How Music Hall conquered the world through CRACKERJACK!

In America, they called it Vaudeville. In Britain it was Variety or Music Hall.

Buy a ticket and sit amongst your fellow rowdies to watch the succession of acts do their thing on stage. If you didn’t think much of plate spinning- or a bit of Shakespeare being declaimed- just let them know about it until someone else came on.

Comedy sketches, character sketches, leggy lovelies in chorus lines, magicians and actors toured the provincial towns. Rising or falling on the Bill (the poster listing that night’s acts) their careers waxed or waned in public.

There was a sharp line drawn between legitimate theatre (as it called itself) and the Music Hall. The Music Hall audience were just a bit too literally the Great Unwashed. Acting had spent long centuries professionalising and building respect for its artistes. Mixing in a world of dancing dogs and ventriloquists’ dummies was too close to returning to the roots of English theatre for comfort.

Theatre remains, but the Music Halls are closed. But Music Hall as a form has triumphed. It is the dominant entertainment form of modern television. Strictly Come X-Factor Idol Dancing On Ice is a stylized set of acts doing their turns in front of a baying, critical audience. You can even still boo the acts off the stage (though now you’re charged for the privilege, via premium text lines).

But while supercharged mega budget Variety booms there are some corners of the telly universe where the old fashioned values of mucking about in front of a rowdy audience continue. Those places, of course, are on CBeebies.

The relationship between the Music Hall Tradition and children’s television is very old. In fact, it was into kid’s TV that many stars (and they were stars. The music hall acts were the big, big names of their day) drifted even before the last of the actual music halls closed.

Now, I’m about to introduce you to someone who is completely unknown to you, but who was one of the best known- and best loved- of all performers for years in the UK. This is Richard Hearne playing his lifelong character, Mr. Pastry.

Mr. Pastry was the first person to ever get their own BBC television series. The character was created in the 1930s, and 40 years later he was still so popular that he was considered as a replacement for John Pertwee as Doctor Who. Mr. Pastry was so famous he used to appear regularly on the Ed Sullivan show in the US. I don’t care if you’ve never heard of him. He was a star.

Look upon his works, O ye mighty, and despair.

Now, take a look at Cbeebie’s latest vehicle for Justin Fletcher (and perhaps silent justification for moving to the huge, far away studios of Salford) Justin’s House. It’s recorded in front of an audience of screaming, hopped-up children, featuring frequent custard pies to the face, a unicycling delivery lady and a new addition to the rolls of Gay Robots.

Justin is one of the CBeebies megastars. He is a clown, fluent in sign language, who also does sketch comedy. By my reckoning he has been the star of four seperate series. He’s done silent slapstick with Higgildy House. He’s been a clown, as his alter ego Mr. Tumble in Something Special. But, to my mind, his apogee so far has been Gigglebiz. This is music-hall.

Now, remember the hyped-up audience of kids in Justin’s House? Add them to Gigglebiz’s sketches. What do you get?

“It’s Friday, it’s five o’clock, it’s Crackerjack! (CRACKERJACK!!)”

There is no call more assured of a response from a certain age group of TV watchers than to mention Crackerjack. You’ll always get the audience cry back. Here’s why:

Crackerjack first appeared on thick-glassed black and white screens in 1955. It was hosted by avuncular Eamon Andrews and was filmed in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theater– which had been built as an actual Music Hall fifty years earlier. The turns and acts for those early shows just carried on doing what they always did- except to a spectacularly excited prepubesent audience.

Even after moving to Television Centre, Crackerjack remained a protected reservation for sketch artists, stage magicians and plate spinners, even as their natural habitats died out. Music-hall as a form of entertainment was probably terrible most of the time. The acts were likely to be little better than the early rounds of Britain’s Got Talent (itself another throwback to the Variety tradition) in any given provincial town’s show.

But as a form, it is near to a perfect match for modern television’s fashions. Its rapid changes in tone and that little edge from knowing that the audience is sitting there watching and waiting for something to go wrong combine to ensure that entertainment is placed above all the high minded virtues of the Reithian televisual diet. Children’s television spent decades keeping that ember alive.

Cbeebies continues that love affair today. But the preservation of the form is of less importance than it once was. The preciously preserved Theatre has dwindled to a minority interest, where the same people go out to see each other in the interval every few weeks.

But Music-hall? Music-hall hid inside children’s Television until, eventually, Television became Music-hall.

Century Falls: The future comes for us all

Century Falls is dark. Dark, Dark, Dark. I’m reasonably sure there isn’t another children’s drama series which ends with a suicide. I’m confident that there isn’t another which presents that suicide as the rational response to the events that have gone before. 

Century Falls is the creation of Russell T. Davis, later famous for writing Queer as Folk and regenerating Doctor Who. But this is his early work, and as we all know, when you are a talented writer, before you can strike off into your future,  you first have to turn back and deal with your childhood. Well, Russell is Welsh. And our story happens in as rural a Welsh setting as you could manage to create on screen without actually setting it underground. Russell was also an outsider teen. And our hero is a fat teenaged girl. We know she’s fat, because we can see she is and we know everyone else sees it too because they regularly refer to her as the ‘fat girl’. She doesn’t get thin during the story. She doesn’t get a makeover. She is a fat girl. Russell doesn’t have to tell us the consequences for her of that fact. He knows and trusts us to know too. 

The village is full of old people. In fact, there are usually only old people in the village. The local lordling, Naismith, is a comparative youngster in his forties. Everywhere else, the old women and men shuffle around the cobbled streets of their slate grey world, keeping tabs on each other and on the newcomers- Tess and her pregnant mother. 

The only other children are a pair of twins- meek Carey struggling to keep her frankly borderline psychopathic brother Ben from doing too much damage with the psychic powers which seem to be leaking out of him. They’ve been called back to the village by their Uncle, Naismith, for reasons which owe nothing to family affection. 

The plot unwinds at a fair clip- Century Falls has been home to generations of psychics. Forty years ago, prompted by the two of them with the strongest powers, they attempted to create a godlike being to protect themselves from the encroaching future. The ceremony went wrong, their temple burt down and from that moment on no children have ever been born in the village. 

Now Naismith plans to repeat the failed ceremony, powered by his unbalanced but staggeringly powerful nephew, creating a monstrous immortal foetus which will use its mother as its puppet, never being born. And Tess’ mother and unborn sister will be rewritten, their futures erased as Century’s first victims.

I did tell you it was dark. 

So, that’s the plot. But what is is really about?

Oh, you know, loneliness. The loneliness of being an only child. The loneliness of childlessness. The loneliness of being different. 

The loneliness of being stuck in a fucking nowhere town, where nothing happens and everyone is ancient. The loneliness of having got old, and finding you’re still stuck in the same fucking nowhere town you’ve lived your whole life and you didn’t really find anyone to share your life. 

Afraid of what the future might bring, the villagers destroyed their own futures. Presented with a second chance, they almost make the same mistake. But, this time the impulse is charged with their need to grab at their last chance to create something to outlast themselves. Are there even any villains in Century Falls? Or is everyone too flawed and too human to be classed as evil?

And where is our hope? The pinprick of light in our pitch prison? It comes as Tess takes the step the entire village has been avoiding for 40 years and embraces an uncertain future as a sister. Disaster is only just averted. But I’m not sure we can say we have a happy ending. Tess’ family is saved, but their future is still as uncertain as all of ours is. The villagers accept living the remainder of their lives without being able to control how they will turn out. And the character who has seemed closest to a villain ends as a tragic figure- empty inside, having been hollowed out decades before, she cannot find any future for herself at all, and simply steps off a cliff to die.