Variety (vaudeville in the USA) is generally agreed to be a mixture
('variety') of types of entertainment acts on one bill, with roots in the
Edwardian form of music hall that had almost disappeared by the early 1960s. It
still exists in an adapted/modified form in club formats (working man's, night
club and cabaret club), revival shows, end of the pier shows, and the annual
Royal Variety Show.
The broadcast format is that of a live show (some from variety theatres, some
in studios) mediated to a wider audience first via radio and then television.
These versions tended to retain the tradition of a mixed bill of speciality
acts, with television including some from the circus, usually with a compere and
generally a clear acknowledgement that an audience was present at the studio and
sometimes participating. The venue used for an outside broadcast was often one
associated with variety throughout its history. (for example, the Chelsea
Variety was a staple of television from its earliest days, with notable lost
programmes such as Starlight (BBC, 1937-9); Cabaret Cruise (BBC, 1939, 1946) and
New Faces (BBC, 1947); Café Continental (BBC, 1947-53); Television Music Hall
(BBC, 1952-); Saturday Showtime (ITV, 1955-56); Top of the Bill (ITV, 1957) and
Chelsea at Nine (ITV, 1957-59). With close links between booking agents, variety
circuits and often the (commercial) TV companies, there were opportunities for
artistes and acts to appear on a regular basis, and popular programmes were seen
as a mainstay of the TV schedules, especially at the weekends.
Live and broadcast formats fed off one another and television became a medium
to break new talent, which might then also appear on live tours (sometimes as
support or warm up for pop tours) and billed 'as seen on TV', demonstrating the
growing power of the medium. With the relatively close connection between BBC
Radio and BBC Television, some acts and programmes seen on television had
previously been heard on the radio (for example, The Billy Cotton Band Show,
1958-65). This migration is of course still prevalent today, although the advent
of commercial television, with its need to fill schedules to compete with its
rival and attract advertising, undoubtedly helped find work for many. With its
advert breaks and perhaps a less stuffy image, commercial television was
possibly more suited to variety shows, which had, in their stage incarnations,
always had a brief natural break between acts anyway. When television
broadcasting was mainly live, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, the available
technology was not necessarily best suited to a quick turn-around between acts
even with the break, so there was a continuing need for 'the front-cloth' act
allowing for stage/studio set-ups to be changed. The risk of mass-exposure of an
act's material also created work for gag-writers.
Variety bills had always reflected a mix of what might be termed regular and
long-standing acts, and a selection of the latest big stars of their day.
Television variety was no different. What TV was able to do was mix up the
format, so that some shows offered a constantly changing line-up while others
were personality-led, often by people who had cut their teeth on the circuits.
Certain shows recreated an earlier form for television (notably The Good Old
Days, BBC, 1953-83) or drew upon its characters and material. Other formats -
talent shows, working men's clubs (as in The Wheeltappers and Shunters
Social Club, ITV, 1974-77) - were also appropriated. One innovation was the
production of shows for children (for example, Little Big Time, ITV, 1968-73).
The faux public house (Stars and Garters, ITV, 1963-66) was another.
From the later 1970s and on into the 1990s, the format
had to absorb a rising new wave of 'alternative' comedians and performers, who shared a contempt for what was now considered
variety's unacceptable face - the venerable Black and White Minstrel Show (BBC, 1958-78) and The Comedians (ITV, 1971-93) were particularly loathed. A pair of alternative comedy showcases under the unpromising title Boom Boom... Out Go the Lights (BBC, 1980 & 81) attracted little attention at the time, but later shows such as The Hippodrome
Show (ITV, 1989; with the emphasis on 'hip') and Viva Cabaret (Channel 4,
1993-94) drew on a mix of contemporary - often musical - acts and older
established performers, while the Saturday Live/Friday Night Live (Channel 4,
1985-88) shows provided edgier successors and 291 Club (ITV, 1991-93) and The A Force (BBC, 1996-97) offered a distinctively black take on the variety experience.
Some light entertainment and variety shows represent a rare chance to sample acts that certainly had
their origins before World War Two or even, in a few cases, considerably
earlier. Sometimes the artists may have been well past their peak - an effect
magnified when viewing this material today - and their television appearances
may need to be judged alongside sound recordings or film clips from earlier
periods, where these exist, to assess their true quality.