Tag Archive: theatre

Blackbirds Revue of 1926

Throughout the inter-War period moralists, puritans and prudes found much to deplore. The objects of their opprobrium were often reduced to key symbols of decadence, the very mention of which sufficed to demonise a whole series of, often though not always, innocent activities.

Elvira’s trial saw this process go into overdrive. Every phrase associated with her world  became a symbol of waywardness. As we have seen  “Cocktail Party” was one useful catch-all term for the new degeneracy (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/cocktail-parties/ )  . Equally, the very word  “Nightclub ” carried with it a sense of wickedness much exploited by the press and popular literature. As what would now be called “Gender Roles” caused endless worry and the term “Flapper” had been imported to indicate all that was untoward regarding that particular social crisis. “Bright Young Thing” had largely replaced that term by 1932 but the meanings, as far as the strictures on female behaviour were concerned, remained little altered. A closely associated panic developed around  “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”, of whom Elvira’s gang had more than its share.

Most famously,Clothes and hairstyles became highly politicised in the era. Every visible sign  was mined for its contribution to “Immorality”, by which was meant sex, newly invented apparently. Even the seemingly neutral term “Youth”, not for the last time in the twentieth century, became a suspect category. And let us not forget drug use, specifically “Cocaine,” any hint of which was guaranteed to strike vicarious frissons of terror among the respectable classes.

But there was one word that managed to encapsulate all that was deemed disruptive, chaotic , dangerous and modern in the above fears and fantasies. That word was “JAZZ”. Jazz became the short-hand signifier of everything that worried mainstream society and thus, inevitably, acquired a glamour and a mystique among those who saw themselves as part of the “New Age”.

We don’t actually know what music was played at Elvira’s parties but all the accounts assume that “Jazz music blared out from the record player”, annoying the neighbours and presumably frightening the ghosts of the horses that had previously inhabited the Mews. In the Dance Band era any arrangement with a whiff of syncopation  counted as Jazz – so it is no surprise that artists who appeared to be, or actually were, “the real thing” became heroes among the young record-buyers,  party-goers and dancers of the time.

Jazz  incorporated not only all that might be deemed “New”, it added the twin “evils” of race and rampant sexuality to the mix. No matter how “refined” the arrangements of Debr0y Somers,  Bert Ambrose or Carroll Gibbons might have been, somewhere underneath could be detected the rhythms of an alien culture. However much the disguise – Jazz was  ineluctably  “black” – or in the language of the day Negro or Coloured. In a country still very much defined by Empire and “The White Man’s Burden”, that a musical form associated with “the inferior races” should provoke such hostility amongst the many-  and such adulation amongst the rebellious  few is hardly surprising.

The year of the General Strike, 1926, is of particular importance regarding this relationship between black music and white audiences. In January the first journal devoted to dance-bands and “hot” music appeared, in the spring a painting was exhibited and then withdrawn from the Royal Academy and in the autumn a show arrived from New York that was to become an essential part of Bright Young mythology.

The journal was Melody Maker and for much of its long life it was the only place for musicians and fans to find out about Jazz. It also, from its earliest days, encouraged fierce debate regarding the merits of the music and, indeed, the very definition of “Jazz”. Its combative editor, Edgar Jackson held some peculiar ideas about music and race and was initially, oddly perhaps given the paper’s future promotion of Ellington, Armstrong et al, keen to distance his notion of “hot” music from any association with the “primitive” sounds of Black America.

John Bulloch Souter The Breakdown 1926

The controversy surrounding a painting at the annual RA show particularly exercised Jackson. The Scottish artist John Souter presented “The Breakdown” for exhibition at what was then still an important event within the British Art world. The painting shows a black musician playing a saxophone (and therefore jazz) to a naked, ghostly white woman. He is sat on the broken statue of Classical art, which his music is presumably deemed to have destroyed. Whatever Souter intended, and this work is not typical, he captured in the most melodramatic manner many of the cultural and moral fears of the time. Its themes are those of many a contemporary editorial.

Jackson was not alone in his fulminations. After much outcry, the picture was quickly withdrawn. According to one account  this was on the orders of the Colonial Office which brings an interesting political (and Imperial) dimension to the affair.

On a far more positive note, in September the” Blackbirds Revue of 1926″ opened at the London Pavilion. Starring Edith Wilson, Florence Mills, Gwendolyn Graham and featuring The Plantation Orchestra with its virtuoso trumpeters Pike Davis and Johnny Dunn, the show ran for 276 performances and had the same impact on fashionable London society that the Revue Negre and Josephine Baker had had on Paris a year earlier.

Gwendolyn Graham and Dancers, roof of London Pavilion

Florence Mills

The success of the show, which was not the first black show on the 1920s London stage, was due in no small part to its patronage by the Prince of Wales. A keen fan of dancing and “hot” music he attended, it is said, “night after night”. Very quickly the Blackbirds were taken up by the Bright Young People, attending parties, having flings and in some cases forging lasting friendships.Spike Hughes and Constant Lambert were ardent devotees and Evelyn Waugh, although he would later offer a cynical and rather unpleasant take on the whole phenomenon, was also a “repeat” attendee. A still very young Brenda Dean Paul fell completely for Florence Mills and declared she wanted  more than anything to be “a coloured dancer”. With a nice touch of diplomatic flattery, Florence told Brenda that “she could have been born in Harlem” so well did she dance. For Olivia Wyndham, Blackbirds and other similar shows were the beginning of a journey that would see her live for the best part of 40 years actually  in Harlem.

A version of the revue toured England in 1927 and a new show returned to the West End in 1928 .This introduced Adelaide Hall to an English audience and she would stay in London, living in Mayfair, running a night-club and performing at The Florida, The Cafe De Paris and other Elvira-friendly venues. Other musicians from both (and similar) shows would stay in Europe  becoming part of the pre-war club and popular music scene in ways that remain under-appreciated.

The revues were not without their critics. Plenty of newspapers deplored the perceived “cult of the Negro” that their success generated. In recent years the criticism has been rather different, pointing out the exoticising and primitivist impulses behind much of the white audience’s fandom. The shows themselves relied heavily on a number of crude racial stereotypes which are uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. They have also been somewhat written off by Jazz historians – being seen as lacking authenticity. Fortunately, although no singers recorded, the band made four sides while in London, so we can get some idea of what so thrilled Hughes and Lambert etc.





I’ll write more on this topic in a while but, in the meantime, two books are worth seeking out – Jim Godbolt’s A History of Jazz in Britain – an idiosyncratic but entertaining exercise and Catherine Parsonage’s more scholarly The Evolution of Jazz in Britain.

Elvira’s Reading Matter

During and after the trial various rumours circulated about certain books that were said to be on display at 21 William Mews.

“The library was furnished with publications that could never have passed through His Majesty’s Customs” (McDonald Hastings 1963).There was no library  in the mews. The police blueprint does not even indicate a bookcase. There would have been books around the place and no doubt some may have tended toward the exotic.

First Edition Paris 1922

Elvira liked to portray herself as “Modern”. In the portrait she commissioned Eliot Hodgkin to paint of her, the background is filled with markers of the lifestyle she (or Hodgkin) wished to present to the world. It is a rather hectic collage and includes a saxophone, the hands of a jazz pianist, a rugby football, a lifebuoy (why?) and what looks strangely like a needlework sampler. There are also two books – both beloved icons for the more bookish among the Bright Young People. One is James Joyce’s Ulysses  – still banned but much smuggled into London by channel-hoppers such as Elvira – the other is Ronald Firbank’s “Prancing Nigger”.

Ronald Firbank was the subject of something of a cult among the BYP and writers (and would-be writers) such as Harold Acton, Anthony Powell, Jocelyn Brooke, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh and Brian Howard fell under his spell. His influence with the younger aesthetes was enormous and “Firbankian” came to denote not just a literary style but a whole way of being. Camp,witty, irreverent he was the perfect writer for the social circle Elvira moved in.

Ronald Firbank  (1886-1926)

Were these the books that so scandalised “hardened policemen”?  Quite possibly. If so, were they among Elvira’s favourites as the portrait seems to suggest or were they just chic accessories – proof of Elvira’s self-image as a sophisticate? We cannot know. However, thanks to a careful compilation,by C.I.D. officer John Scurr, of the reading matter stacked up in the bathroom of  21 William Mews we do know something of what Elvira actually did read. The picture that emerges is considerably less high-brow but very illuminating.

Why the police felt the need to make such a catalogue is a little puzzling, but I am very glad they did. What you get is a very instructive snapshot of what one wealthy, young, club-hopping woman  of the era perused while awaiting the next invitation or outing.Yet, I would put money on this being a fairly typical list of periodicals and newspapers and would have been found in many a Chelsea or Mayfair flat.

There are 48 items, mostly magazines with some programmes and the odd letter. There is only one novel, “This Delicate Creature” by Con O’Leary. I know nothing of this work  but the title is, in the circumstances,  more than a little ironic. O’Leary was a reasonably popular author – but no modernist.

The newspapers Elvira read were the Daily Sketch, The Daily Express and The Sunday Express – all very conservative and middle-brow, the Sketch veering towards the “Tabloid” end of the market. She took two illustrated  news weeklies The (National) Graphic and The Bystander.The Graphic  was in its final days and  may have simply been a favourite from younger days in the Mullens household (it was very popular in World War One). The Bystander was reinventing itself as a glossy magazine -with greater concentaration on leisure and fashion. I think the edition in Elvira’s bathroom was this one

which would make sense.

The Bystander lasted until 1940 when it was absorbed into The Tatler, copies of which were also in the pile. It would be surprising if they weren’t – no woman of Elvira’s age and class would want to miss the society news and gossip that journal offered its readers. Equally unsurprising is the presence of the rather more sophisticated Vanity Fair, with its mixture of literary pieces, humour, stylish photography and glossy adverts.

Elvira’s continued interest in the theatre is evidenced by a copy of The Stage. Read widely but specifically aimed at those within the profession, one can imagine Elvira following the careers of many acquaintances with interest – and perhaps some regrets.

There are a few issues of an obscure magazine called The Picture Budget,  which was presumably devoted to cinema. There is no mention of Elvira as a regular movie-goer but it would be odd if she was not.

There are more copies of  “Britannia and Eve” than any other title. This was a popular and stylish woman’s journal, much valued today for its delightful and evocative cover art-work. Here are a few that PC Scurr listed –

There are two American satirical magazines Hullabaloo and Ballyhoo in the collection. These were the forerunners of the likes of Mad magazine and specialised in cartoons and spoof adverts. They would have also been considered quite “racy” for the era. How available they were in England at the time I don’t know – but not very, I suspect

Also a little on the “fast” side was London Life – a magazine devoted to fashion, feature articles and “What’s On” listings. Its notoriety came from the amount of fetishists who  commandeered the letters pages – under the guise of asking for fashion tips. I’m sure Elvira was suitably amused.

Also to be found are copies of The New Yorker  and Cosmopolitan, then still basically a literary magazine. These were classy journals, with nods towards highbrow culture but were also markers of a suave and comfortable lifestyle.

Finally there are two journals I cannot identify – The Courier and The Nightlight.

I will deal with the theatre programmes separately but these magazines and newspapers tell us a lot about Elvira, her interests, her self-image and the sort of world with which she identified. Cultured, hedonistic and consumerist, modern but not avant-garde, a little daring, a strong sense of visual style, little interest in politics or world events (even in 1932) and a general sense that the pursuit of pleasure and fun were what mattered in this life- that is the picture they suggest to me. All of which fits perfectly well with what we know about Mrs.Barney from other sources. I’m sure she was familiar with Firbank and Joyce but I am confident that these periodicals take us closer to  her real enthusiasms and shine a singularly helpful light on a very specific, but not atypical, way of life. Quite by accident, PC Scurr captured a moment of cultural history and I, for one, am very grateful to him.