk on part in the finale subtitled 'Variety's Garden Party'. The likes of comedian Gus Elen, 'blackface' performer G.H. Chirgwin, magician and illusionist David Devant, Australian comedienne Florrie Forde, prevalent musical theatre star Lupino Lane to name but a few. The cream of Variety was on show, make the occasion extra special for the royal guests, but over the years the Royal Variety Performance has always had the pulled of the best of entertainment and variety. The second show in 1919 featured comedian Harry Tate, who stole the show that year with his act. This versatile comedian offered up a feast of sketch comedy, but although Tate was clean shaven he was remembered for a moustache worn during his sketches, greeting great play from having it wiggle around from it being clipped to his nose, using it as a tool to get even more comedy into the act.

But it took until 1921 for the Royal Variety Performance to become an annual event, in that year King George V became patron of the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund with himself or a representative would attend a performance once a year to show the support the organisation was doing for Brinsworth House. Though five years later the first-ever Royal Variety Performance was broadcast by the BBC, but they broadcast the show with a broadcaster providing commentary on the performance much like a sports event would today, to fill in the silences of whilst the acts were going through the performance on the stage. By 1930, a simple broadcast of the show was occurring on BBC radio. Though the 1930's were to bring other events and the 1938 held at the London Coliseum was to be the last owing to the outbreak of World War Two.

Post war, the Royal Variety started to grow from strength to strength. The area of variety theatre was going strong at that point and stars like comedians Will Hay, Sid Field and Tommy Trinder were on the bill plus the likes Wilson, Kepple and Betty, Beryl Kaye, Jerry Desmonde, The Nine Avalons proving that variety was still very much alive and growing all the time, the strength of the variety agents and theatre owners meant year on year, each performance was the best that the industry could offer by the 1950's with the advent of commercial television that the face of variety was going to change all together. Those stars were available on television each and every night, whilst also appearing in variety theatres up and down the country. But with the advent of commercial television came the calls to put the Royal Variety Performance on television with the vast majority of the owners of the new ITV franchises being from variety backgrounds used this angle to be able to schedule their programmes and the biggest was 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium'. The power was with the Grade family, Lew and Leslie as well as their brother Bernard Delfont, but the ultimate power laid with the Royal Family. But even as that was going on 1955 had two Royal Variety Performances, but no-one was to know what was to happen in the next year,
so maybe it was fate that the 1956 performance was cancelled. At that time the Suez Crisis was taking place, with that year's Royal Variety about to take place, the bill was arranged with the Crazy Gang having prepared their own version of A Midsummer Night's Dream in their own imitable style plus Laurence Oliver, Vivien Leigh and John Mills due to make appearances, though Liberace was said to have broken down in tear at the news the Queen was not to be attending the show that night because of the current crisis. The show was cancelled at four hours notice before curtain-up.

Though within five years, the show was to have one of its most proudest moments. The sixties were bring many changes. In variety itself, the onset of pop music meant that more and more younger were interested in this new branch of entertainment though when bands performed at that time in concert, they was usually an accompanying variety comedian as a compare. But television had gripped the nation as the medium everyone wanted so it was only right that the Royal Variety Performance was broadcast on television, first of all by ATV. They got round the problem of doing a Sunday Night at the London Palladium show by cancelling that Sunday's edition and moving it to the Monday night, effectively meaning that although it was ATV London filming the show, with it being broadcast on a Monday, ATV in the Midlands held responsibility for the show's broadcast though still by their playout in Foley Street, London. The 1960 bill contained The Crazy Gang, making fun appearing as 'bridesmaids' at a recent wedding, although with a nod and wink the public knew they were meant to be bridesmaids from the recently marriage of Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones. The world of pop was accounted for by Adam Faith and Cliff Richard making appearances, the Times newspaper said about Richard that he radiated 'chubby good humour throughout his most sultry songs'. Lonnie Donegan who had just come off the number spot in the charts appeared with his fellow musicians dressed as dustmen naturally to perform 'My Old Man's a Dustman'. Sammy Davis Junior became the first-ever show stealer of the television age with his performance holding everyone in awe, the first of many from over the Atlantic to do so. He came, he saw, he conquered the audience in the auditorium and at home.

In 1963 came the new age of pop with The Beatles opening the show, but the actual rocket to the show came when John Lennon on the performance of their last song Twist and Shout of their set saying “For our last number, I'd like to ask for your help... If the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands and rest of you rattle your jewellery...” It was the impact that was needed but it was also the acceptance that the establishment had recognised pop music was here to stay. The moment has go down into legend now, but the recognition of this made for a key moment in the Royal Variety Performance's history. With The Beatles setting the way, on the back of them came Jimmy Tarbuck and Cilla Black, two performers also from Liverpool who were to become two of Light Entertainment's biggest names in the 60's, 70's and 80's as well. Tarbuck's cheeky patois, opened the show up to a wave of Northern comedic talents such as Les Dawson, Freddie Starr, Victoria Wood and latterly Peter Kay to find new and wider audiences for their material.

Though a spot on the Royal Variety can be memorable for many other reasons too with Catherine Tate pushing her material as far as it could go in performing her 'Lauren, the Teenager act' to the Royal Box, Shirley Bassey almost missing her cue whilst changing outfits at the end of the 1999 Royal Variety Performance. It was the recently passed Larry Hagman which gave the show in 1980 a moment to remember or forget, whichever way you want to look at it. In his set, he was meant to sing about his J.R. character but he dried on stage forgetting the lyrics to the song, but when looked all was lost his mother and star of South Pacific on the Broadway stage, Mary Martin was standing on the side of the stage waiting to come on realised this, she took it on herself to come on and save him from any further embarrassment. The reaction of her coming on was amazing and they carried on with the set in hand, performing together a song about him being her son and her being his mum. Afterwards when they had come off stage, one of the production staff on the show from the BBC said that they could edit out all what had happened Hagman turned around and simply said “Don't you dare! The old girl got me out of a lot of trouble there, leave it in!”

But what of the planned moments? For television and radio host Greg Scott his own memories are of Michael Barrymore's performance with The King's Own regiment performing to 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?' with Barrymore singing and the soldiers doing manoeuvres to the rhythm of the song. When The Queen was talking to Nigel Lythgoe in the line-up at the end of the performance she said “Was that truly the British Army?” to which Lythgoe replied “Yes ma'am, it was” before her majesty replied back “I should get your choreographer to do the changing of the guard...” To which Lythgoe replied “Yes ma'am, I think it would be a great idea..” Plus also he recalls the unique entrance that Brian Conley made to the 1999 Royal Variety Show when he is introduced to the auditorium and the people watching on at home, as he come on looking at the Royal Box he does a prat fall off the stage before climbing back up and regaining his composure ready to introduce the show properly.

My own personal memory has to be at the 1991 Royal Variety Performance, having seen most Royal Variety shows since the age of about five years old, the one performance of Madam Butterfly stands out for myself. These shows generally having a cultural act in them means most people usually bear through them, but one moment will stay with me forever. Anne Howard singing and from there comes an amazing sequence of the unexpected, when Eric Idle removes his mask and says 'Stop!' as the cue for best five minutes of television and variety I have ever seen. Performing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life', the song is brilliant in itself but the layer upon layer for the act just builds to a crescendo when Anne Howard sings the last line in an operatic style is a totally unique show stopping moment.

What about the show in the 21st century, it has seen a renaissance with the introduction of Britain's Got Talent allowing the winner a spot on the Royal Variety bill itself, the voting and cost of voting goes to the Entertainers Artistes' Benevolent Fund which still has its main base at Brinsworth House in Twickenham. Over the years it has supported some of our finest entertainers in their older age such as Dame Thora Hird, Alan 'Fluff' Freeman and even stars who had medical problems like Richard O'Sullivan. The work that the EABF is vital to looking after people in the entertainment industry more then ever, though it might be the star names who get the attention, it still can be those who can fall on hard time no matter how big they are or were, they get the support they need from the EABF. Entertainment has moved on, stars have moved on but the work of the EABF goes on. Some on my happiest memories are of when I went to the open days at Brinsworth House as child seeing stars lending their support to this cause. For as much how ever they raise the money, the Royal Variety and the EABF are forever linked. Some of the stars shine longer then others, but when it comes to this event, the appetite is still there with over 8.5 million viewers watching the latest Royal Variety performance either on television, catch up television or in other ways. The stars may change, but the format's the same. Through black and white and colour television up to to high definition and beyond.

The sheer facts of the effort which goes into these shows are phenomenal, from people like Bobby Warns who has worked on over thirty Royal Variety shows, Yvonne Littlewood producer for the BBC on many of these great occasions, the Grades Lord Lew, Leslie, Bernard Delfont and later Michael who have influenced the running and the televising of the show, Jack Parnell, Ronnie Hazelhurst, Alyn Ainsworth to name three of the many musical directors who have done that job. The many hosts of the show some legends in show business like Sir Bruce Forsyth, Jimmy Tarbuck, Des O'Connor to newer names such as Peter Kay and most recently David Walliams. For all the performers on the stage, all the backstage staff make the show what it is and what a show it has been for over one hundred years, with ITV taking an exclusive contract for producing the show now, it will be seen how the show develops over the next couple of years. No matter what, it will still be one of most important dates in the show business calender to come as new stars will be made and old favourites will return. Its light has yet to be lowered on this great show.

If you would like to know more about the work the Entertainers Artistes' Benevolent Fund does, please visit their website at  where you find an outline of their work today, plus also a great archive of bills from previous Royal Variety shows which this post would not have been possible without and also to Louis Barfe and his book 'Turned Out Nice Again' provided me also with information about the early years of the Royal Variety performance plus also Jamie Graham of the website Transdiffusion for reminding me to put the EABF's  website into this post and Television and Radio presenter Greg Scott for his own personal memories of the Royal show itself.

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