BWW Reviews: THE GOLDEN YEARS OF VARIETY, Hackney Empire, September 9 2012
Variety never really died, it morphed into Simon Cowell's Saturday night entertainment formats seemingly on television somewhere in the world every minute of every day. But while the vast majority of the hopefuls (and hopeless) will be lucky to get 15 minutes of fame, the stars of variety's golden years (after the war, but before television started to eat and spit out acts week-in, week-out) live on in memories, as inspirations or as host of Strictly Come Dancing.
As the curtains rose, a photo-montage of old, mainly dead, old stagers thrilled the house. Whispers spread around the audience of young and old (mostly old). I joined in, saying "Norman, Frankie, Tommy, Mike and Bernie, Eric and Ernie, Ronnie and Ronnie, Arthur, Jimmy and Ken - first names were enough. There was a sigh for the recently departed Max. With an immaculately besuited band knocking out "Make 'em laugh" and other end of the pier standards, it wasn't a bad start to the night.
Britain's torchbearer for its glorious variety history, Roy Hudd, had called in a few favours from the Water Rats, showbiz's charity, and gave a captivated audience comics, jugglers, dancers, singers, ventriloquists, whistlers and musicians - from past and present. He even did a turn as Max Miller and another as Bud Flanagan - everyone loved everything.
Biggest reception was for Ronnie Ronalde, whistling at The Empire, a venue he first played in 1942! Rick Wakeman's nursery rhymes as played by famous composers was clever and elegant and Johnny Casson's classical northern stand-up was fast and funny. 14 Panto dames on stage simultaneously was quite a sight too!
But my favourite (and it was an enormous thrill to see a hero I never thought I'd see live) takes us back to Britain's Got Talent and its spin-offs. In the mid-70s, Tony Hatch was the Simon Cowell of his time, a brutal, and brutally honest, judge on TV Talent Show, New Faces. He is also Britain's answer to Burt Bacharach. At 73, he knocked out just a few of his extraordinary back-catalogue as the audience sang along to Messing About On The River, Call Me, I Couldn't Live Without Your Love, Mr and Mrs and, of course, Downtown. As did I, badly.
Roy Hudd's show rounded off the Ha Ha Hackney Festival, raised money for the Water Rats and showed that nostalgia can be for everyone. At the curtain, hips (real and artificial) creaked and we, like millions before us, ventured out of the Hackney Empire having enjoyed a wonderful night of variety entertainment.