Saturday, 6 April 2013

Princes and Peashooters

I went on a tour of the City Varieties theatre in Leeds today.   It's not a large venue, nor is it particularly grand, but it does have quite a history.     Its first incarnation was as a singing room above the Swan Inn.  Singing rooms were an innovation that encouraged people to stay longer in the inns you see; people would turn up and sing, and listen to other singers, and consequently they'd stay longer and buy more drinks.   Over the next hundred years or so they became so popular that the entertainment part of it grew and grew, and in the mid 1800s the Swan Inn was replaced by the music hall which was rebuilt as a theatre where the entertainment was much more of a focus.      This wasn't a high-brow place though, in fact music halls were forbidden from putting on plays (must keep Shakespeare dignified you see and out of the hands of the commoners) and so they focussed on songs, comedians and variety acts all put on for the benefit of working class audiences who felt free to heckle, harass, bombard and (hopefully) occasionally applaud the artistes.

The City Varieties is not, as I mentioned earlier, a large venue.  Today it seats about four hundred people in relatively spacious comfort.   In its original incarnation the same space housed about two thousand complete with balconies where people stood four or five deep, leaning over the rows in front and craning their necks to see the small and sloping stage.   The balconies, I learned today, were not even supported from below, just held up by rods fixed to the ceiling.    This particular touch of structural genius wasn't even known to the owners until the refurbishments a few years ago.   Needless to say the balconies are no longer used for the audience.

The tour guide, Grace, really knew her stuff and brought the history of the venue alive.   Particularly entertaining were her accounts of some of the acts that had played there over the years.   Charlie Chaplin performed there in the 1890s as part of the "Lancashire Clog Boys" for instance, before his journey into the west.    Lillie Langtry was a regular artiste, a renowned Victorian beauty and performer.   The then Prince of Wales was quite enamoured of her but of course it wasn't the done thing for someone of his standing to attend such a low class venue... so the staff of the theatre used to discreetly smuggle him into the place after the show had started, via unused corridors and into the box nearest the stage where the curtains were already drawn, so he could watch Lillie perform.  Afterward he would be smuggled out again before the show as a whole finished and depart for the nearby Harewood Hall where he could lodge with his noble cousins and resume his princely duties.     Later he awarded the City Varieties the right to display his royal crest though whether this was as a thanks for the good times he'd had there, or a bribe to keep quiet it's hard to say.   If it was the latter, well, it didn't work.

"Discretion if you please"

During the first World War the City Varieties, like many music halls throughout the country, became the venue for a method of recruitment that was a masterpiece of psychological manipulation if not the most ethical method.    Vesta Tilly a female artiste known for her male impersonation would lead an evening of rousing patriotic songs during which the bar kept the audience well plied with beer.   When spirits were high she'd invite the young men on stage to join in the singing, all very uplifting and jingoistic and inspiring nationalistic pride and fervour, with the audience cheering and applauding and joining in.... and then the young men on stage would be handed documents to sign... and the next week they'd be in the army and on their way to the trenches.     You have to applaud the thought that went into that sinister little performance if not the morality of it.
Vesta Tilley

On a lighter note I learned of a creative use for peashooters.   When music hall attendance started to flag during the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of cinema and radio the shows began to entice audiences in with nude displays.    The laws at the time were quite strict and nudity was allowed only in an artistic context.    After all, nude statues and paintings are art, right?   So shows began to incorporate naked tableaux that were perfectly legal as long as the ladies on stage did not move.  If they moved it became obscene and the theatre could be prosecuted.      With a typically human approach to regulations and restrictions however the owners tried to find ways to push that boundary a little and managed to inject a little movement into the shows by introducing elements such as having one of the naked artistes sitting or standing on a wheeled trolley that could be moved across the stage, or having moments where the lights went out entirely and the performers would move to a new position before the lights came up again.   It must have been like a very slow X Rated stop motion animation.        We were told that one visitor to the theatre had confessed to the tour guide that he and his friends attended these shows when he was a young man and they used to use pea-shooters to fire at the naked ladies on stage to try to get them to move, or that they would try to get a spot by the stage and all blow in unison in the hope of moving some of the feathery fans that obscured some of the more... artistic... parts of the display.    How successful the attempts were we were not informed, but I imagine it helped them pass a happy hour.

The theatre has been open continuously since the 1850s, staying open through both world wars and in fact only closed for refurbishment for the first time in 2009, reopening in 2011.   The refurbishment removed the grime and dillapidation of a century and a half of constant use and it's now redecorated in the same style that it was in its heyday of 1900 or so - clean and airy with tasteful floral decorations on the roof and gold leaf highlights here and there.    It's still a cosy little theatre, not grand but welcoming, and full of character and history, and true to its roots it hosts shows that you would not often find in grander places - comedians and circus shows, pantomimes and experimental theatre.   It's a great little place and if you find yourself in the neighbourhood it's well worth a visit.


  1. Interesting place. Love the story about the Prince

    1. It's a great place. To be honest though that story about Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII) is one of the tamer stories about him - he was such a rogue, layabout and womaniser that the story goes that his mother Queen Victoria only lived so long (she's still our longest reigning monarch)out of a determination to keep him off the throne.

  2. Fascinating! I love the stories & secrets old theatres keep.

    1. Agreed - there were plenty of other stories too, but I didn't want to overload the post. I'm planning to attend a tour shortly organised by the same people, but of the "Grand Theatre and Opera House" in Leeds - a rather more upmarket and much larger theatre with just as much history. Can't wait.