PETER FROST uncovers a Tory prime minister’s crude attempt to steal the working class Music Hall for the Tory cause.
Tory Prime Minister John Major was certainly a boring old fart.
The only man ever to run away from the circus to become an accountant – was the old joke about him.
He was also an amazing hypocrite. He campaigned to get Britain back to basics and adopt old fashioned family values while shagging Edwina Currie behind the back of his wife and Edwina’s husband.
Old fashioned Tory values indeed.
However this time John Major has really gone too far. He is trying to re-write an important part of British working class history.
Not just any history either. This is the history of the British Music Hall. We need to put the record straight.
Major has written a book ‘My Old Man’ which he claims is an accurate history British music hall and his father’s part in it.
Major’s father was a music hall and circus performer, as were both his wives. He was 64 when young John was born.
Son John, with poor educational qualifications, joined his father first in his circus and music hall acts and then in the business he established making and selling garden gnomes – you couldn’t write a song about it.
In his book Major describes music hall audiences as patriotic and voting Conservative.
In fact most of the songs and stories on the halls were on the side of the underdog – the working man and woman.
There were always lots of songs about working-class girls seduced and ruined by a posh geezer.
Something that would have been close to home for many of Major’s Tory party companions over the years, posh Tory MPs like Cecil Parkinson, John Profumo, David Mellor, Alan Amos, Tim Yeo, Michael Brown and a dozen more.
Major is selective, not to say dishonest, in the way he reports the facts.
He talks of Charlie Chaplin but not of the left wing views that got him black listed in the USA.
He mentions George Formby but not the fact that on a tour of Apartheid South Africa he refused to perform to white-only audiences and spoke out against the obscene regime.
Worst of all he mentions the Queen of the Halls Marie Lloyd but chooses to ignore her impeccable working class politics.
Comic singer Marie Lloyd had strong socialist and trade union principles.
Her songs and stories told of the hardships of working class life, especially for working-class women.
An early hit was “The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery”, and she quickly became one of the most famous of music hall singers.
Despite her own success and relatively high pay she supported other performers as a passionate trade unionist.
Fellow female artistes voted her in as the first president of the Music Hall Ladies Guild in 1906.
In the following year she and her second husband Alec Hurley called a meeting to form an alliance the Variety Artists’ Federation (VAF), incorporating the National Association of Theatrical Employees and the Amalgamated Musicians Union. Today the VAF is part of the actors’ union Equity.
This powerful Trades Union alliance organised strike action in 1907 to resist greedy music hall management attempts to make lesser known artists do unpaid extra matinee performances.
Top of the bill Marie was not directly affected by these worsening conditions, but in solidarity she threw her weight behind the strike.
“I will never go back upon the music hall stage until the wants of every musician and stagehand are satisfied,” she declared.
Major tells the story in a different way. He portrays the music hall management as benevolent employers.
His heroine is strike breaker Belle Elmore, a decidedly second rate performer who was later brought to a sticky end by her famous husband Dr Crippen – Yes that Doctor Crippen! – he murdered her.
Elmore crossed the picket line at the Euston Palace. Pickets told Elmore what they thought of strike-breakers shouting for her not to be a blackleg.
Marie, who thought little of Elmore’s talent, disagreed: “Let her through, girls, she’ll close the music hall faster than we can.”
As Elmore came on stage, strikers told the audience that Marie Lloyd was singing for free on the picket line outside.
The theatre emptied.
Marie also played at strike benefit concerts and gave evidence to the Board of Trade. They ruled in favour of the strikers.
Marie also fought for votes for women. At one of her shows she smuggled militant suffragette Annie Kenney in her hamper through the police lines so that Kenney could make a speech.
When the first-ever royal command performance was organised in 1912, Marie’s left-wing anti-establishment views ensured she was excluded even though she was the most popular act on the halls.
Unperturbed, she hired a nearby theatre on the same night. Placards proclaimed: “Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a command performance – by command of the British public.”
Marie’s risque interpretations of the most innocent of lyrics led to frequent clashes with the guardians of morality – the forbears of hypocrite Major.
When her song lyric “She sits among the cabbages and peas” was banned she simply sang “She sits among the cabbages and leeks.
John Major’s book is an insult to Marie’s memory and to the hundred’s of other music hall performers who would never have voted Tory, or for John Major, in their lives.
If you want to know more about the proud working class history of the Music Hall there are far better books.