Enjoying musical theatre

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A couple of months ago I decided to look inside a large wooden box I have at home for years but haven’t looked inside for over 20 years writes Caroline Green.

I found all my children’s school paintings and cards from aged three to secondary school and digging deeper I found at the bottom of the box a previously unseen green folder with my late mother’s name and address.

Inside I found 35 foolscap typed pages. My mother was an avid reader and writer, however, after her stroke at aged 65 she typed one handedly until in her 90’s.

The pages inside contained her life story between the ages of 8 and 19, beginning in 1920. Her father had died when she was eight and she and her mother, brother and sister lived in a flat in Plymouth in very poor circumstances throughout those years. She wrote about having very little money but according to her vivid descriptions the quality of their homelife more than made up for their lack of money.

She told how her mother sang high soprano; her older brother baritone; her older sister contralto, and as a child she accompanied them, in the beautiful voice that I knew so well. During the evenings, the four of them would sit around the fire, singing in harmony the wonderful songs from the Music Halls of the late Victorian period. Apparently, my mother’s parents used to sing these same songs together in their early married life, entertaining their friends and acquaintances. Songs like ‘In the Gloaming’ and ‘Where my Caravan has Rested’ and her favourite ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’.

I researched these songs on the internet and found them all on YouTube, listening to them as I read her story. Some brought back wonderful memories of my own childhood as we used to sing them as a family ourselves. This unexpected discovery of her diaries prompted me to go along to the U3A AGM where Barry Atkinson gave a talk with performance entitled ‘A Brief History of the Music Hall’. It was a delight to hear these very same songs, among them ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’.

We learnt that entertainment for the working classes in the mid-Victorian period which had previously been looked down upon as being a little vulgar began to evolve into the brand-new ‘Musical Halls’ where the ‘masses’ began to enjoy the best of modern entertainment.

Such was their popularity that by the late Victorian period there were over 300 Music Halls in the UK. Performers at the time such as Marie Lloyd, Harry Champion, Vesta Tilley and George Formby Senior were the stars of their day. Music halls were modernised with the advent of electricity which replaced gas lighting and as popularity grew the previous Operetta entertainment for the traditional middle classes began to blend with the music halls and become ‘Variety’, which subsequently dumbed down the bawdiness of the music hall tradition.

Despite their popularity and growing success among the middle classes at the start of the 20th Century, it appears that the Music Halls were still a little risqué for some, as Queen Alexandra appeared shocked when Vesta Tilley came on stage at the Royal Command Performance in men’s attire!

The advent of the gramophone during this period meant that people could listen to their favourite music in the comfort of their own homes. Or as my mother and her family did, by making their own music harmonising together singing the hits of the day, many of which were learnt from gramophone records imported from the United States.

I expect many of our parents lived through times like my mother’s, growing up with limited means but finding enjoyment through creating and sharing their own musical entertainment despite difficult circumstances. Listening to music from that era has provided a wonderful opportunity to step back in time, learn about my family and understand more about how they spent their time a century ago.

If you would like to learn more about Musical Theatre, do consider becoming a member of this new U3A ‘Enjoying Musical Theatre’ Group. Barry is extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable and loves his subject.