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