Back in an age before TV ruled the world, the theatre was the place to be. Even better, you wouldn’t have to get your drama from Eastenders because you’d be sat in the front row worrying about whether the man on stage with a cart wheel on his head was going to deposit it into your lap. Never before have so many people wanted the man on the stage to get it right.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Variety Show format, they were essentially the same as their Royal namesake which is still held annually and famously features the Britain’s Got Talent winner. They encompassed everything from stand-up comedy to singing and dancing to scorpion juggling snake-charmers (..probably not). The amazing thing is, people loved it. The sort of novelty acts that today would struggle to get the attention of their own family were on the bill with Max Miller, Tommy Cooper or some of the other biggest names of the era. Presented by Michael Grade – who appears to be masquerading as Jerry Springer these days – The Story of Variety is an amusing and interesting blast of Monday night nostalgia.
Grade is a fairly wooden presenter, but seeing as he’s been the chairman of both the BBC, ITV and chief executive of Channel 4, it seems a little churlish to criticise him too much. Anyway, he doesn’t spend too much time talking directly into the camera, which is good, because as a former variety agent, he adds an element of genuine passion and interest into the interviews he conducts.
One of the best segments in the program sees former denizens – people like Bruce Forsyth and Ken Dodd – reminisce about the toughest places they ever had to play. Maurice Sellar, a writer and performer, tells of playing Sheffield’s Attercliffe Palace, where he would get dust-covered miners sitting in the front row with their arms crossed – not an easy audience. However every interviewee agrees that the Glasgow Empire was the ultimate nightmare. Max Miller, comedian and star of the variety during its post-war heyday once reportedly told an agent who booked him in Glasgow.. “I’m a comedian, not a missionary” and Des O’Connor bombed there so badly he pretended to faint just to get off stage.
Eventually the variety shows were killed off by the changing times, things like Rock ‘n Roll began to take over and the theatres turned to nude shows – not exactly family oriented – in order to fill their seats. The performers, many of whom spent most of their lives in variety and only had one act to speak of, found it difficult to make new careers for themselves. In truth, the programme paints a picture of the Variety Show as a thing that found its place in a particular time and their demise came as the country and the world was changing.
Despite the fact that much of the programme is clips and interviews, The Story of Variety is an appealing look at times past. The love that both the presenter and the guests have for the subject draws you in, and the emotive soundtrack makes the decline of the variety show feel like a genuine loss. Don’t tune in expecting action and thrills – this isn’t it – but if you can remember the era, or enjoy a bit of retro, this is for you.