Friday Film (27)

vj day 1945.jpg

‘VJ Day’, 15th August 1945

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.

Former Irving Theatre, Seacombe, in 2010

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 in 1940, but whose wrecked shell (and functioning pub!) remained there until at least the 1970s…

Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, in 1909

In fact, there were memorable occasions when these things broken and vanished appeared to be vividly and even gloriously alive. Consider the great comedy duo of Morecambe and Wise — elements of whose TV work were very obviously translations of music hall traditions into a different medium. In their famous 1971 sketch with André Previn, one of them read out a supposed telegram from Yehudi Menuhin: ‘Dear boys, I can’t make it on your show. Opening at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, in Old King Cole‘…

What’s more, now and then I would hear my family and their friends mention that one or other of the most famous names in showbusiness history had passed through our local theatres. In reality, of course, the facts themselves are pretty trivial: in the days when many hundreds of music halls hosted many thousands of touring artists, it was inevitably the case that everyone appeared everywhere. But even so, I was always rather fascinated that the very streets I played in had been walked (however fleetingly, or indeed hurriedly…) by the stars I knew from the old black-and-white films that still appeared on the telly. The Argyle Theatre, for example, seems to have known Harry Lauder, Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields, George Formby, Stan Laurel, Marie Lloyd, Webster Booth, and Flanagan & Allen — who, I gather, performed ‘Underneath the Arches’ for the very first time on the Argyle’s stage.

[[Pause while every single reader under the age of 50 looks up and wonders ‘What the hell is ‘Underneath the Arches’…?!?’ Well, it’s this.]]

Now, there is a reason why I am putting everyone through this ordeal by vicarious theatrical nostalgia in what is meant to be one of my Friday film-music postings; and I’m about to reveal what it is. For this to happen, though, we first have to go as far back in time as my grandfather’s father — and then jump forward to 1944…

Here is a song made famous by the Victorian music hall star George Leybourne (1842-84) — a man known for much of his career as ‘Champagne Charlie’ on account of the success he had with the 1866 song of that name whose words he had written himself (the music was by one Alfred Lee). Click here to hear it in an apparently authentic, seemingly interminable version for voice and piano.

All right, now that we’ve done that, we can jump to the 1944 Ealing Studios film Champagne Charlie, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and starring the comedian Tommy Trinder (1909-89) as Leybourne. Why is such an item of interest to we aficionados of music written for film and TV…? Because of the title music

Strap yourselves in, folks…!

I’m not by any means certain which among the several musical names associated with this film played a part in assembling that whistle-stop tour of tunes from late-19th-century musical theatre; but to my ear they did a splendid job of musical ‘carpentry’! In fact, it was a composer friend of mine who first mentioned this opening to me, around 25 years ago; I then caught up with the film (which, apart from that opening minute, I found horribly dull) on ‘afternoon TV’ some time in the 1990s. As it happens, I can remember that the very start of the title music — unfortunately cut off in the copy from which this clip derives! — consisted of four bars in which the ‘Champagne Charlie is my name’ contour was presented twice, its second appearance ending with a wrenchingly extra-diatonic dissonance, which appears in the clip but obviously can’t sound extra-diatonic, as there’s nothing in front of it…)

The reason I produced this separate and discrete extract from the YouTube video I suddenly found the other day (I look online for the film every year or so!) is that the upload’s speed — like its frame area — has been manipulated to prevent the film or its soundtrack being saleable as a download; I had to bring it back to what I hope is more or less the original speed. Unfortunately, though, this has affected the pitch of the soundtrack — which is why, for example, you hear the Westminster Chimes (their function, of course, being to establish the characters’ arrival in London) sounding in an approximate B major instead of the approximate C sharp major in the original YouTube copy or the real bells’ actual approximate E major.

As you’ll have noticed, I actually let the clip run on well into the somewhat unbearable opening scene. The reason for this is simply that I wanted to allow people to experience the successful preservation of musical continuity across that moment of silent blackness and those other structural contrasts: a scenically ‘abstract’ (but situationally appropriate!) piece of title music is followed by a stretch of motivically related ‘extrinsic’ (‘non-diegetic’) accompaniment to text and (with a tempo link!) pictures — which then gives way to a musical imitation of an expectedly ‘intrinsic’ (‘diegetic’) sound-element that leads into implied and then verified intrinsic musical sound inside the pub…

Whoever it was who did it, it’s a pretty smooth set of transitions.


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