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BOOK REVIEW

Paul Maloney

Scotland and the Music Hall 1850-1914

Manchester University Press

0 7190 6147 4 Paperback £14.99

2003



 

Mention Music Hall and one tends to think of the London halls, or maybe the Northern Circuit. If one thinks of the Scottish halls it tends to be negatively – Glasgow Empire and the Comedian’s Graveyard may be a standing joke but ironically it points to a wider truth about the differences in origin between the English and Scottish halls – a subject addressed in considerable detail in Paul Maloney’s exploration. London halls evolved from pubs but in a Scottish atmosphere of Presbyterian disapproval and Temperance movements the Scottish variety was much more likely to emerge from the numerous troupes and fairground entertainers and from already established theatres. In this sense the working class Music Hall audience tended to exist parallel to the regular theatre or variety audiences, though nothing quite prepares one for the exponential rocketing of the halls between 1888 and 1914 – when Glasgow went from 3 halls to 18. As a point of comparison London had 300.

The halls were of course big business; the new halls around Hope Street and Sauchiehall Street arrived as there was an acceleration in the banning of alcohol – doubtless a self preserving exercise to pre-empt criticism and preserve vested interests by the emergent consortia who controlled the theatres. With new buildings came new, big architects; Matcham for instance, whose Edinburgh Empire Palace held 3,000; and with such sophistication came a suitable refinement on stage. Acts were increasingly sophisticated and elaborate; there were sketches and scenes, not simply turns; the elision of the dramatic theatre and the Music Hall revue was inescapably present. In that sense the halls embraced modernity and topicality, showing submarine acts and bioscopes and kinetoscopes. Gradually the Music Hall modified and transformed itself into variety – it tried to stave off the inevitable competition of sound pictures and recordings for as long as it could and offered Glaswegians a veneer, at least, of social respectability.

As Maloney shows the stage Scotsman, then Scotchman, was a figure of acute ambiguity even then and Lauder and Will Fyffe continue to generate heat on the subject; the High and Low were in distinct opposition and, in any case, it’s quite possible that the majority of performers on Scottish stages were actually English. The nursery seedbed for such native talent was the free and easies, talent houses that offered a grounding though often insalubrious locations (often the backs of pubs). But as Maloney shows in a time without mass media, without radio and in the earlier part of the study at least, without mechanical reproduction, vibrant local cultures existed and Scotland had its own stars and its own broad cosmopolitan culture.

This is a study that examines ideas and the social and cultural history of the Scottish Music Hall; it’s perhaps inevitable that in doing so it is compared and contrasted against the English model – the better to bring out the essential differences that existed between them. These extended to permissible subjects on stage as well as permissible dress – or undress (frowned upon). It sheds great light on the diversity that existed in a supposedly monolithic machine and on a movement that rose and fell with vertiginous haste.

Jonathan Woolf

 



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