Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - Among the Music-Hall Luminaries

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MUSIC-HALLS so called, as places for the amusement of the working classes of London and its suburbs, have of late advanced rapidly into public favour. Twenty years ago the number of "singing and dancing" licences issued by the magistrates numbered scarcely fifty, and now they amount together to upwards of three hundred and fifty. The managers of these "halls" conduct their business with much spirit, and it may be assumed considerable financial success. Their placards are prominent at every bill-sticking "station," and on every wall and hoarding sufficiently capacious to contain their gigantic dimensions. In six-feet letters of green, on a yellow ground, the public is informed that Peter (the Great) Wilkins will, all next week, and till further notice, continue to enchant crowded audiences with his eminently successful song of "All round my hat or, Who stole the donkey ?" Likewise that the Inimitable Brown, the Irresistible Smith, and the Delightful Robinson will variously "electrify," and "convulse," and "occasion shrieks of mirth," amongst their kind patrons. Portraits of these celebrities appear, highly coloured, in the music-shop windows. There is the Delightful Robinson in his last hit of "The Perambulator; or, Jemima's Young Guard," and of the Irresistible Smith in the act of delivering himself of that famous and soul-stirring melody "Matilda Toots; or, [-91-] You should see her Boots." So enormous has been the success of the music-halls that theatrical managers have grown alarmed, and sued the law for protection from their formidable rivals, and grave magistrates, by way of settling the matter in the fairest possible manner, have for a while sunk their dignity, and, all unknown to their friends and relatives, stolen off to the Cambrian or the Isis to see the fun and judge for themselves ; and when next the case came before them, as they sat on their judgment seats, they have not hesitated to declare their approval of the entire entertainment. Where a magistrate ventures any man may follow; so the other evening being in that quarter of the town where is situate that celebrated place of entertainment, the Grampian, I thought I might do worse than invest sixpence there.
    I might have got in for threepence, that being the sum charged for admission to the body of the hall, but observing stuck about the walls in the neighbourhood that Ezekiah Podgers was to appear for the first time that evening, in addition to the powerful and talented company always to be found at the Grampian, I thought it possible that there might be some little crowding. Sixpence admitted me to the gallery, and if I had gone as high as a shilling I might have taken a seat in the stalls on a form covered with red baize, and smoked a cigar in the distinguished company of Paddy Finnigan, the chairman. In addition to these advantages, I might have secured a spitoon all to myself as well as a glass bottom to the pewter out of which I drank my beer-paying no more than an extra twopence per pint on account of the indulgence. However, it is not every man that can afford luxuries in this hard driving world.
    I was half sorry, indeed, that I was tempted to invest that extra threepence, since within ten minutes of taking my seat and some time before the performance began, the gallery was packed and crammed as full as the cheaper space below. [-92-] However, this only confirmed my expectations of the rare treat in store, and I allowed the heavy young man immediately behind me, with his arms comfortably folded and resting on my shoulders, to remain undisturbed, and banished regret for my unfortunate hat that was rapidly yielding to the enormous pressure brought against my knees.
    The orchestral arrangements at the Grampian, though modest, are creditable, and, as a prelude to the more important performance, executed some popular airs in a neat and dexterous manner. After that a young lady, who on the bills was vaguely described as "serio-comic," favoured the audience with a funny song - descriptive of the miseries of ancient maidenhood, which was highly relished, judging from the applause that followed. The singer was recalled, and as a set-off to her former song sang a ditty concerning roguish married men and the barefaced swindles practised on much-enduring wives. It might have been that the laugh would have been against the men this time, but there was no room for the change; in the former song the female portion of the auditory had laughed the loudest and longest, and now there was nothing left but for everybody to clap their hands and jingle their glasses unanimously. It was curious as the song progressed to note the gentle elbowing administered to the husbands by the wives in all parts of the hall by way of reminder of some bygone delinquency suggested by the singer, as well as the good-humoured winkings with which the nudgings were received. This must have been instructing as well as amusing to the sweethearting portion of the audience.
    After Miss Maclachlan had sung for the third time, three "niggers" bounded in, and it augured well for the sympathy of the working men of England with the genuine down-trodden slave that they so kindly tolerated the wretchedly threadbare quips and cranks of these worn-out make-believes. They were funny "niggers"- jolly, well-fed; all play and no-work  [-93-] darkies, whose sole business in life appeared to be to sleep away the morning, and throughout the afternoon play upon the banjo, and sing of what they had for dinner and what they expected to get for supper, varying the amusements by inventing conundrums. Their jokes as a rule were not original. The majority, as they rolled out of their capacious mouths, were as familiar to the audience as the story of Jack-the-Giant Killer, and when they essayed something new, it were preferable that they once more slew Blunderbore, though for the thousandth time. Nor were their doings a bit newer than their sayings. Jumbo artfully withdrew Mumbo's chair, as of old, bringing Mumbo with a crash to the ground, and whereon Jumbo, as of old, promptly delivered himself of an apropos, though not over delicate riddle, concerning the railway engine and the tender behind. Gumbo played the bones over his head, and under his legs, and behind his back; and Jumbo played the banjo over his head, and under his legs, and behind his back; and Mumbo cried, "Gor 'long, nigger !" several times, and in very effective style; and at the termination of the performance there was a burst of applause provocative of the suspicion that, although by no possibility could Britons voluntarily become slaves, still, if the dire day ever did fall, and a choice were allowed the conquered, they would to a man elect to be slaves on a sugar plantation "down Souf."
    The entertainment as far as it went was, as has been shown, quite equal to the expectations of those who had paid to come to witness it, but the cream of it had yet to be served up, and here it comes in shape of funny Ezekiah Podgers, who has just arrived in a state of perspiration from the Waterloo Music Hall, and his brougham may be seen waiting at the door of the Grampian to take him on to the Balaklava the moment the Grampian can spare him. The demand for Podgers is enormous. His earnings must exceed fifty guineas [-94-] a week. It is rumoured that his brougham, with the magnificent lamps and his pair of horses, cost him four hundred guineas.
    Podgers' appearance is the signal for a perfect hurricane of welcome. A hundred sturdy voices shout out his name and cry "Bravo, Podgers!" and the shrill tones of women swell the flattering chorus. Podgers is used to this sort of thing, however, and briefly bowing his acknowledgments fires away, and instantly the hall is hushed. He was supposed to be dressed to the "character" he was personating, but what character is manifested by a costume consisting in a three-inch-square check suit buttoned up to the chin with trousers six inches too short, and a hat about four sizes too large, is not plain. His first song was called "The Ugly Donkey Cart." Every eye brightened as soon as it was made known that this song of songs was the one forthcoming. Simple as the ballads of old, but far surpassing them in point and subtlety of wit, it is descriptive of the infatuation of a young man for a damsel in the fried fish trade, and resident on Saffron Hill. How this young man loved and pined in secret, and how he finally went down on his "marrer bones," need not here be minutely described. It came to this, as the fifth verse declared

"She shoved me right bang into a dish of fried Dutch plaice,
Took hold of a bowl of butter, and threw it in my face
The driver came in at the time, to make my troubles complete,
He got all the boys to pelt me as I ran away down the street.
Doodle de dum, doodle de doodle lum, de doodle lum, de doodle lay."

The last line is the refrain of this exquisitely humorous ditty, but the people couldn't sing it for laughing. They tried, but the recollection of the catastrophe just related was too much for them, and they broke down to combine in a roar of mirth. They tried again, and broke down to roar and bang the table and ring the glasses with the liquor stirrers, and [-95-] cry "Encore!" as though but a little more of Ezekiah Podgers were required to fill their chalice of earthly bliss and restore them to old Eden.
    Mr. Podgers knew how it would be evidently, since he must have commenced to change his clothes the moment he was roared off the stage. Responsive to the clamour for his reappearance, he came on again in a long coat with a tight-fitting dressing-gown made out of cotton chintz of a staring colour, and wearing on his head a tall conical cap with a tassel. He was received as enthusiastically as at first. "He's first-rate in this," a neighbour observed to me, "I've seen the inventor of it do it, but Podgers beats him in my opinion- jumps a good two inches higher."
    The song was the celebrated one of the "Cure," which, as the public is probably already aware, is a "dance song," the "cure" thrusting his hands into his trousers pockets a la Mr. Clown, and jumping up incessantly, at the same time keeping his limbs as rigid as possible, while he sings. The words of the song are worthy of the action that accompanied it, and subjoined is a sample of the former:-

"Young Love he plays some funny tricks
    With us unlucky elves;
So, gentlemen, I pray, look out,
    And take care of yourselves;
For once I met a nice young maid,
    Looking so demure,
And all at once to me she cried,
    You are a perfect cure!"

There were ten of these verses - some even more spirited and mirth-inspiring than the one quoted, and during the whole time occupied in singing the song Mr. Podgers never once halted or paused for breath, but continued to bob up and down with the regularity of a steam-engine piston. No wonder that the audience clapped and demanded a repetition. "Just you fancy the presperation he must be in!" remarked my [-96-] neighbour, and clapped his hands more vehemently than before for Mr. Podgers to come on again.
    After a lapse of about five minutes the indefatigable Ezekiah once more made his appearance, this time in evening costume and with nothing except three blazing diamond rings on his fingers, a gold watch-chain of "cable" pattern, and a hat with a curly rim, to distinguish him from a private gentleman. He was sure, he said, that his patrons would excuse him from another song requiring so much exertion as that he had already sung ~especially when he informed them that he had already sung it once at the Waterloo, and was bound to sing it yet once more at the Balaklava, "to which hall my donkey cart is at this moment waiting outside to convey me," funnily remarked Mr. Podgers, fingering the cable chain so as to bring two of the diamond rings in a position to twinkle to advantage in the gas-light. "However, I will sing you another song, and that must be the last to-night-it must indeed. Any other night I shall be," &c., &c.
    Podgers was the people's pet, and they delighted to indulge him. It was something to confer a favour on a man with three diamond rings and a brougham and pair! "Go on Podgers! Bravo, Podgers! Just one more!" Podgers winked affably, and advancing to the footlights with an affectation of timidity, requested the married men of the company to protect him from the violence of their wives, and the bachelors present to keep tight hold of their sweethearts, for he was about to sing a song calculated to rouse even that very tiny bit of anger to be found in every fair breast. "Poor Married Man!" cried a hundred voices, at once made aware of the song Mr. Podgers was about to sing, nor was it observable that the owners of the fair breasts greeted the intimation with less enthusiasm than the sterner sex.
    The song was an intensely comic one, being descriptive of the shifts and privations to which a poor wretch is reduced [-97-] with many little mouths to fill and small means to meet the responsibility. It made fun of his rags, of his wife's rags, of complaints of his children, the scanty size of the family loaf. It was fruitful in facetious allusions to his darned stockings and his only shirt. It went on to tell how that-

"No one knows what he suffers,
    Poor married man
He wears top boots, for they're all uppers,
    Poor married man
And in that State, oh what a treat,
    Bare footed now he walks the Street,
And urchins cry, How's your poor feet ?
    Poor married man!"

and so triumphantly worked up to the inexpressibly humorous climax when

"Grim death comes kindly to relieve him,
    And a parish egg-chest at last receives him;
Poor married man!"

    "Ha! ha ! ha Ho ho ho! Bravo, Podgers! Oh Lor', oh dear, oh dear ! What a funny song, to be sure."
    I had noted down several other examples of the "comic" songs of the music-hall, but when this last one is recalled to my memory, I feel unequal to the task. I trust, however, that I have fulfilled my purpose, which is to draw attention to the sorry rubbish in the way of comic singing that is put off on the frequenters of places of amusement of which the Grampian is taken as a type. It is an insult to every sane man and woman to set such rubbish as that contained in the "Cure" before them, and a wonder of wonders that the man who first attempted to sing "Poor Married Man!" was not pelted off the stage. How does it happen that such trash is tolerated by the pleasure-seeking Englishman? How is it he is so clever at work and so foolish at play? Is it because his serious energy is so tightly strung all day that he requires so violent an alterative before he can feel comfortable, and able [-98-] to smoke his pipe serenely and enjoy his beer? Is his appreciation of fun so dull that his risible faculties will not consent to be moved unless they be tickled by some such gentle stimulant as,

"The shrimps you pull in half by the tails,
    And eat bread and butter and things like snails,
On the Sands, on the Sands, on the Sands, on the Sands,"

which was part of a song called "Margate Sands," sung by another funny gentleman in the course of the evening? Either this is so, or, as is more likely, the English workman is just a jolly, good-tempered fellow, who sets out for the Grampian with his "missus" on his arm, determined to " enjoy himself" and is grateful to anybody who will assist him to that laudable end.