Ian Wolf

Gigglebox Weekly #24: BBC Four Music Hall Season

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Gigglebox Weekly With Ian Wolf

This week Ian Wolf goes back in time and reviews three programmes looking at the world of music hall comedy.

The Story of Music Hall

The first of the three programmes is The Story of Music Hall, which explores the history of music hall, presented by Michael Grade – something he has an interest in as his Uncle Lou had a music hall act, which consisted of dancing the Charleston on a table.

This documentary was a mixed bag. There were several nuggets about how the music hall led to the creation of modern comedy. The early comedians were comic songsters. Strange to think that the most traditional comedians in this sense today come in the form of performers like Bill Bailey and The Mighty Boosh.

Also it’s interesting to know that music hall acts still had the same concerns about class as later generations had, and some might say still have. The acts were also sometimes political, although they had very little impact as not many people who attended music hall could vote. My particular favourite piece of information was that the vast majority of music hall entertainers and audiences were conservative. Considering that now just about every comedian tries to be left-wing and avoids anything that is remotely Tory, it’s a big change to the way things were.

However, much of this programme was also quite dull. Rather than concentrating on the performers the programme was often looking at agents or the businessmen running things. Grade doesn’t come across as a great TV presenter, either. Not that he was the worst person on it. That dishonourable title goes to Dr. Oliver Double, who is a professor of stand-up comedy. How much money would you pay to avoid someone with a title like that?

David Suchet on Sid Field: Last of the Music Hall Heroes

The good news is that David Suchet appears to be better at presenting documentaries than Sid Field. The bad news is that we didn’t see much of Sid Field.

However, this is not Suchet’s fault, as very little archive footage of him exists. He only made a handful of films, the most famous of which was London Town, a film panned by critics and which fails to show him at his best. Not only that, there is only one existing sound interview with him. Due to the lack of footage, very few people remember him, although he was one of the most popular comedians of his age.

Not only was he incredibly popular, he was an influence on both Tony Hancock and Spike Milligan. He invented character comedy and camp comedy. He was a popular singer and he could also do straight acting, starring in the lead role in the stage version of Harvey.

There was much to like with this show. My favourite titbit from it, mind, was the story of Field’s wedding day. As his mother didn’t approve of his marriage he got married on the quiet. His wedding day dinner was a cup of tea and some fish and chips from the local chip shop.

The best bit of news from this programme is that a previously lost feature film starring Field called That’s The Ticket has been rediscovered, so we can see him perform in a more successful manner.

Frank Skinner on George Formby

This documentary about George Formby was rather good, but personally, I would have preferred to have seen more of Formby and less of Skinner. Frank Skinner on George Formby appeared to be more to do with Skinner’s love of the innuendo-filled singer rather than the actual man himself.

For those not fully aware of Formby’s background there was a lot more to him than meets the eye. For starters his own father, George Formby Senior, was a successful music hall act, and as a result Formby Junior had a much more comfortable living than people think. Also, his father sent him to work at a stable because he didn’t want Junior working in the music hall himself.

The show also covered his relationship with his wife and manager Beryl, a woman who was hugely jealous of any other woman approaching Formby. Then there are the stories of his performances in South Africa when he was told to play in front of segregated audiences, but he refused and decided to play in front of black audiences. As a result, the Formbys were kicked out of the country and man who organised the black performances was shot.

I’d have liked to have seen more – but since much of the programme was about how Skinner has learnt how to play the ukulele (and about Formby’s fan club), there was a distinct lack of depth. I do know of more detailed programmes about Formby’s life, though. I’d personally recommend the Radio 2 documentary George Formby – Britain’s Original Pop Star presented by Stuart Maconie, which was broadcast earlier this year.

In terms of Skinner’s contribution, it did give him the chance to play “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock” in a Blackpool rock factory, which itself is a fascinating process, starting with a massive roll of rock and working its way down to smaller sections, something which I didn’t know about…

However, out of the three shows, I personally prefer David Suchet on Sid Field. It’s the best of the trio.