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The Cafe Orchestra in Fact and Fiction
by Philip Scowcroft

There is a long history of music as an accompaniment to eating. Even in Roman times this was the case, while around 1700 Les Symphonies des Soupers du Roi, by various composers in Louis XIV's service, and Telemann's Tafelmusik proclaim their purpose by their very titles. By the late 19th century, and particularly during the first half of the 20th century, many London and even some provincial hotels and cafes of repute had an orchestra of sorts playing light music. Sometimes this provision reached a high level of sophistication. The London Midland and Scottish Railway had no fewer than 32 bands in their hotels country-wide; prior to his taking on the BBC Dance Orchestra in 1932 Henry Hall had overall responsibility for them - they doubled as dance bands and "incidental music" ensembles.

Then there was de Groot and the orchestra at the Piccadilly Grill Room. De Groot directed this between 1909 and 1928 (the Piccadilly Hotel was built in 1905-8 on the site of the St. James' Hall). A photograph of the ensemble in the early 1920s suggests that it comprised ten players, piano, four violins, viola, two cellos and two basses*. It regularly broadcast live (the Grill Room was invariably crowded on those nights**) and it had over 160 records to its credit. De Groot's own "Valse amoureuse" The Piccadilly Grill (1916) became popular#. Carroll Gibbons later carried on a similar operation at the Savoy Hotel for many years.

It is clear that music helped the catering at such places. When the BBC's "Grand Hotel" programme began in the 1930s it was a live relay from the Eastbourne hotel of that name (later, from 1943, it was a studio broadcast). The BBC often simulated thé dansants (literally, tea dances) from the studio.

Doncaster's first cinema to have an orchestra was the Picture House, in September 1914: in July 1915 advertisements in the local press promised that the orchestra would play for "musical teas" in the cinema's cafe between 4.15 and 5.15 pm.

Even during the last war many cafes and hotels of quality retained live music. When on holiday in Paignton, South Devon, late in the war, my parents and I frequently patronised Deller's Cafe in Torbay Road for afternoon tea; the playing of a trio (piano/violin/cello) was as much an attraction as the toasted teacake. Deller's and its trio are sadly long gone.

Some places even advertised their music as if this was a concert. In 1950 I was on holiday in Montreux, in Switzerland, but a resort always popular with, and catering to, the British. The Kursaal's tea-room had concerts every afternoon, whose programmes - a mixture of light music and popular classics were listed in advance in our hotel and doubtless elsewhere. The music was free but one paid through the nose for tea and cakes! The orchestra comprised three violins, cello, bass and piano.

The fiction of the period 1930-50 reflects the apogee of the hotel/cafe orchestra. Dorothy L. Sayers' detective novel Have His Carcase (Gollancz, 1932) is set mostly in a fictitious West Country resort, whose "Resplendent Hotel" has an orchestra mainly for dancing (we hear of it playing The Blue Danube and other waltzes) though diners could hear it too. The same resort's "Bellevue Hotel" had an orchestra which "kept up an incessant drivel of dance-tunes from 4 pm to midnight"##. When the chase moves to London late in the book, the reader visits the Lyons Corner House in Piccadilly which has three floors; two are exactly the same except that one has "a male orchestra in evening dress playing My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes", the other "a female orchestra in blue playing excerpts from The Gondoliers".

We move to J.B. Priestley and his Bright Day (Heinemann, 1946), a fine novel, reckoned by its creator as his best opens in a large hotel on the Cornish Coast playing host to a film company. Its dining room "orchestra" is a trio comprising an elderly Czech as its pianist and two RCM girl students on violin and cello; we eventually meet the two girls. The viewpoint character, Gregory Dawson, who has much in common with Priestley, affects to despise their usual repertoire, though he recognises all the music (Coleridge-Taylor, Eric Coates, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and a selection from Tosca are all mentioned), so the trio, to oblige him, play the slow movement of Schubert's B Flat Trio. This arouses memories of his early life in the West Riding and sets the pattern for the novel, which oscillates intriguingly between present (1946) and past (1912-14). Can we deduce from the book that Priestley, a great lover of symphonies and chamber music, had little time for light music? Sayers, by the way, enjoyed it; one up to her!

During the past 50 years most of the restaurant orchestras have disappeared. If one does eat to music now, that music is usually pre-recorded. True, there are exceptions though often the "orchestra" is a single player. The John Wilson Strings, 13 players plus clarinet/sax, guitar, percussion and piano, enhance the eating facilities of the Royal Garden Hotel at Kensington. Harry Ramsden's fish and chip restaurants evoke a vanished age; the original Harry Ramsden's at Guiseley (Yorks) usually has a pianist on hand to help sustain that atmosphere, the Cardiff one even imports singers from WNO and the one at Liverpool offers fish and chips and songs from the shows. One of Doncaster's more exclusive hotels, the Grand St. Leger, has a solo guitarist once a week, while the same town's Civic Theatre restaurant not infrequently has a jazz quartet playing at Sunday lunchtime. Other examples could be cited (Light Music Society member, composer-pianist Louise Denny, has done a lot of this) but, one repeats, they are exceptions where once they were more or less a rule. But strength to their elbows!


* In 1918 de Groot himself said it consisted of three violins, cello, bass and organ. An illustration (c.1928) shows it as an eight piece band

** A broadcast of 6th April 1924 (a Sunday) comprised: selection The Gipsy Princess (Kalman). Four Indian Love Lyrics (Woodeforde-Finden), grand fantasia Manon (Massenet), Liebestraum (Liszt arr Mulder), selection Samson and Delilah (Saint-Saens) and various vocal items by the baritone Charles Tree.

# For further information on de Groot, see Stuart Upton A Window in Piccadilly (Vintage Light Music Society, 1995).

## Have His Carcase, Chapter XXXII.

- Ibid. Chapter XXX. My Canary... was a song composed by one John Golden.

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