The history of the music halls, and the history of variety, is, in many ways, the unwritten history of England. Unwritten, but not entirely unsung. It was a brief time when the workaday cares of long hours,unscrupulous employers, summary dismissal, and the constant struggle for economic survival could be mitigated, even in wartime, by the simple expedient of spending a few hours roaring out a chorus in a smoky atmosphere redolent of bright lights and greasepaint. It began in the music halls, at a time when performers could become famous for a single catch-phrase, or for having a larger-than-life flat cap, or for filling the stage with flags.
And,for those watching who themselves had an inkling of music or comedy, a spark of talent, and could put an act together, it became a potential escape route from the mindless drudgery of watching machines at the factory or mill. In the First World War, men marched to the front singing music hall favourites such as"Tipperary” and "Pack up Your Troubles”; in Hitler’s conflict, it was Gracie Fields and George Formby whose music bolstered the troops and reminded everyone once more what they were fighting for, in a way that patriotic speeches could never do.
Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s collection of stories draws deeply on that tradition. Inspired by the music halls and variety,these stories chronicle the lives of a linked group of characters in the East Midlands in the heyday of musical comedy. Alf and Shirl, Vi, Cooper and Bean ("the boys most likely to…”) Beryl, and the redoubtable Grandwem are all expertly drawn and brought to life in these pages, their trials and triumphs, tragedies and tribulations.
Starting out in wartime Mansfield, we follow Beryl’s development, intertwined with the stories of the other protagonists, in their box-and-cox, hand-to-mouth,precarious existence as entertainers in wartime, and a whole host of minor characters who provide both context and bitter-sweet humour, including a budgie called George Formby. If you liked Priestley’s The Good Companions you will love this book; if you appreciate the culture and social history of the East Midlands you will love this book, and finally, if you simply enjoy good, compelling writing with some deft touches and knowing insights, you, too, will love this book.