Theatre: Stars sing the praises of Leeds City Varieties

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It’s one of the oldest music halls in the country and now a new book celebrates the history and people associated with Leeds City Varieties. Neil Hudson takes a look.

Glancing through the Leeds City Varieties Book of Memories, it’s almost a who’s who of popular entertainers from the last 60 years. Granted, many of the performers in the book saw their careers peak well before the birth of the internet but there’s a smattering of household names - Barbara Windsor, Kay Mellor and Bruce Forsyth, all of whom claim a connection with the city’s most enigmatic performance venue.

City Varieties dates back to 1865 and it has laid claim to being the oldest Victorian music hall in the country since 1940, when the Argyll Theatre in Birkenhead was destroyed by German bombs. Its back street location seemed to suit the gaudy revelry for which it became famous. It was ever a venue of the people and it attracted the likes of Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Rooney, Tommy Cooper and Norman Wisdom.

The book has been penned by the Friends of The City Varieties Music Hall to mark a number of milestones - the first being 25 years since their inauguration, an anniversary they share with the music hall being purchased by Leeds City Council. It is also 60 years since the birth of The Good Old Days, one of the longest running British TV shows in history, which aired from 1953 to 1983 and became a staple of the viewing public and launched the careers of dozens if not hundreds of performers.

A brief tour of Varieties VIPs would not be complete without a mention of Peter Sandeman, who took over as general manager in 1987, the year the council bought the venue and who retired in 2012. He founded the Friends group and helped to set the venue on the path to success.

Leeds actress and writer Kay Mellor, creator of Fat Friends and The Syndicate, went there as a child and also made her stage debut at the Varieties when, aged 16, she played ‘Sharon Christmas’ in an alternative panto called The Electric Christmas Show.

Bolton-based folk band The Houghton Weavers recall: “the ceilings were too low, the dressing rooms too small, the smoke-filled corridors too narrow, the stairs too steep....” but added: “Wonderful.”

That sense of intimacy was one often relished by performers, among them veteran Welsh comedian Wyn Calvin, whose nickname was The Clown Prince of Wales, who said: “A performer can embrace the entire audience with a smile. The ancient theatre builders knew how to design a venue which allowed every patron, wherever they sit, to feel in touch with the performance - and every artiste to experience the closeness of contact.”

Cockney crooners Chas and Dave concurred, dubbing it: “one of the most unique theatres in the country.”

Singer Elkie Brooks recalled: “It has a special warmth about it, as if the sheer fabric of the building is holding on to the memories of those wonderful stars who have gone before.”

Comedian Johnnie Casson recounted a funny incident at the end of his first performances at the Varieties: “My first gig went very well until I exited stage right instead of left and, as there was nowhere to go [and nothing to do] but look at a brick wall, I had to stand there for twenty minutes.”

Radio and TV presenter Nicholas Parsons has hosted Radio 4’s Just a Minute, with, among others, Paul Merton, at the Varieties on several occasions and recalls one incident in which a panellist could not attend... “We contacted Charles Collingwood [The Archers] who had played the game before... he agreed he would finish recording and drive straight from Birmingham to Leeds [but he was late and so] Paul Merton had the inspiration to start the show as if he were here... I kept saying things like ‘Charles has yet to score’ and ‘He hasn’t contributed much yet’, all of which the audience loved. We’d been filming about ten minutes when in strode Charles. He got an immediate round of applause and I had to explain the situation to listeners.”

Sir Bruce Forsyth said: “I will always be grateful to the Varieties. My first appearance there meant so much to me and it also helped me at a difficult time. It’s a very special theatre and holds many fond memories.”

But its association with The Good Old Days cannot be understated, a fact summed up by comedian Jimmy Cricket, who said the two “went together like cheese and onion or ham and pineapple.”

The association was the brainchild of one man, Barney Colehan (1914-1991), who not only changed the face of British variety entertainment but simultaneously launched the careers of people like Bernie Clifton, Ken Dodd, Jimmy Cricket, Sir Richard Stilgoe and Keith Harris, who first unveiled his sidekick puppet Orville at the Varieties and who recalled: “For the first time ever, I walked out on stage with the duck on my arm and as he turned around from my shoulder, all the audience gave a great big ahhhh.... and I knew he was going to be a big hit.”

Pudsey-born Bernie, also known as the ‘moustachioed maestro’ had the notion of creating Top of the Pops (based on a foreign show called the Teen and Twenty Disco Club.

He also brought It’s a Knockout to our screens but perhaps his greatest achievement was to create The Good Old Days, a musical variety show in the vein of those which had been popular in Victorian and Edwardian times.

It proved such a hit that by the time it ended thirty years later, there were some 24,000 people on the waiting list for a seat in the audience.

The book, which is available from the box office, is out now priced £9.99.


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