Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Variety Pack

‘The Good Companions’ is the earliest film that I have tackled so far.  Made in 1933, it stars John Geilgud.  To someone of my generation, the fact that he was once so young is quite astounding!  If his name had not appeared in the opening titles, I would have had no idea that it was him.

The film is based on the 1929 book of the same name by J.B. Priestley, one of my favourite 20th Century writers (anyone wanting insight into pre World War Two England should read his “English Journey”).  It is about a troupe of entertainers, initially called The Dinky Doos.  They wisely change their name to The Good Companions and proceed to wow English theatres with their variety show.  Jessie Matthews plays the singing sensation, Susie Dean, with a lot of the story revolving round her quest for fame.  Another Priestley book that I enjoyed reading is entitled “Lost Empires” and is a story based on old music hall theatres.  He clearly had a huge affection for such places and ‘The Good Companions’ as film records something of what life was like for the performers.  Because when the film was made, this kind of entertainment was still very popular.  All those involved in making the film would have been familiar with how variety theatre worked, the actors would have begun their working lives in itinerant repertory companies.  There must therefore be some authenticity in what we are seeing.

What the film shows us is that those who felt the urge to perform, who wanted to spend their working lives acting or singing, faced a long, hard climb.  ‘The Good Companions’ are shown living hand to mouth in seedy pubs as they travel from one provincial town to another.  They take the train between a Midlands manufacturing town and a northern mining town.  They lug around their own props and costumes and somehow or other have to find time to write routines or songs and rehearse them.  It is anything but a glamorous lifestyle. 
A Lost Empire
My viewing of ‘The Good Companions’ coincided with the much hyped launch of yet another series of a well known TV talent show.  The winner of the show gets to perform at the Royal Variety Show – one of the few live variety shows still going.  Now that we can flick between a comedy show or a music show at the touch of a button from our own front room, we don’t need to go out and see this sort of thing anymore.  The success of this TV programme shows that overall, tastes for entertainment have not changed, just the way that they are consumed.  But, I wonder, have things changed for the performers?  It would be glib to say that they have it easy these days, that young people now expect fame to be handed to them overnight and that they are not as good for not having worked their way up through a variety or repertory circuit.  But this isn’t strictly true.  It takes courage to go on one of these shows and face an audience of millions who are waiting eagerly for you to fail or make a complete tit of yourself.  Before mocking a contestant, members of this audience should ask themselves if they could stand on that stage.  No matter how much I would like to be an acclaimed writer, the very thought of reading something out in front of an audience of just a dozen people fills me with panic.  It’s much easier to just post things up here under the name of a film character, and then read any comments through my fingers. I’m sure I’ll never get anywhere! In addition to courage, serious contestants will still have put in the rehearsal time and made some study of their chosen field.

Having defended the modern route to fame though, I think I prefer the Priestley way.  It seems a more honest way to achieve fame somehow, I couldn’t begrudge any old variety star their fame and fortune in the same way that I begrudge pop muppets One Direction theirs.  As Mother would say, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

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