The Day the Music Hall Died

And tales of its bizarre resurrection

They all said Music Hall was dead and, indeed, so it was. The slow decline into dereliction of the theatres and halls that once resounded to laughter and joy in every town displays stark testament to this demise.

One of the main reasons was the growth of television as a popular medium of entertainment. Music Hall comedians could tour their act from town to town doing the same routine and using the same material to fresh audiences. Contrast that with A Morecombe and Wise TV show during their heyday: 20-30 million people heard their gags, half the population of the UK in one go. They could not do the same joke the next week. In a way that generation of comedians had the hardest time and many a good one fretted, worried and damaged or destroyed their health or their lives as a result.

Since, say, Harry Enfield’s television shows, through The Fast Show and on into Catherine Tate and Little Britain an odd thing has happened. That announcement of the demise of Music Hall has proven to be premature because in a way the style of these shows has absorbed the problems faced by Music Hall and the TV mass audience.

They all rely on catchphrases (for catchphrase read punchline). They tell a slight variation of a joke, the variation usually being the situation, and deliver the same punchline/catchphrase every time. Shall we call it a catchline?

A Music Hall Comedian told the same joke with the same punchline in a different context, i.e., a different venue in a different town.

The classic TV comedians of the 1960-1970 era had to deliver different jokes with different punchlines in an unchanging context. A familiar TV set or studio situation, which, more often than not, bore a marked similarity to a stage. Think of Eric and Ernie using the front of curtain as a place to deliver a routine. A theme, incidentally, used in the first series of The Mighty Boosh.

Which of these two descriptions best fits shows like Little Britain or Catherine Tate? I would say definition One. The difference is only in the device that they deliver a catchline we have all heard before, indeed anticipate and expect. We know it is coming but by altering the context in terms of scene, other characters and situation they still manage to amuse the audience. Sometimes you have to wonder how they manage to achieve this.

I am not dismissing this format as unfunny, some have been positively hilarious, but I do find it interesting to draw parallels with the old Music Hall and this style of comedy, which emerged, from the alternative comedy circuit of the 1980’s. If you then consider that Matt Lucas and David Walliams have enjoyed enormous success taking Little Britain on tour as a live stage show from city to city, the symmetry is almost complete. Now where did I put that washboard?

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