Friday, 4 November 2016

The Good Old Days

The Goodl Old Days was an irregular feature of my childhood - a variety programme recorded at the City Varieties Theatre in Leeds and broadcast by the BBC. The chairman was Leonard Sachs.

Leonard Sachs!

Leonard Sachs at Leeds City Varieties © BBC Television

Born in Roodepoort, in the South African Transvaal, he came to London and founded the Players'  Theatre, originally based in Hammersmith then moving to the arches under Charing Cross station in October 1937, closing as recently as 2002. The name of the nightly show was 'Late Joys' which derived from a hotel on the site of the building at 43 King Street, Hammersmith: 'Evans' - Late Joy's', Joy having been the owner of the song and supper room before Evans, a comedian from Covent Garden, took over. The original Players' was where the young Elsa Lanchester first appeared, singing Victorian ballads with a lewd undertow.

Years later Sachs was the obvious choice to present the long-running television version, which he did with magnificent aplomb for three decades. I can hear him now:

"Once Again! Good Eeeever-ning . . . Laydeeeeez and GENTlemeeeeennnnn!"

'Good evening' roared the audience, and the show began.

Impeccably turned-out in frock coat and florid waistcoat and dazzling pocket handkerchief, he made elaborate hyperbolic introductions to the often threadbare acts, fruitily relishing words like "terpsichorean" and "thespian" and "gallimaufry" (words which I'd never heard before and have rarely heard since). The audience would 'ooooh' and 'aaaah' delightedly at these lexical fireworks. There was an underlying lubricity also - watch and savour the following preamble to the appearance of the wonderful performer Sheila Steafel in the guise of Popsy-Wopsy, ostensibly the Chairman's "niece" but clearly a drunken Soho tart. A superb turn, and with absolutely impeccable comic timing.

There was a waiting list extending for many years among the general public who leapt at the chance to get togged up in a colourful approximation of Victorian/Edwardian costume and sit in the brightly-lit auditorium, singing along and generally having a high old time. 

Looking at an old episode recently I couldn't help thinking that The Good Old Days was a secular simulacrum of the equally long-running Sunday programme Songs of Praise, which also depends for its appeal on regular cutaways to audience members, in that case singing hymns. We so rarely see ordinary people on camera, unless it's in order to behave as a shrieking, weeping, hyperventilating gameshow contestants.

But there's just time to sing a chorus of Down at the Old Bull and Bush . . . featuring the Full Cast! The Orchestra! But this time . . . chiefly YOURSELVES!

Come, come, come and make eyes at me
down at the Old Bull and Bush,
Daaa, da, da, da, da,
Come, come, drink some port wine with me,
Down at the Old Bull and Bush.
Hear the little German Band,
Daaa, da, da, da, daaaa, da da
Just let me hold your hand dear.
Do, do come and have a drink or two
down at the Old Bull and Bush.
Bush, Bush!

This much-loved standard was popularised by the music hall soubrette Florrie Forde, and was the work of no fewer than four composers: Russell Hunting, Percy Krone, Andrew B. Stirling and Henry Von Tilzer. A pub of this name still exists in Hampstead, although whether the song was named after the pub or the pub after the song I don't know. The first verse (never sung in The Good Old Days) goes thus:

Talk about the shade of the sheltering palm
Praise the bamboo tree
with it's wide spreading charm,
There's a little nook
down near old Hampstead Town,
You know the place it has one great renown,
Often with my sweetheart on a bright Summers day,
To the little pub there my footsteps will stray,
If she hesitates when she looks at the sign,
Promptly I whisper, "Now do not decline."

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