It’s worth remembering, I think, that a good deal of what is past and gone is not quite as far back in time as its irrecoverability makes us feel that it is. For example, I myself think of the Second World War as at some little remove in history; yet, when I was born, it had been over for less than 18 years — which means that my arrival on the scene was separated from ‘VJ Day’ by a period no greater than that which separates you and I today from the first UK broadcasts of The Sopranos, say, or from Charles Kennedy becoming leader of the Liberal Demorats. (No, that’s not a typo.)
Similarly with the now extinct tradition of popular ‘music hall’. To us in this era of so-called ‘streaming media’, anything resembling the ‘variety theatre’ has an almost absurdly antique quality. Yet when I was first old enough to become aware of the outside world and my own irrelevance to it, it was very obvious that a form of entertainment that was universally known and widely enjoyed had vanished only a little while before I came along. To my grandparents (only three of whom I was able to meet), the world of music hall was something familiar from first-hand experience (my maternal grandfather was born in 1900) — while to my actual parents it seems to have been known mostly because of the way its stars and its conventions remained a part of radio, film and TV throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Of course, there were other, more solid reminders of this defunct entertainment tradition: here and there around Wallasey and Birkenhead I could see disused or re-purposed theatre buildings that spoke of popular forms which had passed away. Protruding like the stumps of broken and rotting teeth were, inter alia, the former Irving Theatre (intermittently a music hall, before cinema and then bingo took over), and the Argyle Theatre (whose stage and auditorium had actually been destroyed by a German bomb, but whose wrecked shell (and functioning pub!) remained there until at least the 1970s… Continue reading