Hard as it may be to believe, television in this country was once a very different place. Before Ant and Dec roamed the earth, before shiny-floor programming was ubiquitous, before anyone even cared if we’d been affected by any of the issues aired within tonight’s programme – there was once a land which – whisper it – offered a mere two television channels. Come with me, gentle viewer, to the year 1955 BC (Before Cowell).
In this strange, prehistoric world, the BBC had ruled supreme for decades. Used to being the only channel available, the advent of commercial television on 22nd September 1955 didn’t take them by surprise exactly. They had their gambit prepared, with an apocalyptic event taking place in that night’s episode of The Archers which quite took the shine off the evening for the commercial network. Historians speak of this in hushed tones as “The Grace Archer gambit”, and it was an impressive opening victory.
That victory didn’t last long. Before long ITV had won a major ratings battle. With several seriously heavy-hitters at their command they were soon luring viewers across from the BBC. Game shows. Shiny and slick, a world away from 30 minute quiz shows in which four people played guessing games like “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral”. Filmed adventure series were soon to follow, and possibly the heaviest hitter of them all, the all-singing, all-dancing, all-variety show “Sunday Night at the London Palladium”.
For a show which ran from 1955 to 1967 almost without a break on a weekly basis and then from 1973-1974, very little remains by way of complete editions. Out of hundreds broadcast, the survival rate barely scrapes into double figures. Thankfully, enough remains for a DVD set. It doubles as first rate entertainment, and a top notch history lesson. Variety survives to this day, mutated and misshapen, battered to pieces by the public in any number of talent shows. It still limps along in traditional end-of-the-pier seasons. To watch these editions is to watch it at the tail end of its golden years. Transplanted from the music halls to a nationwide stage, it burnt brightly. It didn’t altogether burn out, but we will never see the like again.
The first show aired three days after the launch of ITV, on Sunday September 25th. Already in place was host Tommy Trinder, presenting a gala evening which concluded with Gracie Fields. Like Fields, Trinder was already much loved by the public after sterling service in revue, on radio and in film. One of the major morale boosters during the Second World War and a natural in front of a microphone, he was an obvious choice to hold it all together. As compere, he was to present for almost three years, before departing for the BBC in May 1958.
The first episode on this set (24/11/57) comes from a period of relative unrest for the show. Trinder is absent – as he had been for some weeks. The previous weeks had seen Dicky Henderson and Bob Monkhouse presenting, with Alfred Marks and Robert Morley still to come. Instead, we’re greeted to the edifying sight of Hughie Green trampolining through the middle of a dance routine and straight into a standard “patter” segment, before introducing the first act of the evening.
As a taster of what’s to come, this episode is perhaps a little misleading. Significantly shorter than most of the other shows (the regular length was between 50 and 55 minutes, this one clocks in at under 40), the middle segment “Beat the Clock” is missing – I’m unable to work out if it’s an incomplete print of this episode, if the segment wasn’t introduced until later or was perhaps simply not played that week.
As one of the earliest audience participation game-shows, this is perhaps one reason why “…Palladium” endures so long in the memory – members of the audience indulge in hugely silly games in an attempt to achieve a set target within 60 seconds. Invariably involving the bouncing of balls, the rearranging of words to form a simple phrase or remarkably complex feats of physical coordination, it’s a chance for the public to fool about to a national audience and most of them achieve it with aplomb. Everyone looks happy to be there and it’s always a good natured little sequence. We will see more of this later on the set.
The rest of the episode is pretty standard fare. Sunday Night at the London Palladium had more than its fair share of acrobats and juggling acts and this episode showcases both within the first fifteen minutes. First act Les Maturines set the bar pretty high, with some seriously gravity-defying feats which leaves next act George Holmes somewhat upstaged. After seeing two men seemingly laughing in the face of physics in the name of entertainment, a man who performs tricks that involve drinking a pint and stuffing a lit cigarette in his mouth is a little flat.
Les Maragones – a singing trio, “straight from the airport”, as Green introduces them – fill ten minutes nicely before Mario Lanza takes the stage to rapturous applause. It’s a fantastic performance, beautifully judged and with just the right amount of diffident audience banter. The man’s voice was world class and it fills the theatre right to the back stalls.
Normal service is resumed for the next show on the set (13/04/58) with the Tiller Girls opening the show (as they would for more or less all of the original run) and the return of Tommy Trinder, but something’s not quite right. He seems ill-at-ease, nervous and fidgety in a manner that makes me think he couldn’t wait to get away. He’s far too much of a professional to give a bad performance exactly, but he’s nervy. He’s not helped much during the “Beat the Clock” segment by a cumbersome microphone arrangement – a huge contraption clipped to his lapel with a lengthy trailing wire that constantly gets in the way. He makes the best of it, but his days as host are numbered.
The show is… odd. Starting with Pinky and Perky – I’ve never been able to come to terms with the little sods and neither could most of the audience, to judge by the nonplussed reaction it gets. When you’re faced with two singing pigs and a cow miming along to an Everly Brothers song, it’s no wonder.
Odder is yet to come, for this show sees the appearance of Dick Shawn with what will probably remain for some time the most unnerving standup routine I have ever seen. Some years off from his appearance in “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World”, Shawn delivers a dissertation on split personalities – or “schizophreeeenie” as he calls it – that is downright frightening. I know he made a career out of unnerving his audiences, and it was obviously something he acquired the taste for early. I don’t know what to make of it at all. It’s not funny. It’s not tasteful. But you can’t take your eyes off him, and it’s an early highlight for this set.
The rest of the show is fairly standard fare. Singing cowboys and Sarah Vaughan make up the rest of the bill but they can’t hope to compare with Shawn in full flight. That goes for most of the shows in this set – there’s usually one standout on each show and it’s rarely the one you’d expect.
Next up we scoot forward a couple of years to 17/04/60. Trinder is long gone and DVD cover star Bruce Forsyth is in full flight. Not content with leaving The Tiller Girls to open the show he’s actually part of the first number – singing a song about his recent nose operation while reclining in pyjamas, we’re into Showbusiness with a capital Bruce.
Totally at ease in front of the camera and onstage, Bruce is already showing the qualities that would keep him at the top for the next fifty years. The audience love him, and there’s no denying his professionalism. He’s generous as well. During the Beat the Clock segment when it looks like one of the challenges is going to fail he steps in and very deliberately completes it himself, just so’s the contestants won’t fail. You’ve got to love a man like that.
When he reveals the prize at the end – a set of suitcases – there’s a brief pause as if to say “yes, I know it’s a rubbish prize”. But then he produces a pair of tickets for a weekend in Paris, and the middle-aged female contestant spontaneously plants a kiss on him. It’s lovely, unforced and natural, and really very sweet.
The rest of the show is a promotional spot for an upcoming musical. Following a smoothly professional performance from “Mack the Knife himself”, Bobby Darin, extracts from “The Most Happy Fella” clog up more or less the second half of the show. It leaves things a little unbalanced, but thankfully better is to come. The last show on the disk (17/04/60) is absolutely superb.
We batter straight in with one of the most remarkable acts in the entire set. The Dior Dancers are a three-guys-and-a-girl acrobatic troupe, and they are… stunning. No other word for it, as they perform a sequence loosely based around “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”. I had a slight problem initially, as anything that takes this tack makes me think of Morecambe and Wise’s take – in particular Ernie’s drag act. Soon dispelled though, as the female dancer/acrobat (according to Bruce afterwards, she’s called “Marianne”) is hurled about the stage with wild abandon. She’s thrown in the air, somersaulted, flipped, at one point hurled bodily into the wings. She’s even used as a skipping rope at one stage. Yes, really. It doesn’t hurt a bit that she bears a distinct resemblance to Jane Russell. Or Ava Gardner. Oh, my.
It only gets better from here on in. This show also features The John Barry Seven tearing through a brief set (if there’s any better sound in pop music than Vic Flick doing that Duane Eddy guitar rumble, I’ve yet to hear it), before the audience goes absolutely crazy for the appearance of Adam Faith. Already a seasoned performer, Adam knows exactly what’s required of him, and he delivers it – sending out every note to the teenagers in the audience who respond rapturously. If you thought screaming at teen idols began with Beatlemania, you’ll find ample evidence to the contrary here.
And then… well, I can’t really find the words. Just look.
To his credit, Adam deals with a stage invasion by Bruce incredibly well, duetting with the inexplicably Rod Hull-esque interloper and managing to keep a straight face. Relatively. Bruce uses the phrase “oooh, it’s my faaaavourite!” here – it crops up several times during the next couple of episodes and the audience treat it like an old friend. It mystifies me, but it obviously meant something then.
Disk 2 opens with an absolute dizbuster, and quite possibly the highlight of the set. December 3rd 1961 saw Equity in the middle of an all-out strike. With no guests for that evening’s show, it looked like Bruce Forsyth (then a member of the Variety Artist’s Federation) was going to be out of a job for the week. Fortuitously, Norman Wisdom was with the Variety Artist’s Federation as well. That night, the two of them did the entire show themselves. “Norman Forsyth and Bruce Wisdom”, as the opening credits bill them (along with a disclaimer that “the management accept no responsibility for the following sixty minutes”) pull off a barnstormer of a performance, which never – ever – lets up.
I can’t say that I ever really took to Norman Wisdom in the past. I knew how beloved he was. I know that he’s the bedrock of British Comedy for many. It never worked for me. My opinion has now been sharply altered, and how.
Starting with Wisdom roaring on stage – as Bruce – and invading the orchestra pit, this hour is wonderful. Even the traditional Wisdom sentiment doesn’t derail things. He sings an odd song as a tramp putting on an imaginary entertainment spectacular. He takes part in a legendary wallpaper-hanging sketch with Bruce, taking endless pots of paste to the face.
After the obligatory Beat the Clock segment, he reappears to enact – I swear to god – the Keaton/Chaplin sequence from the end of “Limelight”. Certainly, that’s what his costume appears to suggest, although it soon veers off into organised chaos involving an attempt to sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” which never quite gets past the first line.
Before he even gets the chance to draw breath he’s off into a multi-instrumental performance of “I’ve Got Rhythm”. Sometimes miming very obviously, sometimes genuinely playing whatever Bruce hands him, he ends up delivering a very creditable drum solo indeed before collapsing, utterly drenched in sweat.
Even that’s not enough for him though, as he suddenly channels Harpo Marx’s demented satyr routine, taking Bruce off for a dance around the stage. And another. And another, before both end up flat on their backs, sailing round and round on the revolving stage as the credits roll.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what legends are made of. Both performers show exactly what they can do, with a show that’s all comedy muscle. It’s inspiring to see them work that audience. I can’t imagine that a single person left the theatre that night disappointed. You won’t be, either.
Whatever follows that can’t fail to be a letdown. Next show up comes from 22nd March 1964, and you really should take a break after the Forsyth/Wisdom spectacular before tackling it.
By this point Forsyth had been and gone and come back again. In the interim Don Arrol had taken the reigns, followed by Norman Vaughan. It’s fair to say that it made Vaughan in particular a household name. Hower, it’s not fair to inflict Freddie and the Dreamers on an unsuspecting viewer at the best of times, and this isn’t the best of times. Their half-song, half-comedy routine is serviceable, reminding this reviewer of nothing so much as The Rockin’ Berries (with all the horror that implies) but it just doesn’t stand up to the joy of the previous episode.
In fairness, Freddie Garrity’s dancing never ceases to confound and astonish, and the drummer is working his backside off. They go down brilliantly, which is just as well because the rest of the show isn’t terribly impressive. More acrobatic nonsense from The Trapinos and a performance by Billy Russell goes down relatively painlessly, before the bill toppers Antonio and Rosario stand on.
Quite frankly, they’re a catastrophic, caterwauling shambles. I couldn’t get to grips with them at all. That might possibly be because I was reminded for the entire thing of Python’s dire warnings in flamenco regarding Llamas. It just needs Eric Idle’s voiceover at one point to inform the viewer – “Llamas are bigger than frogs”.
Incidentally, it’s well worth playing about with your remote control occasionally when watching these episodes. I discovered – completely by accident – that if you hit rewind at the ad-break bumpers just as the next act begins, you’ll find the original adverts broadcast at the time embedded and fully accessible. I don’t think they’re on all episodes, but they certainly survive on this one. If you play the episode as normal, you’d never know they were there. A nice little easter egg, and a welcome one.
The aforementioned stomping, bellowing mess brings the first sample of episodes to a close. The show was cancelled by Lord Grade in 1967 and that would have appeared to be that.
You can’t keep a good idea down, though. In 1973, it was back. Jim Dale is now in charge (which means a song from the host at a central point in any given episode) and Beat the Clock has now mutated into a battle of the sexes number called “Anything You Can Do”. The girls challenge the boys, with Jim Dale invariably helping the boys to victory and hobbling any attempt the girls make by adding impossible challenges. Most unseemly, but everyone seems to take it in good spirits.
25/11/73 sees The Tiller Girls just about hanging in there, with a sauceh Fronch Noomber which is interrupted by a certain Msieur Laurence Grayson.
I’m always impressed by Larry Grayson. Anything I see him in, he seems to effortlessly hold the audience enraptured with very little variation on his basic routine. That’s not a criticism by any stretch. He embodies gentleness and charm, while still purveying a very British filth that exists entirely in the mind of the beholder. Like ISIHAC, like Round The Horne, it’s unbelievably smutty, but it’s all in the interpretation.
Armed as ever with a chair and winning smile, Larry follows a furiously bellowing Paul Anka and a manic gameshow segment. He delivers his usual ten minutes on Apricot Lil, his good friend Everard and the local postman Pop-it-in-Pete and has the entire theatre howling. He’s just softening them up for the killer blow. Because – as he inevitably must, this is the seventies after all – it may not be giving too much away to announce that The Emu Cometh.
If you’ve picked up Network’s previous Larry Grayson at ITV compilation (and you really should, it’s superb) you’ll know that Rod Hull and Emu seemed to follow Larry around in the early seventies, disrupting his shows on a regular basis. This one is possibly the greatest appearance of the lot and deserves to be remembered in the same breath as that bloody Parky interview. Honestly, the comic timing on display here from both Grayson (playing the willing patsy) and Hull borders on the supernatural. You know exactly how it’s going to play out, but it’s the way it does that makes it spectacular.
It’s a joy. With Larry firing some beautiful insults (“Listen, Trader Horne” is a highlight), and Emu being wonderfully insulting with a variety of obscene gestures, we’re into a setup involving a long rope which Larry has to straighten, backing across the stage. As Rod carries on talking, Emu clocks a backside advancing towards him, and suddenly starts independently reacting to what Rod’s doing before moving into position to strike.
The first time I saw it, I was helpless. Literally helpless. I still am, having watched it again. It’s glorious television. That they fall onto the revolving stage and manage to take out Paul Anka by accident over the end credits is merely a beautiful additional bonus.
Once again, it’s a case of “Follow That”. In this case, external circumstances take a hand again and through no fault of the production team, the show for 6th January 1974 has become notorious. That evening, central London was thrown into chaos by a bomb scare and the Palladium show was understandably disrupted. A visibly shaken Jim Dale gives the game away when he records a link intended for the beginning of part two. He announces “welcome back. Two minutes? Seemed more like two hours” and brings the house down. Recording for the show was never fully completed. An attempt was made to cobble together something from what they did manage to get in the can, with a dropin of a previous edition of “Anything You Can Do” (oddly enough, it’s the one that’s on the episode immediately prior to this one on the disk). It didn’t quite work, and the show was pulled. The footage is presented here for the first time. It lacks a little of the usual polish – no beginning or end credits – but what’s here is well worth a look.
“The Cuban Cossacks” shout “Hoi!” a lot while hurling themselves about the stage, before Sir Clifford of Richard follows with a promotional trot through some songs from “Take Me High”. It’s smooth, professional, and utterly unmemorable, but for one thing – since the Jack Parnell Orchestra is in the house, eagle eyed viewers may spot a few familiar faces in his backing group.
That’s drummer extraordinaire Ronnie Verrell in the background of the shot below. At all times he upstages Cliff, simply by appearing to be giving the material his usual 150 percent.
The bomb scare must have hit around this point, because things become a little disjointed – Jim comes in with his quip, before introducing another highlight of this set. There really is nothing finer in variety than the awesome destructive power of a fully operational Bob Monkhouse.
Bob knows he’s got a restive crowd to deal with, and he pretty much delivers the set of his life. You can almost hear the ripple of relief that runs through the theatre as everyone begins to settle down and enjoy themselves. We are in the hands of a master here.
Taking off from a comment made in the previous week’s press regarding television-as-religion, he delivers first a sermon, then a version of the old chestnut “deck of cards”, working in so many references to then contemporary television that it’s virtually an education in itself. How can you fail to love a routine that gets in a filthy joke concerning Callan and a pop at Des O’Connor? Even Eric Morecambe didn’t manage that.
Englebert Humperdinck’s also in this show, but after Bob, you might as well skip forward to the next episode. It takes a lot to take a theatre from the edge of panic and drag them back onside, but Bob does it with aplomb, grace and skill. Love him.
Things tail off a bit after this, as we move forward to the 1974 run for the last couple of episodes in this remarkable trawl. Come 24/03/74, and Jim Dale’s gone, to be replaced by Ted Rogers. The game show’s been axed at last, leaving room for another act.
The Tiller Girls have been replaced by The Second Generation and I’m not saying anything about them except to say that “Hooray For Everything” on The Simpsons doesn’t go far enough. This lot are the real deal and I sincerely hope never to encounter a routine from them again. Blagh.
Thankfully the horror is soon forgotten, with Clodagh Rogers, host Ted’s remarkable quick-fire delivery and erm, three middle aged women on bikes performing peculiar stunts. The whole thing is capped off by Mike and Bernie Winters.
I don’t know if it’s just hindsight talking, but to me there are definitely cracks in their relationship by this point. The whole cross-talk routine ends with one of their signature songs regarding how great it is to be both brothers and friends, but it just doesn’t ring true. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe they were just tired on the night, but they do seem to be working a little too hard to keep the bonhomie going.
The final show on this set hails from 14/04/1974. The Second Generation are back. I’m still not saying anything about them. But thankfully they’re soon forgotten as a ray of purest sunshine comes wafting in thanks to The Drifters, who trot through a medley of their greatest hits in a manner which almost makes you forget what they’re wearing. Whoof.
Turns from Nino Frediani and Penny Lane follow (no, me neither) before the whole thing is capped with Sacha Distel being terribly schmooooth. There’s no denying that he’s good at it, and to judge by the coos he gets from the audience he’s a very welcome visitor. I certainly didn’t expect him to engage in a cross-talk routine with Ted Rogers, but nonetheless, that’s exactly what happens. The results are a little stilted, but it’s still charming to see the two of them working together. A man for whom English is a second language, swapping jokes with a man who frequently makes English seem like total gibberish is a sight well worth seeing, and it rounds the set off nicely.
That’s not all you get with this little lot, though. Stick with disk three, and you’ll find a comprehensive photo gallery which covers many of the shows which are now missing (the Judy Garland show in particular has taken on a legendary status owing to the star’s traditional – ahem – difficult behaviour). There are also photo sets devoted to Dusty Springfield and The Beatles. Bruce Forsyth gets one to himself, and there are two comprehensive artist galleries which should whet the appetite and make you lament what’s been lost, presumably forever.
Also included are a ton of PDF items, including Showbooks, Scripts, Running Orders and a highly comprehensive episode guide which if nothing else details the bewildering number of hosts the show has had over the years and also documents the remarkable multiple name changes and soft relaunches in the years between 1967 and 1973, before the show proper returned.
There was one more attempt to bring the show back in 2000, but despite the presence of Bruce, “Tonight at the London Palladium” wasn’t a success and the curtain was rung down for good on a show that had served the ITV audience faithfully over a great many years.
It wasn’t perfect. By its very nature Variety can’t possibly be all things to all people and this set does contain a number of turns that don’t quite come off. For me though, the high spots far and away outnumber the low. For every failure there’s a breathtaking success and it’s a fascinating peek into a world that I really don’t believe we will ever see again.
This comes enthusiastically recommended. For fans of Forsyth, Wisdom, Trinder, Grayson and for fans of simple, good-old fashioned entertainment. That’s what this set provides in spades. Well worth buying. You won’t regret it.
Sunday Night at the London Palladium is available from Network DVD from November 8th.
Grateful thanks to Louis Barfe for information on Tommy Trinder, and to the Mausoleum Club for details of the bomb-scare incident.