Mitch Dal­ton’s ses­sion Shenani­gans

The stu­dio gui­tarist’s guide to hap­pi­ness and per­sonal ful­fil­ment.V is for Va­ri­ety.

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Way back when Un­cle Noah was bring­ing joy to the clients of Ark In­tro­duc­tions Plc, ‘va­ri­ety’ was the catch-all name given to the at­tempts to brighten the lives of the great un­washed and bring tem­po­rary respite from their daily grind. The mu­sic hall, the end-of-the pier show, the sum­mer sea­son, tour­ing pro­duc­tions and pan­tomime all fea­tured a ros­ter of acts. And within this ‘va­ri­ety’ wrap­per the work­ing man could ex­pect to be en­ter­tained by a cor­nu­copia of ven­tril­o­quists, tram­po­line acts, jug­glers, bird­song im­per­son­ators, ma­gi­cians and any num­ber of other ‘spesh’ acts. A dis­tant echo of Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent. But with tal­ent. All in need of ac­com­pa­ni­ment by hun­dreds of mu­si­cians, I’m happy to say.

Stand­ing at the top of the bill one would find the star of the show, in­vari­ably a singer or co­me­dian of na­tional renown. Re­mark­ably, this for­mat was still sur­viv­ing, al­though in ter­mi­nal de­cline, by the time I ap­peared on the en­ter­tain­ment scene in the late 70s, plec­trum in one hand and in­voice book in t’other. My first ‘proper’ pro­fes­sional en­gage­ment was Star­time 76. Eight shows per week for eight weeks at the Congress The­atre, East­bourne. The sun shone, the pun­ters flocked in and the for­mat was still re­mark­ably un­changed. All sin­gin’ and dancin’ ex­cerpts from Camelot kicked off pro­ceed­ings, com­plete with dry ice of vari­able den­sity. An as-yetun­known Michael Bar­ry­more as sec­ond spot comic, Ray Alan And Lord Charles (ven­tril­o­quist), Pepe And His Friends (pup­pets), and Johnny Hutch And The Half Wits (slap­stick) all com­peted for the at­ten­tion of the mer­ci­fully be­nign fam­ily hol­i­day au­di­ence. In time-hon­oured tra­di­tion, top­ping the bill for most of the sec­ond half, was Cilla Black, still in mark one pop star mode. And there in the gloomy pit I sat, glean­ing what I could of the ways of show­biz in my ca­pac­ity as elec­tric gui­tar (dou­bling acous­tic and banjo) in the Gor­don Rolfe Orches­tra.

Of course, the ad­vent of TV and cin­ema swept away this mu­si­cian-friendly ecosys­tem for­ever but the for­mula re­mains trusted and true to this day. The ‘rules of va­ri­ety’ seem to live on, if in at­ten­u­ated form.

I was struck by this no­tion as I sat in West­min­ster Abbey this week, a mi­nor con­trib­u­tor to the memo­rial ser­vice for Sir Terry Wo­gan. The BBC Con­cert Orches­tra (“Please do not put in­stru­ment cases on the tombs”) en­ter­tained the massed ranks of the light en­ter­tain­ment great and good with some Clas­sic FM-es­que tid­bits. Joanna Lum­ley re­cited a poem. Ken Bruce and Chris Evans paid trib­ute. K Melua sang. P Gabriel sang some more and the pro­ceed­ings were topped off with strains of Flo­ral Dance ring­ing around the rest­ing place of Pur­cell, Vaughan Wil­liams and other pi­o­neers of va­ri­ety. There were a few prayers too, I re­call, but they didn’t in­ter­rupt the flow un­duly. No more than the­o­log­i­cal com­mer­cial breaks, if you will.

You could have pack­aged it as ‘Star­time 16’, booked the Palace The­atre, Torquay for the sum­mer and been back in show­biz be­fore you could say, ‘Ex­tra mat­inée due to de­mand’. Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. And I’m sure the great man would have ap­proved. Va­ri­ety is the spice of life. And death, ap­par­ently.

stand­ing at the top of the Bill would Be a singer or co­me­dian of in­ter­na­tional renown

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