Before television changed the face of entertainment, people throughout Britain would go to their local music hall. A music hall was a theatre featuring a variety of acts from magicians to comics, singers to dancers and anything in between. It was the birth place of many careers, with music hall performers going on to storm music hall’s subsequent murderer; television.
A Victorian invention of the mid 19th Century – born out of pubs – music hall originally played to working class Britain in shabby theatres with a rowdy crowd who were often eating and drinking, later migrating to fancier venues and calmer audiences. They were the forerunners to the long standing annual Royal Variety Performance and even the Got Talent franchise.
Canterbury Hall circa 1856 (Source: Wikipedia)
One key aspect was the ‘billing’. It was the poster that would advertise the event, but it would also feature all the acts, the biggest in the largest font. The running order of the acts was also an art, making the show flow and run smoothly being a knack in itself.
Sample Billing (Source: The British Music Hall Society)
The UK Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997, John Major, actually came from a family which performed in music hall, his father joining as a comedian and singer when he was 21. The former controller of ITV, Channel 4 and ex-chairman of the BBC, Michael Grade also had roots in music hall with his father a talent agent to many performers.
Then, the dawn of television began. At first, it was exciting. Performers from music hall would appear on TV and do their act to an enormous audience. What they hadn’t counted on, however, was that once the act was seen, it was seen.
Previously, performers could have toured the music halls with their act to a new audience every week. With the advent of television, people would be unhappy with performers doing the same routine they saw on TV live, in front of them in their music hall. It forced people out of the business, others to innovate continually.
Then the habits of audiences changed. The music hall ended up competing with TV for an audience, and music hall lost. Big performers, however, would migrate to television and the spirit would continue in a new guise, but a hundred year old tradition was rapidly on its way out, helping signal the start of modern Britain. The reign of the music hall was over.
Do you want to discover more about music halls?
John Major wrote a book about this very topic you can get a copy from Amazon:
My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall - Hardback