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.

Into The Labyrinth: The Nidus, denied no more.

Children wander into a cave and find an immortal, fading to non-existence. The source of his power, the Nidus, has been taken from him (somehow) and exists all across space and time simultaneously (somehow). If he can get hold of it again, he will regain his strength and finally escape from his rocky prison and defeat his eternal enemy Belor (of the evil eye?).

That’s the setup for the second oddest children’s quest series of the 1980s, Into The Labryinth.

I watched all of these programmes (there were three series’, of diminishing returns) when they were first aired and watching back over them now I initially had to ask myself what the grip they had on my imagination might have been. 

Of course, they involved travels through time, a plot device I find irresistible to this day. And, though it didn’t look like it by the tired end of the sequence, there were seeds of originality and mysterious grandeur planted from that opening episode. Is is not every day you encounter a race of immortals (or possibly just a pair of them? It wasn’t clear.) with immense magical powers who would gradually fade from existence if kept apart from the source of their power. Certainly, not just before you had to do your homework. 

Looking at the video of the opening episode (with thanks, as usual to my unknown YouTube benefactors) I felt the tug again. Into the Labyrinth is powered by two performances. Both are certainly larger than life. Ron Moody, as Rothgo, is the still centre. Brooding, insulting and with more than a hint of despair showing through, he acts through his eyes. 

The villain of the piece is Balor, who chews the scenery into pulp as she uses every impossible illusion, disguise and deceit to Deny Them The Nidus. 

“I deny you the Nidus!”

Balor, played as a kind of immortal superbitch Charlies Angel, intervenes at the end of every episode to prevent resolution by sending the Nidus to yet another time period (in a cave. They were always in a cave. You could travel to any time you liked, so long as you found yourself in a cave when you got there).

The formula was constant, predicable and almost unlevened by anything resembling character development. Nonetheless, as I say, the first series had hinted at grandeur. So, here, the Blytonish brother and sister are led by an exceptionally bright and know-it-all black teenager. That leadership is, from the start, not something the younger brother (who definitely wasn’t a brother) was particularly happy about. But he never refers to the source of his sulky irritation openly. A tiny subtle brushstroke. 

Also, they are setting out to assist Rothgo. But what will he do if he gets his hands on the Nidus, and becomes all-powerful? After all, it isn’t for nothing that immortals are imprisoned encased in blocks of stone and buried deep inside mountainsides. What if bringing him the Nidus isn’t that hot an idea after all? He doesn’t reassure us when questioned on his intentions;

“I may use my powers in a way that is not evil. Does that equal good? Or I may use them in a way that is not good. Is that evil? I find it almost impossible to explain to minds that run on rails the concept of the noetic state.

I know. You’re worried you might be the kind of person whose mind runs on rails, seeing as you were previously unaware of the word noetic, or what state it was in. When was the last time that ever happened to you watching Downton Abbey? Worry not, I’m here to look it up in the dictionary for you.  

noetic |nōˈetik|
of or relating to mental activity or the intellect.
ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Greek noētikos, from noētos ‘intellectual,’ from noein ‘perceive.’"

I think you’ll agree that we’ve all learned something now. I realised that was the point of the series, and what kept me coming back. Buried in amongst all the amulets, witches and immortals was exactly the same intent which prompted the creation of Doctor Who. We were to be introduced to lots of educational bits of history and myth through the device of time travel. The English Civil War, the French Revolution, the story of Theseus and the Minitor, the Arabian Nights, druidic England, Robin Hood- all introduced and stuffed into the viewers brains through the letterbox of the Nidussy. 

And, in case there is any doubt about where I stand on the matter, both history and myth are brilliant. 

There was one more grain rubbing from inside the story clam. The entire series was produced by HTV, the Welsh ITV network. For a Welsh audience, finding an immortal exiled for eternity to a cave, seeking (what turns out to be) a sword to restore him to his power… well, there’s only one thing that could mean. 

There were two more series. They were rubbish. But for seven episodes, there was something ambivalent, strange and exciting on the telly. Of course I watched it. How could I not?

The Box of Delights (part 1): History, Place and Evil

RADA-voiced schoolboy Kay Harker has an adventure between the Winter solstice and Christmas Eve in the 1930s. But he is just our cypher to experience the Box of Delights’ real stars- the heros, villains and dreamlike mythical figures who explode from the screen. 

I have struggled to try to write this with some sort of distance. But it’s impossible. This is one of the pieces of television which became part of my personal memories of childhood Christmas’. Shown in 1984, when I was impressionably 8, it played across six weeks leading up to Christmas Eve midnight mass. It is unquestionably the best ‘classical’ children’s book adaptation of the 1980s.

I re-watched it all recently, for the first time in 26 years. It is still magical. And I still got the heebie-jeebies from the forces of evil. These aren’t generic ‘Bad Guys’. The villains in The Box of Delights are malevolence personified. As the Punch and Judy man tells the young Master Harker, he (and they) date back to pagan times.

On the surface, Kay faces a criminal gang committing kidnaps for ransom. This is the stuff of boys’ pulp fiction. Kay first encounters them when he is tricked out of his money by two clergymen playing find the lady on the train. They steal his purse for good measure. 

Petty thievery and base disguise. In many children’s books of the period this would have been enough to establish this gang as the antagonists to be defeated. But these men are more than just thieves. The jolt as one of them becomes a looming wolf, just for a moment before the train goes into the tunnel, caught me still on rewatching. Even though the wolf is, to adult eyes, clearly one of the BBC props department’s less convincing stuffed animals. The fright comes from the leap the viewer has to make. Having pegged the clergymen as shabby con artists, we are jolted into a reappraisal. Their supernatural aspect underlines the Punch and Judy man’s warnings when Kay alights.

Kay finds he faces a pack of wolves, of hunters, who the Punch and Judy man Cole Harkins warns are running him ‘very close’. He eventually gives Kay his magical Box of Delights to hold for safekeeping, before being captured. Abner Brown, the Wolves’ pack leader, is a malevolent sorcerer. 

The link to English myth (an almost forgotten underground river, buried by Britain and Empire) seems to stem from an awareness of the landscape of England as a constant, if slumbering, presence. John Masefield, the book’s author, was the British Poet Laureate and he drew the inspiration for his verse from the rural constants of streams, fields and forests. The series’ director managed to convey that sense of place unchanging across time with wide shots framing the characters as temporary moving elements in eternally still landscapes.

This timelessness of place centers on the snow covered barrow standing in a field near Kay Harker’s home. The boys get up just after dawn and find themselves alone in the landscape. The country is blanketed in snow. Walking through the silent, early morning blankness, they could be in any time. The seasons, the barrow and the countryside are all as they have always been.

This still heart lies under the layers of action. 

All of which is to take us to the moment in the dark of midwinter when Kay, in a white cloak and cowl, climbs onto the back of a white horse, jumps to the top of the barrow and lands in King Arthur’s Camp. Time has slipped back who knows how many years, but yet here we are on the same mound in the dead of midwinter. And despite the timeslip, the camp is still besieged by the wolves. They breach the stockade and are fought back. 

Evil is eternal. But so, it seems, is Cole Hawkins.

The story’s ability to call on the depths of near-forgotten history, attached to a strong sense of place, gives The Box of Delights its most mysterious and wonderful sequence. Herne the Hunter draws Kay into his Wild Wood. They then transform, in an extended wordless hand-drawn animated sequence, into stags, into geese, into fish. Each time, they exult in their freedom only to be threatened. Hunted by wolves, then a hawk and then a pike.

The message is never spoken, never spelt out. After the extended animated sequence, Herne simply asks Kay if he saw the sequence of threats. Whether running in the woods, flying in the air or swimming the lakes the same forces are waiting for us. They take different forms, depending on our environment- wolves, hawk, pike or crooks. But they are the same universally present force of evil, the bringers of death and destruction. They are the predators who wish to make us their prey. 

A message which can hardly be divorced from the circumstances of 1930s Britain.