Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Film and Music Hall

The bond between two related traditions

Main image of Film and Music Hall

This selection of films illustrates the interaction between the two great mass entertainment industries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: film and the music hall. It includes several types of early film, including footage of famous music halls, music hall personalities and related actualities and films of actual music hall acts.

Early experiments with sound and film, such as the Gibbons' Bio-Tableaux or the De Forest Phonofilm, typically used music hall celebrities of the day to demonstrate the economic potential of their system, and now stand as a record of those acts. Captured on thse experimental formats are famous music hall names, such as that legendary survivor of the golden age of music hall, Arthur Roberts (Topsey Turvey, 1926), and purveyors of the comic song such as Lesley Sarony (Hot Water and Vegetebuel, 1928) and Billy Merson (Desdemona, 1927). There are early films of the giants of the Pantomime, such as Herbert Campbell (long time partner of Dan Leno) and Will Evans, who also became important in musical theatre, as did Percy Honri (Mister Moon, 1901; Quick Change Act, 1908) and the great Lupino Lane, before his career in Hollywood. Lupino Lane and Will Evans' nephews Fred and Joe Evans transferred their acts neatly to the film comedy, which began to move ahead in the teens.

Many types of film are represented: the direct recording to film of a music hall turn (e.g. Deonzo Brothers, 1901; Gaiety Duet, 1909; Will Evans, the Musical Eccentric, 1899; Herbert Campbell as Little Bobby, 1899) by early filmmakers eager to film the celebrities of the age; actualities of the music hall and related events (Comic Costume Race, 1896; Hoxton - Sat July 3rd Britannia Theatre, 1920); 'Entr'acte' films (Mister Moon; Quick Change Act; Lettie Limelight in her Lair, 1900) - primarily promotional films which could be also be used during theatre performance too cover difficult scene or costume changes - and the above mentioned sound experiments, which enabled the artiste to be seen and heard.

The nature of early film is not obvious to us today, so it is important to have some knowledge of the music hall, the predominant popular entertainment at the time of film's invention, in order to properly interpret it. The two entertainment industries existed side-by-side for decades, and had a considerable impact upon each other both commercially and in their content: an aesthetic, personalities and programme structure. Indeed, for many years, film and variety were seen by the same audience, in the same programme, at the same theatres, sharing the same stage, as well (since the films were silent) as making use of the same orchestra.

So, in the 1890s, film was a music hall turn itself. Programmes of films, in running time about the same as any other act, were shown as part of the music hall bill. The selection of films reflected in microcosm the music hall programme itself, with its mixture of topicals, interest items, novelties, humorous and dramatic songs and recitations. The films and music hall acts shared similar forms of low comedy, from the individual performer singing a comic song, to the antics of the traditional pantomime characters. They were populated with cockneys, suffragettes, policemen, mischievous boys and so on. Film and music hall audiences shared a fondness for popular music, dance, novelty, spectacle and colour, for fantasy and storytelling.

Film, then, was simply a new format, a novelty among the many novelties - technical, acrobatic, dramatic - that made up the variety programme. Music hall had been absorbing and accommodating such novelties for years. Even after film developed as an autonomous industry with venues of its own, the music hall, popular theatre, musical comedy and revue continued to maintain an important relationship with the screening of films.

'Cinema' developed and eventually overtook music hall as the pre-eminent mass entertainment sometime around the time of the First World War. The rise of the longer 'feature' film, which would become the predominant product of the film industry, necessitated the wholesale move to purpose-built cinemas. These longer films no longer fitted into the music hall structure and were sufficiently popular to stand on their own, even though 'live' entertainment was widely considered superior for a long time to come.

Even after the split, the film and music hall continued to be closely related through the continued mixing of variety acts and feature film, which was a favoured strategy of major theatre chains such as the Stoll Moss circuit. The managers experimented with different combinations of live and filmed product during the '20s, in an effort to provide variety and thereby maximise profit from their huge, expensive to run theatres. It was, of course, the arrival of sound that put paid to the mixing of live acts with the film show. Once the orchestra was paid off this became impractical and uneconomic. The music hall industry depended utterly on resident, specialist bands to mount the programme and so the variety programme retreated to a smaller number of theatres that had not been converted into cinemas, and to the metropolitan clubs and cabarets. Variety continued to feature strongly in the cinemas' supporting programme, particularly in cine-magazines and, perhaps ironically, in the feature film, for which the old time music hall became a favourite subject - see, for example, Champagne Charlie (d. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1944).

Bryony Dixon

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Billy Merson singing 'Desdemona' (1927)Billy Merson singing 'Desdemona' (1927)

Early sound film: an entertaining comic song

Thumbnail image of Blunders of Mr. Butterbun, The: Tripps and Tribunals (1918)Blunders of Mr. Butterbun, The: Tripps and Tribunals (1918)

Comic short featuring the great Lupino Lane

Thumbnail image of Champagne Charlie (1944)Champagne Charlie (1944)

Lively recreation of the bawdy atmosphere of Victorian music-halls

Thumbnail image of Comic Costume Race (1896)Comic Costume Race (1896)

Actuality footage of an event at Herne Hill, London

Thumbnail image of Deonzo Brothers, The (1901)Deonzo Brothers, The (1901)

Breathtaking barrel-jumping act from the acrobatic brothers

Thumbnail image of E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899)E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899)

A minstrels act performs in North Wales

Thumbnail image of Gaiety Duet, A (1909)Gaiety Duet, A (1909)

Music hall comedians Grossmith and Payne perform two sketches

Thumbnail image of Has He Hit Me? (1898)Has He Hit Me? (1898)

An exhibition of grotesque boxing by the Brothers McNaughton.

Thumbnail image of Herbert Campbell as Little Bobby (1899)Herbert Campbell as Little Bobby (1899)

Bobby's appetite is a bit too healthy

Thumbnail image of Hot Water and Vegetabuel (1928)Hot Water and Vegetabuel (1928)

Delightfully daft songs performed by Leslie Sarony

Thumbnail image of Hoxton... Saturday July 3rd, Britannia Theatre (1920)Hoxton... Saturday July 3rd, Britannia Theatre (1920)

Enthusiastic crowds outside a Shoreditch Music Hall

Thumbnail image of Lettie Limelight in Her Lair (aka Miss Bayley) (1900)Lettie Limelight in Her Lair (aka Miss Bayley) (1900)

An actress prepares for her music hall performance

Thumbnail image of Mister Moon (1901)Mister Moon (1901)

Music hall skit featuring a ukelele-playing moon

Thumbnail image of Mr. Teddy Elben in his Song Scena (1926)Mr. Teddy Elben in his Song Scena (1926)

Humorous musical sketch

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)

Daft spoof of Napoleon's ill-fated campaign

Thumbnail image of Quick Change Act (1908)Quick Change Act (1908)

A glimpse of a music hall changing room

Thumbnail image of Topsey Turvey (1926)Topsey Turvey (1926)

Popular comic song performed by Arthur Roberts

Thumbnail image of Trottie True (1948)Trottie True (1948)

Lavish, Technicolor romance with Jean Kent as a rising music-hall star

Thumbnail image of Will Evans, The Musical Eccentric (1899)Will Evans, The Musical Eccentric (1899)

Dazzling acrobatics by the uncle of the famous 'Pimple'

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of The 'Pimple' FilmsThe 'Pimple' Films

Hugely popular silent comic character created by Fred Evans

Thumbnail image of TV VarietyTV Variety

The small screen pays its dues to the music hall

Related People and Organisations