Vaudeville long ago breathed its last; but its replacement in the more embracing term ‘variety’ has also lately been facing a crisis. The Guardian yesterday, picking up on reports in The Stage, ran a full-page feature about the crisis facing it: “The historic North Pier, home to a variety theatre for 129 years, has been mothballed, and in The Stage newspaper the headlines make equally grim reading – ‘Cannon and Ball Show axed at Blackpool Grand’.”
It went on to say, “Last rites for the variety industry have been read before but some feel they might now be justified. Certainly entertainers such as Keith Harris have had enough. He and Orville, and the comedian Billy Pearce, are upping sticks and moving to Portugal for the summer because of the state of the industry and, in particular, Blackpool.”
That town may be the West End or Broadway of seaside variety, and a crisis there is suggestive of a crisis at large. It’s certainly possible that a generational change is occurring: the younger constituency of holidaymakers there – “Visitors are most likely to be part of a hen or stag night, or any old night that involves touring bars”, according to The Guardian – may be seeking less sophisticated pleasures than variety shows. Or perhaps, more sophisticated ones: in an age of interactive multi-media, live entertainment needs to offer a different model to attract audiences now. Charlotte Smith of Leisure Parcs (who are responsible for Blackpool’s South, Central and North piers, the Tower and the Winter Gardens) is quoted in The Guardian as saying there does seem to be a trend away from the long-runners: “Yes, things are changing because people want different things.”
Certainly the telly recognition factor of those old variety names is fast disappearing, as they no longer command prime time appearances on the box. But on Sunday night, as chance would have it, I actually went down to Wimbledon Theatre to catch a rare London area appearance by the inimitable and irreplaceable Ken Dodd, and even though he isn’t on the telly, either, these days, he was still able to command a packed and appreciative house. There is still nothing quite like the sound of 1,500 people laughing; and to hear your own laugh above them. Ken Dodd is living proof that variety isn’t dead yet.