News Column

Ex-pm sparkles as speaker

October 24, 2013


We knew we were in for something to remember.

Uniformed police stood guard in the road. Special Branch officers were on duty outside and inside the church.

After all, how often does a former Prime Minister clamber up into the pulpit of a mid-Somerset church?

And Sir John did not disappoint at his sell-out talk for the Wells Literature Festival.

Spitting Image lampooned him on television as a grey and dull figure while in government but the packed St Thomas's church were excited by a natural entertainer bouyed by humour, charm and comic timing.

He regaled the audience with the story of My Old Man, his book about the history of music hall and his father Tom's role in this lost art.

"Over 50 years ago I sat by the bedside of an old man and held his hand," said Sir John.

"His mind had gone back 50 years to his glory days as a music hall performer. That man was my old man."

Sir John explained how music hall evolved from the desire to entertain and arose from the stories of ordinary people.

But working people were not the only people to enjoy music hall's often vulgar, bawdy songs and sexual innuendo.

Prime Minister James Callaghan sang one to the TUC Congress in 1978 to announce he was not about to call a General Election and Winston Churchill gave voice to several of his favourite Cockney songs in the privacy of home.

Sir John told how music hall sprang from grubby Song and Supper clubs in early Victorian times to palatial variety clubs but started to fade after the First World War under the successive blows of cinema, radio and television.

He displayed huge warmth and affection for the great stars of music hall with once famous names like tightrope walker The Great Farina, pantomime dame Dan Leno, male impersonator Vesta Tilley, singer Marie Lloyd and tiny Little Tich who was an inspiration for Charlie Chaplin.

Sir John quoted Little Tich with a smile: "I earn more than the Prime Minister but I do much less harm."

Then there was Harry Lauder who played the archetypal Scot, became the highest paid performer in the world, the friend of presidents and was blamed by Sir John for creating the image that all Scots are tight-fisted.

Asked if had considered a career on the stage like his father, Sir John replied: "No, I had no talent and was drawn to politics from the age of 13.

"But there were some people in the House of Commons who would have been better served by a career in music hall.

"And I Have A Little List..."

Asked whether he liked talent shows on television, Sir John said: "I am all for shows like Britain's Got Talent but I am not so sure about some of the people who run them."

Researching the book had taught him much about his parents' lives, the grim conditions of the poor in Victorian Britain but also the vigour and glories of music hall.

"Sir John's poignant references to his parents were touching and I was impressed by the breadth of his knowledge," said James Stephen from the event's sponsors Carter Jonas.

Philip Welch

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

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