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TV Variety

The small screen pays its dues to the music hall

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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 Palace).

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.

David Sharp

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 291 Club, The (1991-93)

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Variety show broadcast live from the Hackney Empire

Thumbnail image of Big Top Variety Show (1979-82)

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Circus-based ITV variety show originally fronted by Bernie Winters

Thumbnail image of Billy Cotton Band Show, The (1956-65)

Billy Cotton Band Show, The (1956-65)

Wide-awake variety mix of music, dance and comedy

Thumbnail image of Black and White Minstrel Show, The (1958-78)

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Notorious variety show that ran for an astonishing 20 years

Thumbnail image of Boom Boom... Out Go the Lights (1980)

Boom Boom... Out Go the Lights (1980)

First TV showcase for the new wave of alternative comedians

Thumbnail image of Comedians, The (1971-93)

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Long-running, notoriously non-PC showcase for veteran stand-up acts

Thumbnail image of Crackerjack (1955-84)

Crackerjack (1955-84)

BBC children's variety series, featuring comedy, music and games

Thumbnail image of Good Old Days, The (1953-83)

Good Old Days, The (1953-83)

Vintage variety show, with even the audience in Edwardian dress

Thumbnail image of Saturday Live / Friday Night Live (1985-88)

Saturday Live / Friday Night Live (1985-88)

Live variety for the alternative comedy generation

Thumbnail image of Stars and Garters (1963-66)

Stars and Garters (1963-66)

Unpretentious, very popular pub-set variety show

Thumbnail image of Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955-74)

Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955-74)

Long-running variety show that helped to make ITV a hit

Thumbnail image of Tony Hancock Show, The (1956-57)

Tony Hancock Show, The (1956-57)

Hancock's first TV series, more sketch and variety-based than his later work

Thumbnail image of Viva Cabaret! (1993-94)

Viva Cabaret! (1993-94)

Contemporary-flavoured variety show with an alternative edge

Thumbnail image of Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (1974-77)

Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (1974-77)

Variety show modelled on the working men's club scene

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Thumbnail image of Cotton, Billy (1899-1969)

Cotton, Billy (1899-1969)

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Thumbnail image of Winters, Mike (1930-) and Winters, Bernie (1932-1991)

Winters, Mike (1930-) and Winters, Bernie (1932-1991)

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