The importance of Cabaret and the Revue to both popular and Bohemian culture between the Wars is undeniable. The first Bohemian night-clubs, The Cave of the Golden Calf, The Hambone and the Cave of Harmony were all initially cabaret-bars, modelled along Parisian lines. The craze for dancing in the 1920s reduced the Cabaret to a specialist or novelty act and the dance-bands and pianist-singers began to dominate. The legacy remained though.
At the same time, in the theatre, Andre Charlot and C.B.Cochran developed the Revue with a string of spectacular and innovative productions.Elements of music-hall, Parisian Folies, jazz, ballet and topical satire all combined to create a distinctive, and very popular, night out.
Night Lights at the Trocadero
Both men favoured a mix ofthe high and the low, of sophistication and spectacle. They also had a great eye for new talent and many of the great acts of the time owed their careers to their foresight. Aside from several mammoth (and expensive) productions they also pioneered what came to be known as the “Intimate Revue”, which achieved particular importance in the 1930s. Its success owed much to Noel Coward’s 1920s Revues, first for Charlot and then jointly with Cochran, On With The Dance (1925) and This Year of Grace (1928). These had provided the decade,s two most evocative and anthemic songs, firstly Poor Little Rich Girl and secondly Dance Little Lady.
The Intimate Revue was a theatrical event that drew inspiration from both Cabaret Club and larger stage performances. It was very fashionable for a while and its audience pretty up-market. Certain artists became particularly associated with genre, Hermione Baddeley and Hermione Gingold especially.
Two Hermiones 1950
Hermione Baddeley was at the heart of Bright Young society. Her husband was David Tennant, owner of the Gargoyle Club and she had a deep animosity towards Brenda Dean Paul and Harry Rowan Walker, from the raffish end of the set (both of whom were likely associates of Elvira). She was the star of the Revue that Hugh Wade was most involved with ( see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/to-and-fro-1936-hugh-wade-and-the-perils-of-the-topical-revue/ )
Hermione Gingold ruled the roost at the Gate Theatre Studio in Covent Garden. This was a small (96 seats) but important venue which put on challenging plays but also a large number of revues. Operating as a club, it avoided the need to submit everything to the Lord Chamberlain’s office and so was rather freer from censorship than larger venues. (see Gate Theatre Studio)
One programme is enough to reveal the array of talent involved and the general ambience of these Revues. Some of the actors would go on to become the most familiar of British and American screen faces, others important figures in television circles. At least two were friends of Hugh Wade and Elvira.
1937: MEMBERS ONLY –
Geoffrey Wright, Robert MacDermot, John Adrian Ross, Nicholas Phipps (Gate Theatre Studio)
Charles Hawtrey, Hermione Gingold, Richard Haydn, Kenneth Carten, Nicholas Phipps, Nadine March, Ann Morrison, Billy Milton, Reginald Beckwith, Gabrielle Brune; dir:Norman Marshall & Geoffrey Wright, des:William Chappell ; additional material by Diana Morgan, Walter Leigh, Ronald Hill, John Weir, Reginald Beckwith, Harold Plumptre, Arthur Marshall
Norman Marshall was the owner of the theatre and an important figure in what would now be termed alternative theatre. He used the Revues to finance more experimental and “difficult” productions (see Norman Marshall). His co-director,who wrote the music was Geoffrey Wright (see Geoffrey Wright Obituary ). This Oxbridge partnership gives the lie to the myth that “Beyond The Fringe” was the first manifestation of the Footlights tradition on the London stage.
Billy Milton was at the height of his popularity at this time, spending his time between cabaret spots in London, Paris and New York. He has appeared on this blog in several guises, playing at Elvira’s parents’ house, claiming to have missed Elvira’s party by a day, befriending Napper Dean Paul in Cannes and generally knowing everyone in show-business and Society.
William “Billy” Chappell is also a familiar name, linked with Edward Burra, Frederick Ashton et al. His work in the 1930s as dancer, choreographer and set-designer show a work ethic not usually associated with the Chelsea Set (see William Chappell Obituary )
Apart from Gingold, the name most likely to resonate today is Charles Hawtrey. It is easy to forget that he had a long pre-Carry On career and in 1937 had already endeared himself to the British public as the obnoxious schoolboy in Will Hay’s stage and cinema act. Hawtrey’s later life is one of tragedy and alcoholic downfall, so it is pleasant to remember him in these early years of success. He was the show’s compere.
Richard Haydn was a comic actor whose nasal-tones created a number of memorable radio characters in the 1930s. He is best remembered as the voice of the Caterpillar in Walt Disney’s Alice and as Max Detweiler in The Sound of Music. (see Richard Haydn)
Gabrielle Brune was another whose career spanned many decades. Fans of Ealing Comedies will remember her from “The Titfield Thunderbolt” ( see Gabrielle Brune)
Nadine March was a popular stage actress and revue star. Her speciality was a parody of Kensington/Mayfair society and party girls, which I am sure guaranteed her a good reception from the type of audience who attended the Gate and similar venues.
The name Nicholas Phipps may not mean much but his face is instantly recognisable from innumerable British comedy films where he tended to play officious or military types. He also was a screenwriter, his script for Doctor In The House (1954) being BAFTA nominated.
Equally ever-present on screen was Reginald Beckwith, whose film credits read like a history of post-War British popular cinema ( Freedom Road, Genevieve, Thunderball et. He was also a scriptwriter for revues and other stage productions. In “Members Only” he played a (comical) male stripper, not the sort of thing seen too regularly in the mainstream West End.
Then we have Hugh Wade and Elvira’s friend Kenneth Carten. Carten was well-established as a regular in Noel Coward shows but is better known as Tallulah Bankhead’s close friend and confidante. He was probably the male lead in the sketches and song
Letter from Kenneth Carten to Hugh Wade 1949
Among those who provided the sketches were the playwright Diana Morgan (her husband, Robert MacDermot,later head of drama at the BBC, co-directed) and Arthur Marshall. Diana Morgan was to become a successful screenwriter (see Diana Morgan) while Arthur Marshall became known to television viewers through his appearances on Call My Bluff. In 1937, Marshall was a schoolmaster at Oundle but also had ambitions as a comic and cabaret turn. He had already begun his reviews and parodies of Public Schoolgirl stories (see Finding Schoolgirls Funny ), an acquired taste but one apparently shared by many.
And then we have Hermione Gingold, for whom the word “character” seems hardly adequate. I think I will post on her separately but through her friendship with Elizabeth Welch and Brian Desmond Hurst and her marriage to Eric Maschwitz ( lyricist to “These Foolish Things”) she was very much at the heart of West End society.
To me it is a remarkable list of people, cutting across a great swathe of British popular culture. There is a strong Public School, Oxbridge element involved and a definite gay and camp air to the proceedings. The show was well reviewed, Dilys Powell in the London Mercury praised Billy Milton’s American Film Star, Nicholas Phipps’ “Shooting Colonel”, Nadine March’s Kensington Girl, Beckwith’s Stripper and Hawtrey’s Compere. She was very taken by Gingold’s “Snake Charmer” and Richar Haydn’s “Fish-Impersonator” (the mind boggles). It was all very light-hearted and, I’m sure, a jolly good night out.
A great source of information for theatres and revues is this one
I don’t know of a definitive history of the Revue but hope there is one somewhere.Of course, I can’t help wondering about the social network these artists operated within or wonder which night clubs they and the audience went to after the show.