The tag line of my blog is “All things Music Hall,” and I am going to stray a little outside the family connections for this post. Last Thursday I attended the Press Night at Wilton’s Music Hall of “Music Hall Monster: The Insatiable Mr Fred Barnes,” the latest offering from performer Christopher Green. Fred Barnes was a household name in his day and probably of the status of say, Harry Styles or Sam Smith (to those of us who find a 2018 comparator quite handy in gauging the lives and success of these music hall stars of old. I do that a lot in my blog if only to alert readers – some of whom are not knowledgable about this period of British entertainment history – to what it really was all about).
Too often, mention the words “Music Hall” and people recoil. Many have hazy memories from childhood of The Good Old Days, the BBC’s long-running ‘tribute’ show and others have been scarred by the experience of being dragged along to a church hall somewhere in Britain to watch Grandma and friends swathed in feather boas singing along jauntily to “Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way”. Grandad, meanwhile, took on the role of Chairman, Leonard Sachs style, again a role that was not representative of what went on in the music halls of the 1890s and early Edwardian period that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Obviously a board at the side of the stage with series a numbers which represented each act (much like a list of church hymns), with no compere or ‘Chairman’ to introduce each turn, was not going to work well for a prime time television show – and indeed doesn’t work well in many theatrical settings, hence the continued use of a Chairman to bridge the gap. In the good old days, it was get on, get off, go home (or more likely go to the pub). No whole cast bow at the end to conclude matters neatly. What is clear from my many conversations, with a variety of people over the years on this subject, is that music hall is steeped in cliché and it is very difficult to present a show around this without going where so many (both amateur and professional) have gone before. Life was great, union jacks were waved, jollity was the order of the day, female performers were of loose morality, men were costermongers who loved nothing better than breaking into a chirpy song about food, beer or ‘er indoors. So far, so cliché.
Enter Fred Barnes.
This handsome youth, the ‘wavy-haired, blue-eyed adonis’ as he was billed, was born in 1885 in Birmingham, the son of a butcher. He got his first taste of the theatre when he saw Vesta Tilly in “Dick Whittington” at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham and he was smitten. From an early age he became a very good friend of Dorothy – Dorothy Ward, the pantomime star also from the Midlands, and she encouraged him to audition for the Alexandra Theatre panto. He was successful and in the 1906-07 panto season played the Duke of Solihull, where The Era reported that he “dresses immaculately and sings and walks the stage in the most perfect manner.” London beckoned and on his debut at the Empress, Brixton in 1907, my great great aunt Daisy Dormer was also on the bill. Around this time he wrote “The Black Sheep of the Family,” which became something of a signature tune, with the verse:
It’s a queer, queer world we live in
And Dame Nature plays a funny game –
Some get all the sunshine,
Others get the shame
As the not very subtle hints above might suggest, Fred was different sort of cliché – the gay entertainer. And with this came the sunshine (celebrity, sex, cash and plenty of shopping) and the shame (his father reportedly tried to murder him with one of his meat cleavers but turned it on himself instead). And in common with many a music hall star, alcohol was a constant companion on this path to the extent that Fred’s star was up and down almost as often as his theatrical backdrops. Unreliable one week, back on form the other. Culminating in a washed up existence in Southend playing in pubs for pennies where he died aged 53 in October 1938 making front page news in the Daily Mirror – “End of a Fallen Star.”
Enter Christopher Green. I have long admired Chris Green’s Music Hall inspired character, Ida Barr – a real life performer who shared the stage with both Fred Barnes and Daisy Dormer, now living in Dalston and struggling with the modern world. The inventiveness and brio behind this character are so refreshing and the mercurial mixes of music hall standards with the tunes of today have brought music hall to a whole new audience. Ida’s version of “The Boy I Love (is up in the Gallery)” mixed with Eminem’s “When I’m Gone” (or ‘gorn’ as Ida would have it) is a joyous thing. So it has been interesting seeing the development of Chris’s latest music hall-related creation. I attended a talk he gave at the British Library last Summer about Fred Barnes when the Wilton’s show was under development. Since then there has been How Success Ruined Me, a BBC Radio 4 drama with ‘Mr Music Hall,’ Roy Hudd, where the two of them explored Fred and his demons. This production at Wilton’s is as far away from those clichés I referred to earlier as one could possibly imagine. Audience feedback cites the following words: ‘uncomfortable’, ‘brave’, ‘unsettling’, ‘thought-provoking’, ‘slightly reeling’. I felt all of those things. Challenge and playing with audience assumptions is clearly high up the list of outcomes. There is an interesting challenge twenty minutes into the production. And there are more, many more. The house lights were on more than they were off – at times it really riled me as some of the Fred Barnes scenes were beautifully lit and the decayed backdrop of Wilton’s was a perfect match for Fred in full flight and I wanted more. I don’t want to give away any plot-spoilers (and there were a few) so will leave it at that. Whereas Ida Barr bridges the gap between traditional notions of music hall performers and their songs with spiky observational comedy, the Music Hall Monster is as befits the desperate trajectory of Fred Barnes, a darker and more unsettling piece of theatre.
‘Music Hall Monster: The Insatiable Mr Fred Barnes’ is at Wilton’s Music Hall (wiltons.org.uk) 2nd – 12th May 2018.
Paul Bailey’s 2001 book, “Three Queer Lives” which features Fred Barnes as one of those lives is a good starting point to learn more about Fred.