- Scotland and the Music Hall, 1850–1914
During the 1850s a number of enterprising publicans in London and elsewhere built annexes, known colloquially as 'music halls', onto their pubs in order to accommodate the increasing popularity of stage entertainment. Over the course of an evening a roster of locals would perform their acts or 'turns', which might consist of a song or two, a humorous skit, a tumbling routine or a magic act. These performers, known as 'artistes' in the music hall vernacular, larded their routines with subversive, mocking or critical allusions to local characters, places and events. Audiences sang along, laughed, and called out to performers. They bought drinks for favourite artistes and pelted those who had failed to impress with whatever was at hand.
Over the following fifty years, managers established chains of halls, called syndicates, throughout the United Kingdom and the empire and thereby exported music hall stars and idioms to the rest of the world. As they grew, these heavily capitalised syndicates created 'variety', a tamer version of music hall performed in lavish, centrally located theatres and directed at the middle-classes. Variety was the dominant form of British entertainment by the 1890s, though a more raucous version of music hall survived in the poorer urban districts. Ambitious artistes learned to tailor their routines to meet the expectations of both sets of audiences. Music hall and variety were replaced in the public fancy by cinema after 1918.
Throughout their heyday, the music hall and variety industries were centred on London where artistes earned the highest wages and greatest, international exposure. London has therefore received the most scholarly attention. But, performers, [End Page 1151] managers and builders were drawn disproportionately from outside the metropolis, and Paul Maloney is one of a group of scholars who are undertaking enlightening studies of provincial music hall.
This very well-researched book suffers at times from a too-close relationship with the doctoral dissertation on which it is based. The historiographical and methodological discussions, and attempts to differentiate music hall from other forms of popular stage entertainment slow down an otherwise well-paced narrative. Similarly, Maloney's attempts to recreate the social class makeup of music hall audiences might well have been summarised more effectively, especially given his admission that there are only limited reliable statistical data available. This latter work is reminiscent of an earlier generation of scholarship.
But the biggest reservation about this book is that despite its title, the author focuses primarily on Glasgow, which he argues, convincingly, was the centre of Scottish music hall. However, drawing 'national' conclusions from a study with this focus is slightly less convincing given that Glasgow's mix of Irish, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant communities gave it some claim to being the most cosmopolitan and therefore least representative Scottish city. In this sense, Maloney is in danger of being swayed by the equally troubling bias which has caused scholars to draw 'national' conclusions based on the experience of London music hall. This is important given Maloney's agreement with previous historians that music hall was based on a sense of inclusiveness and community between performers and their audiences. Being 'in the know' and understanding up-to-date, topical references created what Peter Bailey has called 'conspiracies of meaning' between artistes and their audiences. Because of this, the messages broadcast in music halls could subvert or mock established order, without incurring the wrath of censors or campaigners for public decency.
But these criticisms speak more of presentation than substance. There is much more to commend in Maloney's work, which is a welcome and important addition to a body of literature that is beginning to emphasise the industry outside London. Many of Maloney's conclusions reinforce and extend earlier studies. Others are provocative. London was the most important and competitive music hall centre and success there was always the ultimate test for any performer, but Maloney shows that simply having worked on the London stage could be a fillip for a Scottish artiste's career. Having played the metropolis created an...