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04 June 2011

The Entertainers: music hall revival from the 1960s

EVERY BREATH INSIDE the Waterman’s Arms is a warm gulp of tobacco smoke, hair oil vapour, sweat and perfume: the fuel-air mixture of entertainment in 1964. Daniel Farson, the owner of the east London pub, prefers not to think about the money he’s already lost trying to revive the music hall tradition.

But if the people won’t come to the Waterman’s Arms, then the Waterman’s Arms can come to them. Every home’s got a record player these days.

The Entertainers


He’s already working out what to write for the back of the sleeve. Farson knows he can’t pull off televised London Palladium variety bills like Val Parnell’s Showtime or Barney Colehan’s lavish music-hall series The Good Old Days, which the BBC will run right up to 1983. But at least he’s got Kim Cordell to sing and be the compere for the evening:


Rex Jamieson, or Mrs Shufflewick when he’s in drag, gives Farson a wink before taking his turn on the pub’s tiny, ornately-framed stage:


Kim Cordell invites Farson up on stage to say a few words, and his educated voice sounds stiff and out of place. The audience are slightly relieved when he finishes and the entertainment can carry on. And, in truth, Farson feels much more at home among his bohemian drinking pals in Soho’s Colony Room, although his love of music hall is genuine.

George Hitchens the pearly king gets up to remind everyone of the Barrow Boy Song:


Kim Cordell’s song Susie in the shoeshine shop recalls the innuendo of Marie Lloyd’s She sits among the cabbages and peas:


The London pub comedian and pianist Jimmy Fagg used to perform the song What a wonderful fish the sole is, which I remember from his early 1980s Sunday lunchtime spot at the Red Lion pub on Exmouth Market (now a restaurant):

What a wonderful fish the sole is
What a wonderful fish are soles
I must relate I am partial to plaice
When served on a dish as rissoles

What a wonderful fish the sole is
Like salmon they swim in shoals
But the sweetest of fish
When placed on a dish
Are soles, are soles, are soles

The culture in which swearing was strongly disapproved of has largely passed away, and swearing has little subversive or magical quality left.

Music hall continues to attract the loyalty of a few enthusiasts as an archival genre. The Waterman’s Arms remains as a pub on the Isle of Dogs, lately renamed the Great Eastern with plans for a backpackers’ hostel on its upper floors.

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