Feature from 2008
Older statesmen of the stage, and even some younger performers such as Paul Merton, look back on the days of variety with great fondness. Many would not have been able to afford to visit a local theatre more than a few times a year, and some not at all.
This was a time before television was accessible, and going further back to the great music hall days, before it was even invented. Seeing people perform professionally was a treat and a special occasion. It involved having to climb out of your chair and make the trip to nearest music hall or theatre and paying 42p for a ticket at a top show.
42p doesn’t sound very much, but considering that in the 1940’s the average wage would have been just £5.80p, that’s nearly 7% of your salary. By today’s standards, let’s say the average salary is £20,000, that means the equivalent ticket would cost you £1,400.
The acts came from all over the world and toured constantly the width and breadth of the country. It could take a single performer the whole year to get around every venue they were booked into, sometimes having to travel miles over night to make the next show.
Eric and Ern met on such a journey, travelling from Birmingham to Coventry.
Doing this many shows meant that unlike television today, the performer did not have to change the material very often, if at all. By the time they returned to the same stage again, 12 months could have passed, and the audience may not even be the same anyway.
This led to many acts simply touring the country doing the same routines, songs, dances and jokes year in year out. One act has been documented as doing the exact same show for over 30 years!
It was all possible back then, and the huge diversity of material had to be seen to be believed. Without the strict safety controls and political correctness of today, anything was possible and the public lapped it up. From ‘perching acts’ to animal tricks, posing to noise impersonations, a vast collection of strange and sometimes worrying shows.
As the music hall began to die out, many of the acts became trapped with shallow material that was simply not possible to transfer to the new medium of radio and television. Many simply did not have the talent, drive or contacts to produce new and original routines and jokes.
Those that could adapt and change, those that could produce new original material quickly, were the ones who stepped off the stage and into our living rooms. Those who trod the boards and crafted their act are the ones we now remember most, but their journey we often forget.
To get an idea of the many varied acts on offer in the 1940’s we managed to get ourselves a copy of a trade magazine called The Performer, dated December 1949. It contains many of the famous stars we know today, many just starting out on their long journey.
We present for you, our favourite selection from 1949, building monthly, with a few notes of our own! Because it was the Christmas issue, most of the adverts are seasonal.
Mixed in with the wild and wacky acts are some familiar faces too – remember, this was (at the time of this article) nearly sixty years ago!
View our selection
© morecambeandwise.com 2008