British Comedy Guide

Music hall and variety Page 14

That's interesting. Thanks for the input. Do you wish to divulge the name of your great-grandmother to see if anyone is aware of her or has any books that might mention her?

I'm afraid the only song I know from 'Dr Dolittle' is I Talk to the Animals!

If anyone is in the vicinity of Elizabeth Street, Blackpool on Friday 19 April, the British Music Hall Society will be unveiling a Blue Plaque to Music Hall performer Victoria Monks.


Victoria Annie Monks, born in Blackpool on 1 November 1884, was a music hall singer of the Edwardian and First World War eras and performed and recorded popular songs such as Give My Regards to Leicester Square:

and Call Round Any Time (And Make Yourself at Home):

Another favourite of her stage performances was Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey but she never recorded it.

She made her first stage appearance in 1899 as "Little Victoria" and her first appearance in London was at the Oxford Music Hall on 9 March 1903. She went on to appear in all the leading Music Halls, both in London and the provinces. She married the American songwriter and Music Hall manager Karl F. Hooper and, by 1911, they were living in Lambeth with a daughter. In 1915 she was involved in an accident which at one of the Moss Empires theatres as a result of which she was prevented from working and became bankrupt shortly afterwards.

She died in London in on 26 January 1927 and is buried in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery near Harlesden. Her great-granddaughter, Chloe Hooper, is both an international vocalist and Tribute Act today.


Born on this date (13 March) in Cardiff in 1913: Tessie O'Shea

Tessie O'Shea performed on stage as early as age six. At eight she joined a concert party and learnt the arts of stagecraft and comedy. She also began to play the mandolin and ukulele. A lucky break came at Blackpool's North Pier Theatre when she was called upon to replace an artist who had fallen ill. She adopted the song Two-Ton Tessie From Tennessee as her signature tune. Even though she was not from Tennessee at all of course:

She was a great success in Summer Seasons and in variety tours and progressed to broadcasting and recording. Here is her 1934 recording of Nobody Loves a Fairy when She's Forty:

In the war years she worked for ENSA and in 1944 appeared at the London Palladium with Max Miller. She also appeared in the Royal Variety Performance that same year.

After the war she toured with Billy Cotton and his Band and then diversified into acting. In 1963, Noël Coward created the part of the fish and chips peddler, Ada Cockle, specifically for her in his Broadway musical, The Girl Who Came to Supper and her performance of traditional Cockney tunes helped win her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. In 1964, while in the USA, she appeared on the same Ed Sullivan Show as the Beatles and then, back in the UK, in 1968, she was cast in the tv adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which earned her an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Drama.

She also appeared in films such as The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Bedknobs & Broomsticks and starred with Frank Williams in the Comedy Playhouse production As Good Cooks Go in 1969 which was given its own series of seven episodes.. She was also a regular guest BBC's The Good Old Days, such as this appearance from 1976:

As Tessie's career wound down, she moved to Florida, USA, where she lived with her friend Ernest Wampola, a well-known pianist and composer she had met during World War II, when they were both entertaining the troops. Ernest became Tessie's musical director and manager and welcomed her into his family. She died of congestive heart failure on 21 April 1995 at the age of 82.

St Patrick's Day tomorrow!


Talbot O'Farrell (born William Parrott 27 July 1878) was billed as 'The Greatest Irish Entertainer of all time' but was actually born in Hull and created his Irish stage persona.

He sang in clubs and small halls in the north of England from the age of ten and then served in the Army during the Boer War. After leaving military service he worked as a policeman but continued to perform and made his first London stage appearance in 1902, billed as Jock McIver, "Scottish Comedian and Vocalist". In 1906 he performed as Will McIvor.

After several years of moderate success performing as Will (or Jock) McIver, he adopted the name Talbot O'Farrell, taking part of his stage name from his wife's maiden name. He cultivated an Irish accent and sang Irish songs, but his persona was the opposite of a stereotypical stage Irishman. He dressed in immaculate black coat, check trousers, waistcoat, white gloves, spats and grey silk topper and was dubbed. "The Irishman from Savile Row".:


He quickly became popular in London, singing mostly sentimental songs such as My Old Irish Mother:

and Your Dear Old Dad was Irish:

He held the record for most headlining appearances at the Victoria Palace Theatre, appeared in the 1925 Royal Variety Performance and toured the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

He made a successful living prior to 1928, when he was worth £10,000 (equivalent to around £177,000 today), and in 1930 he served as 'King Rat' of the show business charity, the Grand Order of Water Rats. The worldwide depression severely reduced his income from the theatre and he was bankrupt by 1933. He acted in several films; including Born Lucky Rose of Tralee and Little Dolly Daydream In 1938, he appeared in two episodes of the BBC Television live variety show Cabaret. The following year he toured nationally in the show Their Names Made Variety, first performed at the Holborn Empire.

During the Second World War, he worked for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) and, after the end of the war, he again toured as part of a variety package of old-time music hall stars in Thanks for the Memory. As part of the show, O'Farrell performed in the 1948 Royal Variety Performance.

He died at University College Hospital, London on 2 September 1952, aged 74.


Born on this day (20 March) in Sculcoates, Hull in 1891: Dick Henderson, music hall comedian & singer and, along with twin daughters, was father of popular 1950s/1960s TV entertainer, Dickie Henderson, whose career Dick actively supported.

He was an apprentice fitter at a shipyard before leaving to join a Pierrot troupe and made his first London appearance in 1914. He was heavily built, smoked a cigar on stage and wore tight suits to emphasise his girth, together with ill-matched shoes and a bowler hat several sizes too small. He found success with his quick-fire patter, often joking in a marked Yorkshire accent about his fictional wife or mother-in-law. When he included a particularly obvious joke, he would follow it with his catchphrase: "Ha! Ha! - joke over!". He was billed as "The Yorkshire Comedian" or sometimes "The Yorkshire Nightingale" and was known for his baritone singing as well as his comedy. He entered the stage singing and playing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" - a song which he was the first in Britain to record - on the ukulele. He sang both comedy songs such as "Have You Ever Seen a Straight Banana", and sentimental songs, and was reputedly the first comedian to end his performances with a 'straight' song. Here he sings I want a Pie with a Plum in from 1926:

He appeared in the Royal Variety Performances in 1926, which consolidated his success, and also became popular in the United States, visiting both in 1924 and in 1930. He appeared in the now-lost 1930 film The Man from Blankley's and in the 1935 musical comedy film Things Are Looking Up, in which he performed with his 12 year old son, Dickie, a short clip from which can be seen here:

He continued to perform throughout the 1930s and appeared in a second Royal Variety Performance in 1946. He died in Paddington on 15 October 1958, aged 67, and was buried at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green.


Born on this day (21 March) in 1861: Albert Chevalier, a 'legit' actor who raised eyebrows by his decision to perform in music hall but is credited with improving the general repute of music halls as he refused to introduce obscenity into his performances.

An actor from 1877, he made his music-hall debut in 1891 at the London Pavillion, where he was an immediate hit, singing such songs as The Coster's Serenade and It's the Nasty Way 'e Sez it. and, in 1896, he embarked on a successful tour of the USA. During the 1900s he became one of the highest paid music hall stars in London, earning up to £450 per week. He played the title role in J. M. Barrie's Pantaloon in 1906.

Chevalier composed about 80 songs, of which the most popular was My Old Dutch ("We've been together now for 40 years and it don't seem a day too much..."):

From 1920 - 1922 he acted in a play of that name, written by himself and Arthur Shirley, at the Lyceum Theatre and, indeed, it was in that play that he made his final appearance. He died aged 62 on 10 July 1923 and was buried in Abney Park cemetery in the same plot as his father-in-law George Leybourne (subject of the film Champagne Charlie - see my post on Tommy Trinder on page 4 of this thread).


Brilliant stuff our Billie.
Loved the Dick/Dickie story. (and the rest of course)
Maybe the song in Dr Dolittle was 'My friend the doctor?

Thanks, Stephen.

Yes I was surprised to discover that Dickie Henderson had been a "child star". And that his father was a famous Music Hall star.


It seems that this time of year was quite popular for the birth of music hall stars. As well as Dick Henderson on 20 March & Albert Chevalier on 21 March (both above), also born on 20 March - but this time in Lambeth, where her mother ran a boarding house for theatrical performers, in 1873 - was Bessie Wentworth (born Elizabeth Mary Andrews), an English music hall singer, clog dancer and comic entertainer.

After leaving school, she worked as a clerk before joining Jack Sheppard's troupe in 1891. She became a principal boy in pantomimes and a singer of boy roles in operettas before developing a solo act in music halls. Although she did not use blackface, she sang plantation songs and minstrel songs, dressed as a young man wearing a stereotypical costume of open-necked shirt, striped pantaloons, and a large straw hat. She was very successful in the 1890s and was a popular subject of photographs and postcards of her in masculine poses, which can still be found in the National Portrait Gallery collection today.. She was portrayed in the costume of a plantation worker in a lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec, probably from a visit he made to London in 1896:


Her last appearance, at the top of the bill, was in December 1900. She was planning to marry and run a public house with her husband but died on 6 January 1901, aged 27, from typhoid fever.


Born on this day (26 March) 1866, Fred Karno, (born Frederick John Westcott in Exeter} was an English theatre & music hall impresario, hugely influential in comedy, not least in recruiting and training a generation of comics who went on to fame and fortune in their own right, notably: Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, Will Hay, Sandy Powell, Max Miller, Frank Randle, and Billy Bennett, all of whom trained at his headquarters, The Fun Factory, in Vaughan Road, Camberwell. These comedians were, of course, the backbone of British Music Hall and Variety throughout the first half of the 20th century and many were recruited by fledgling studios in Hollywood as the cream of physical slapstick comedy.

As a slapstick comedian, he is credited with popularising the custard-pie-in-the-face gag. Film producer Hal Roach stated: "Fred Karno is not only a genius, he is the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him". Such was Karno's fame, that his name became associated with any chaotic situation - the disorganised volunteer soldiers of the Great War labelling themselves "Fred Karno's Army".

During the 1890s, in order to circumvent stage censorship, he developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue. His cheeky authority-defying playlets such as Jail Birds (1895), in which prisoners play tricks on warders, and Early Birds (1899), showing the poverty and realities for the poor of London's East End, can be seen as precursors of silent film comedy. Many of his comics subsequently worked in film and used Karno material throughout their work.

He brought slapstick circus comedy to the music hall and brought together troupes of comics to develop sketch comedy. He was instrumental in establishing copyright protections for stage productions against the threat from film and was a pioneer of adding musical accompaniment to stage slapstick.

In 1930 he launched a show called Laffs which became the basis of shows for the newly formed Crazy Gang. He later helped to write and produce several short films, some of which starred members of the Gang.

He spent his last years in the Dorset village of Lilliput,, as part-owner of an off-licence, and died there on 17 September 1941 from diabetes, aged 75.

Fred Karno's army is still used today.
"Don't go in, It's like Fred Karno's army in there"

Amazing after a century.

Easter Sunday roast dinner and Stanley Holloway is dissatisfied with the Yorkshire pudding being served up:


Billy Bennett DCM MM ((21 November 1887 - 30 June 1942) was the son of John Bennett, one half of a musical slapstick act with his partner, Robert Martell.

He was renowned for his rubicund, unaesthetic appearance, a black plastered quiff, a big bushy moustache, a dreadful dinner-jacket with a well-used dickey and seedy collar, too-short trousers and hob-nailed boots and a red silk handkerchief tucked into his waistcoat:


Billy Bennett trained as an acrobat but was initially reluctant to follow his father on to the stage, instead enlisting into the army. He briefly left the army to become a comedian but soon re-enlisted at the start of World War I, where he enjoyed a distinguished career in the 16th Lancers and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Medal and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

In 1919, he resumed his stage career specialising in dramatic recitations and monologues. Here are two examples:

Nell which recounts the misadventures of a young woman whose life takes unexpected turns as her mother remarries several times:

and My Mother Doesn't Know I'm on the Stage which tells of the speaker's double life as an actor and a deserter while maintaining a façade of respectability for his mother, contrasting the perceived glamour of stage life with the reality of its reputation (at that time) for scandal and risqué behaviour:

Bennett also had the role of commissionaire in Will Hay's 1934 comedy film Radio Parade of 1935. He gave his final performance in Blackpool, a few weeks before his death there in 1942 at the age of 54.

Born Winifred Emms in New Brighton, Cheshire, on yesterday's date (4 April) in 1883, Hetty King was a renowned male impersonator who began her career at the age of 6 and continued to work until shortly before her death in 1972.

Her father, William Emms, was a comedian and musician who performed as Billy King and ran Uncle Billy's Minstrels, a troupe who constantly travelled around the country with a portable theatre and caravans. As a child, she began appearing in her father's shows, imitating popular performers of the day such as Gus Elen and Vesta Victoria. She started appearing regularly as a male impersonator in 1905, when she starred in Dick Whittington at the Kennington Theatre.

In 1901, she married actor and writer Ernie Lotinga, a music hall comedian, singer and theatre proprietor, billed as Dan Roe from 1898, and who appeared in films in the 1920s and 1930s, often as the comic character PC Jimmy Josser. They had one child and divorced in 1917 on the grounds of King's misconduct with the vaudeville artist and actor Jack Norworth. In 1918 she re-married to Alexander Lamond.

Her career spanned both World Wars, when she performed in the uniform of either a soldier or a sailor. In the First World War, she toured in France and Belgium, entertaining the troops. By 1930, King was reputedly the highest-paid music hall star in the world. Much of her success was due to her painstaking observation of the mannerisms of such men as sailors and soldiers, learning how to march, salute, swing a kitbag of the right weight, so as to give the correct appearance of a man, and even light a pipe. However, while doing so, she always ensured that her femininity shone through, often winking at the audience as if to let them in on the subterfuge".


She also played principal boy in many pantomimes and continued to entertain until the end of her life, and regularly performed in the United States, Australia and South Africa. By the late 1930s, she was seen as a nostalgia act. She toured Britain from 1948 as one of the veteran music hall performers in the show Thanks for the Memory produced by Don Ross.

She died in Wimbledon on 28 September 1972, aged 89, and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium. On 8 November 2010 a blue plaque was erected at 17 Palmerston Road, Wimbledon (which happens to be the road next to my old school but that's by the by), which was her last residence, by the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America.


Born on yesterday's date (5 April) in Brighton in 1894: Chesney Allen, best known of course for his comedy and musical double act with Bud Flanagan (see my separate post on page 8 of this thread) as duo Flanagan and Allen.

He began his career in straight acting, making his debut at the Wimbledon Theatre in 1912. He met Bud Flanagan while serving in Flanders in the First World War but they did not work together until 1926, touring with a Florrie Forde show called "Here's to You". As music hall comedians they would often feature a mixture of comedy and music in their act and this led to a successful recording career and roles in film and television. Flanagan and Allen were also members of the Crazy Gang and worked together in that team for many years.

Flanagan and Allen's songs featured the same gentle humour for which the duo were known in their live performances and, during the war, reflected the experiences of ordinary people. Songs like We're Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line mocked the German defences:

while others, such as their signature tune, Underneath the Arches, had universal themes such as friendship:

Flanagan and Allen stopped performing together with Chesney Allen's retirement on health grounds in the late 1950s following the penultimate season of the Crazy Gang's show at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London (his place for the final season being taken by 'Monsewer' Eddie Gray), although he continued working in theatrical management and returned to make occasional guest appearances. His last recording was for the album of the stage show Underneath the Arches in 1982 and he died on 13 November of that year in Midhurst, West Sussex.

Here is an audio recording of a Michael Parkinson interview with Chesney Allen and Roy Hudd (who of course played Bud Flanagan to Christopher Timothy's Chesney Allen in the 1980s stage show Undeneath the Arches):

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