By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Television loved variety stars, but fell out of love with variety
Bruce Forsyth is 80 - a man who can tell jokes, sing, dance, compere and act. But is the all-round entertainer a dying breed?
The smell of stage make-up, the roar of the crowd. It's a hoary cliche embedded in British folk memory - a time when the music hall reigned supreme, dominating popular culture.
And its legacy in the post-war era is probably in the all-round entertainer, the showmen like Bruce Forsyth who started out as variety acts, performers who tried to master stand-up comedy, singing, dancing, an instrument and the general craft of the stage.
Ask the proverbial man-in-the-street today to reel off a list of prominent all-round entertainers and they might be able to. Names like Forsyth, Des O'Connor, and Max Bygraves might trip off the tongue. But it might take a bit of headscratching before you get round to someone under retirement age. Perhaps you might include Joe Pasquale or Brian Conley, both 46.
And if you can't think of any young ones, then it might be because the world they came from, the world of variety, is now an endangered habitat.
Variety had its heyday in the form of the post-war summer season when British holiday plans had places like Swanage, Minehead and Great Yarmouth at their heart.
Forsyth developed his skills in this arena, particularly during a stint in a show called Gaytime in Babbacombe, Devon, recalls Max Tyler, historian of the British Music Hall Society.
"Not only did you take the comedian's part, but you were expected to deal in sketches and songs," he says.
And the restrictions on the material that could be performed on a Sunday allowed the link to develop between the all-round entertainers of the variety world and the television gameshow.
"You weren't allowed to do sketches and so forth. They were very restricted. The producer thought it would be a good idea to get the audience involved in games and competitions."
Thus were hosts born.
Young all-round entertainers have become rarer
Variety veteran Duggie Chapman, a promoter and performer, is fighting a rearguard action.
"I still run a variety show," he says. "I think I'm one of the only ones who does it anymore."
He blames three factors - the decline of the seaside holiday, the rise of a "pop star" mentality where young performers will not spend time learning craft and the change in taste of television executives.
"Our motto is 'To cherish the jewels of the past and actively support the interests of the future'," says Tyler. "The first part is easy, the second part isn't so easy. We survive so much on nostalgia now."
There's no doubt that at least by the mid-1980s and possibly some time before that, the powers that be in television had decided that variety in its traditional format had become irredeemably naff.
"It has become a cottage industry," says Chapman. "The spirit lives on because the audience are still ecstatic, delighted to hear it because the media doesn't present that kind of thing any more."
The audience is typically over the age of 60 and they are hoping to revisit childhood memories at the shows.
One of the few young performers on the circuit is 27-year-old Andy Eastwood. Like the young Forsyth, he plays the ukulele and is probably the only person to have played the instrument for their final recital in a music degree at Oxford University.
"We normally go to the towns people live in. In the old days it was the seaside places but people don't go to the seaside anymore. We mainly do matinees so they [the over 60s audience] can come in daylight, they are just afraid to come out at night.
"It's got this sort of old image because it isn't on telly. It isn't a problem of younger people liking it, it's a problem of selling them a ticket. It's hard to market."
Eastwood, also known as the "Merrymaker", plays banjo and violin, sings and acts and is able to do comedy, but he fears that young performers now do not have a platform to hone their all-round skills.
"Where do they work to perfect their skills. Where can they go in terms of their career? There is no TV exposure."
There is still cabaret at holiday camps and the theatres in Blackpool, and variety has passed some of its spirit to pantomime and musicals, but its defenders think its era is over.
And the current emphasis in modern comedy means a key component of showmanship has been lost.
"Most of them don't know how to make an entrance and don't know how to make an exit," rues Tyler.
Chapman knows something else has gone.
"You've either got style or you haven't got style."
Below is a selection of your comments.
This article omits to mention that Bruce Forsyth is an extremely good piano player.
Richard Cooper, UK
I think the all-rounder is making a come-back - look at John Barrowman - he acts, he sings, dances, and also is himself as a judge on various talent shows - I'd say that was pretty all-round
Deborah Mason, London
Things may have changed, but the variety performer is still alive and well... Look at Bill Bailey, he's a stand up comedian and a very talented musician at the same time. He even includes the odd bit of dancing in his stage acts (even if Der Hokey Cokey is not exactly traditional).
Sam, Southampton, UK
Variety didn't die, it was killed by TV executives that felt that they knew best. Take 'The Good Old Days'. It was still popular when it was taken off of our screens as were other variety shows of the time. Reality TV is cheap and shoddy TV and as soon as a new format is found everyone jumps onto the bandwagon and presents a variation of that show. Please please please give us back some good old variety shows with plenty of talent.
Ryan Butler, Chigwell, Essex
There are still a few high profile all round entertainers about - Lee Evans, sings, does comedy and acts as well as playing piano, the same is true for presenter Stephen Mulhern as well as being a TV host, can sing, do magic and appears in pantomime every year. The art of variety isn't dead there are just fewer places to see it.
Daisy Jones, London
I run a dancing school for children. It's such a shame as there is no lack of talent in the young, in fact they probably have more than in the past. Many children these days have singing and dancing lessons as well as learning an instrument but there is nowhere to perform. There are more theatre schools around so the competition for the few jobs available is fierce and it's often not how good you are but if you know the right people.
Margaret Cave, Essex
The end of the stage entertainer is indicative of the decline of entertainment generally. Reality television, with its emphasis on the ordinary, rarely finds real talent. For every Paul Potts there are thousands who just shouldn't be on television, they are simply not talented enough. Only thirty years ago television was busting with talented performers, now they are almost non-existent. The sooner the bosses move away from reality TV the better.
Tony Makara, Manchester
In an age where people are recognised for doing next to nothing at all, and the recipients seem to be getting younger, how is it that Bruce Fortsyth has not been award a knighthood? In my humble opinion, it is a travesty that all his hard work and ability remains unrewarded.
Al Taitt, Buckinghamshire
Sorry but let's stop this nonsense about Forsyth. I know plenty of older people who cannot stand him. His jokes have always been corny, his singing voice is very average and dancing adequate. I've never seen him act. He is a very lucky man.
Simon, Worcs, UK
I've always thought that Shane Richie would have been a megastar if he'd been born a few decades earlier. Not that he hasn't done well in today's world, but he always has a touch of the variety show era about him.
The real reason variety died out was because tastes became more sophisticated. People these days want to see more than a second rate banjo player/singer/comedian which was all any of the so-called stars of variety ever managed to be.
Colin, Chelmsford, UK
My wife and I often ask ourselves where has the variety act/entertainer gone. We are in our 70s and do not find much funny in today's so called entertainment.
Graham Vidler, Tunbridge Wells
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