THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH STAND-UP
You may humbug the town as a tragedian, but comedy is a serious business
THE SUPPER ROOM YEARS - It's a show but not for the ladies
In 1831, a club became established as an after-show drinking venue for gentlemen who performed in the London theatre. First housed in the committee rooms of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, it moved within six months to a fully-equipped clubhouse in King Street, Covent Garden. This was The Garrick Club. Its rules and regulations included the motto “it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted” – a conviction which helped to develop its allure.
A couple of years later, The Theatre Act of 1843 restricted the powers of the Lord Chamberlain so that the prohibition of performances could only be allowed when he saw it to be "fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace". The same Act increased the capacity of local authorities to license theatres, breaking the monopoly of the larger, branded playhouses while encouraging the development of smaller, independent ventures, such as saloon theatres attached to hostelries and supper rooms.
Comedy plays began to be produced at prestigious London theatres such as The Royal Opera House and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where Christmas pantomimes were already a staple. After each performance, cast members made a beeline for The Garrick, but these comic actors, turns and strollers were not the club’s usual clientele. They were uncouth and bawdy and apt to sing a racy tune after a few drinks. For the other patrons – theatrical dandies looking for some peace and quiet - this was unwelcome behaviour, and the newer crowd soon found themselves barred.
Luckily, at the other end of Kings Street the Grand Hotel’s owner, W.H. Evans, had heard of this and offered up his basement as a late drinking den for the excluded. This became the popular Evans Music And Supper Rooms of the 1840s. Within months, a stage had been built and choir boys singing madrigals provided the entertainment.
Performances by older comic singers such as Sam Cowell, Charles Sloman and Sam Collins followed, during which members would eat, drink and participate in singalongs, sometimes of a rather lewd nature. A regular of The Late Joys as the show became known, was William Makepeace Thackeray who refers to it as “The Cave of Harmony" in his novel The Newcomes, and as "The Back Kitchen" in Pendennis.
A very early recording by the towering star of Music Hall, Matilda Alice Victoria Wood (12 February 1870 – 7 October 1922) also know as Miss Marie Lloyd.
THE MUSIC HALL ERA - Your own, your very own
By the mid-1800s, late-night entertainment had gathered momentum and many other venues began to offer similar intimate gatherings: The Coal Hole on The Strand, The Cyder Cellars in Maiden Lane and famously, The Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth. Charles Morton and his brother-in-law, Frederick Stanley had purchased The Canterbury Arms in Upper Marsh, in 1849.
Morton was experienced in presenting 'Gentlemen Only' entertainments in his other pubs, and decided to offer “musical meetings” in the back room of his latest acquisition. He brought in smart tables, soft chairs and candlesticks, allowing audiences to sit and eat or join in the “Free and Easy” sing-alongs.
Morton also encouraged women to attend the entertainments at The Canterbury, giving the room wider appeal. Entry was free, but the increased profits from the sale of food and drink enabled the development of an old skittle alley at the back of the pub into a 700-seater venue. Its opening on 7th May 1852 was consequently described as “the most magnificent date in music hall”, and the building’s design became a template for other rooms such as The South London and The Boar & Castle.
‘Jokes’ were not yet standard fare on stage. The stand-up style we know today had yet to emerge from a muster of monologues, comedy songs and variety acts. In the early 1900s, professional songwriters were enlisted to provide the music for a diverse range of star performers including Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno, Little Tich and George Leybourne. This populist music hall entertainment would thrive well into the mid-20th century, and its widespread, inexpensive access is often cited by historians as the reason for high spirits during hard times.
The master of monologues Mr Billy Bennett (1887 – June 30, 1942) he was always billed as Almost A Gentlemen.
THE AGE OF VARIETY - Can you hear me Mother?
The music hall circuit led to what became known as variety. Where music hall incorporated several different spots per night for each artist, variety reduced their appearances to a single spot. In the early 1930s there were so many theatres to play, an act could be contracted for a different show every night for two years before completing the venue cycle. Morecambe & Wise famously used the same thirteen minutes of material in the first ten years of their career on the variety circuit.
From 1737 to 1968, the censorship rules of The Lord Chamberlain's Office required all scripts for public performance to be submitted for official scrutiny. Texts were read and returned with any unacceptable routines and jokes underlined in blue pencil (from which the term "blue" comedy arises). The comedian could not then deviate from the act in its edited form, and some would risk a heavy fine for contravention (see Frank Randall). So, what happened in 1968? A battle between The Royal Court Theatre, the critic Kenneth Tynan and the censorship office led to a public outcry and a change in the law. Je suis Kennie.
Variety was not the only way to get into the world of comedy. During the second world war, many members of the British Armed Forces performed as part of ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association). Following demob, those bitten by the showbiz bug moved into professional entertainment: Eric Sykes, Peter Sellers and Tommy Cooper were among those whose careers began on MOD stages.
The rise of the post-war comedian coincided with the increasing influence of television and radio on the lives of the British public. This also impacted on the variety circuit, whose live offering suffered from the growth of home entertainment. Mass media demanded a constant flow of new material and a touring comedian’s short, well-honed set was no longer viable.
Freddie Frinton made his name with his ‘drunk’ routines and hen-pecked husband character in the sit-com “Meet the Wife”. But he is most famous for this single Variety sketch which is considered a masterpiece in Germany, where every New Year’s Eve his short film ‘Dinner for One’ is still shown.
SATIRE & CLUBLAND - Look at the muck in 'ere
By the mid-1950s, British attitudes towards comedy were changing. Well-known catchphrases, patter and punchlines were sounding tired and old-hat. American audiences were already being introduced to a new breed of comedian (see the anarchic Mort Sahl) who typified a more contemporary and realistic view of life. Many English universities of the time had drama clubs which, to stretch their performing styles began to explore sketch comedy and improvisation. From these experiments, the concept of a revue show was born, and soon student societies like The Cambridge Footlights, The Oxford Revue Group and Bristol Revunions were regularly performing at The Edinburgh Fringe.
In the vanguard of this movement were the combined talents of Oxford undergraduates Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, and Cambridge students Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. The four were brought together in 1960 by Robert Ponsonby in the final year of his artistic directorship of The Edinburgh International Festival. Recognising the success of the fringe revue format, Ponsonby assembled a version for the main festival. Beyond The Fringe was a hit, transferring to both the West End and Broadway. The show wasn’t without controversy: the very idea of mocking the British prime-minister, Harold MacMillan, was considered outrageous at the time, but the script secured censorship approval and presaged the satire boom of the 1960s.
Satire was a more complex device than its comedic forerunners. Its middle-class authorship and use of historic references and flowery vocabulary were sometimes in danger of alienating a working-class audience. However, by the 1970s these patrons were benefitting from the emergence of a quite different comedy circuit which included Working Mens’ Clubs. Some of the more successful comedians of the day cut their teeth in these clubs - Bernard Manning, Bobby Thompson, Mike Yarwood and Ken Goodwin – and eventually made their way to television via such shows as The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, The Comedians and Jokers Wild.
The late 1970s saw the evolution of "new-wave" comedy. Some of its earliest successes came from folk clubs: although acts such as Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and Jasper Carrott performed as musicians, their between-song banter developed into complete comedy routines. Mike Harding (“The Rochdale Cowboy”) secured two series of stand-up on BBC2 (1979-82) – his beautifully-crafted monologues stood out in a period when most TV comics were still peddling pub jokes.
Mike Harding (October 23rd 1944 -) with his unique style performs one joke, live from Blackpool's Grand Theatre.
NEW-WAVE ALTERNATIVE CIRCUIT - What's happening white people?
Also at this time, community theatre grants were allowing artists to create unusual comedy collectives such as The People’s Show, National Theatre of Brent, Ken Campbell’s Roadshow, The Wee-Wees and Marcel Steiner’s Smallest Theatre in the World. Their material helped to re-formulate stage comedy, indeed, the poetry nights at The Apple & Snakes club in Covent Garden were promoting a completely new kind of performance with rhyming punchlines.
With the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Gay clubs where opening in many cities of England and with it came the drag act. Cutting and catty, the act rarely pulled punches and more often then not they were frighteningly vicious to any one who dared to heckle them. As a consequence in the late 70s Stag and Hen nights would often employ a Drag act over a comic because they would deliver scathing lines demanded by this crowd. Such virtuosos of this art were Phil Starr, Chris Kaye and of course Mrs Shufflewick.
In May 1979, the first “alternative” stand-up comedy club, The Comedy Store, opened in London, where acts such as Alexei Sayle, Keith Allen and Ivor Dembina began their careers. These new, bohemian voices challenged the traditional “chicken-in-a-basket” comedy of the Working Men’s Club with their agit-prop, intrepid attitudes. However, throughout the next decade, comedy club chains began to multiply and flourish, and an evening of stand-up moved into place alongside cinema and concert-going as a commercial entertainment.
The Comedy Store, The Glee and The Stand were some of the UK’s finest, but the company that really rode the comedy boom was Jongleurs. By the end of the millennium the brand had over twenty purpose-built comedy rooms in major cities across Britain. With the rise of televised stand-up, comics were looking to perform in bigger venues, and in late 1993 Rob Newman and David Baddiel performed to 12,000 people at Wembley Arena: the stadium gig had come of age. Now a three-month tour can be over and done with in a week.