John Major is half way through a book about the rise and fall of the music hall. His father, Tom, was a song-and-dance man who formed a double act with his wife, Kitty. John’s brother Terry was a trapeze artist, and the former prime minister must have come close to going into the family trade. Parliament’s gain was, in John Major-speak, showbiz’s not inconsiderable loss. Oh, yes.
Tom Major was a name in his day, although the fag-end of the music hall he knew is deader now than even the madrigal. The generation of halls that emerged in 1850 were very rapidly gone. Only one survives, in the East End of London, off Cable Street in Stepney.
John Wilton originally bought a terrace of five Georgian houses and a pub so that he could use the land at the back to build his music hall. That complex of houses, the pub (known worldwide by sailors as the Mahogany Bar) and the hall behind still stand — just. Through doors at the back of the premises you enter, Narnia-like, the exquisite theatre with its U-shaped gallery perched on iron barley-sugar columns. It is an incredible thing, a totally intact music hall that has survived the Blitz, the GLC and the modern world, for decades its secret known only to film-location finders.
The music hall was reborn in 1997 with a brilliant rendition by Fiona Shaw of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. And Broomhill Opera’s production of Silverlake in 1999 was its first real season with music since 1880. Today it takes only a little imagination to see the waxed moustaches of the swells, the waiters bustling in from the servery to diners tête-à-tête beneath the gallery, the sweaty-faced chairman introducing the acts — technically, ‘vocal concert with variety’ — the jugglers, acrobats, dogs and whatnot interspersing the songs and ballads from a corps of resident singers in evening attire.
It was in Wilton’s that George Leybourne made his name as Champagne Charlie, sponsored by Moët, contractually bound to drink nothing but champagne in public. He was a glass of giggles but dead aged 42. His act was one of social aspiration when the only way for music hall actors to go was up, propelled by talent alone. Those artistes wouldn’t recognise today’s grossly nepotistic theatre industry, heaving with the offspring of actors and a haven for well-spoken but dim posh kids.
The theatre was active only from 1860 to 1880, when it was taken over by the London Wesleyan Mission, who stayed until 1956; the building then became a rag-sorting depot. The GLC was going to knock it down in 1964, but Sir John Betjeman came to the rescue and got it listed: Grade II*. He was apparently amazed when the Arts Council wouldn’t fund it (it still doesn’t) as variety was deemed entertainment and not art.
Frances Mayhew today runs it on behalf of the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust charity. She is the energetic descendant of Henry Mayhew, co-founder of Punch magazine and author of the classic London Labour and the London Poor.
‘I think people underestimate the quality of those early performers,’ she enthuses. ‘God, they must have been tough! To compete with an audience talking, eating and drinking must have been so hard. That is the origin of “bringing the house down” — if you were any good the audience would wander down to the stage to watch you.’
You didn’t buy a ticket, she explains. You bought a voucher for sixpence. That entitled you to two pints, a pie and entrance. You could go in and out as many times as you wanted, drinking, listening to the odd act — a bit like flipping channels. Prostitutes worked the joint continuously — another bonus.
Mayhew clearly adores the building and is waiting to hear about a £2.25 million bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the result of which will be announced next month. If she’s successful, the money will go towards putting in electrics, sorting out the water and drainage system and mending the leaking roof. Wilton’s is not stable and the Georgian bits are like old Stilton.
Today, Wilton’s makes 90 per cent of its income from TV and film hire. Guy Ritchie’s forthcoming Sherlock Holmes sequel has just completed a long and (for the hall) highly profitable shoot on the premises. Plays go on intermittently. Throughout May the venue will feature Into Thy Hands by Jonathan Holmes, a play about John Donne. The much-acclaimed Union Theatre’s all-male Iolanthe ends on 7 May. The menu is really a mix of shows, operas, comedy nights, music gigs, weddings and community do’s. There is no discernible artistic policy except to keep going.
The place has avoided becoming an outpost of music hall repro acts. However, there is surely room for more stars to work there in a style inspired by the building. There’s no shortage of love. In 1970 BBC2 broadcast a clutch of acts from Wilton’s by Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Ronnie Barker, Warren Mitchell, Pat Kirkwood and others as an awareness raiser. A lot of that material is, says Mayhew depressingly, too politically incorrect ever to repeat or restage. Artistes blacking-up would not go down well in a theatre whose local constituency is 50 per cent Bengali.
Wilton’s is its own joy. John Major should prove he’s not grey by kicking off his book-signing tour there, swinging a cane and giving us a taste of his old dad’s ‘I say I say I say’ patter. People would pay.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 23, 2011