Television Killed the Variety Star

In which The Author realises he should have started his project a lot earlier

Yesterday I answered a ‘Tech Support’ call from my old friend Geoff E. We bumped into each other in Aberdare Library last week, and he mentioned that his old Windows XP-powered laptop was starting to show its age. I offered to call round and have a look at it. Even though I’m not as techie as some of my friends, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks over the years. I thought I might be able to squeeze a bit more life out of it.
Geoff’s daughter Anna and I have been friends pretty much since I did my A Levels, thirty years ago this summer. She lives in Swansea now, but we still keep in touch via Facebook, usually exchanging Doctor Who-related nonsense. Her parents still live in Aberdare, and we run into each other quite often.
Since he retired, Geoff has been able to devote more of his time to the Cynon Valley History Society. As we both spend hours in the ‘Reference’ section of Aberdare Library, we often have a chat about this and that. Last week, he told me that his old laptop kept freezing when he was in the middle of something. He was understandably concerned that it was on its last legs. The laptop in question is technically the History Society’s property, and that was why Geoff wanted to pick my brains. We both agreed that it seems a shame to write it off simply because the security patches for Windows XP have dried up.
By a happy accident, Western Power Distribution have been working on the overhead supply in my street for a while. Yesterday morning they needed to turn the electricity off from 9.30 until lunchtime. That was a good excuse to get out early, and call round to Geoff’s house to see the extent of the problem for myself.
I’ve only been to the house once before, in 1999, when he was able to do Dillons Bookstore in Cardiff a huge favour. Simon Callow was coming to the shop to read from and sign his book Love Is Where It Falls. At the time, Mr Callow was starring in the one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens at Cardiff’s New Theatre. I knew from our previous conversations that Geoff was an avid collector of theatrical memorabilia. I phoned him on spec to see whether he had any suitable playbills or programmes which we could borrow as a backdrop for the signing session. As things turned out, I’d inadvertently struck the mother lode.
Geoff very kindly lent us a tiny part of his treasured collection, including some programmes dating from the time when the great Welsh actor Emlyn Williams was doing his own one-man show based on Dickens’ writings. I remember calling to the house one evening after work to pick them up, and being amazed by the sheer volume of material he’d collected over the years.
I’m pleased to report that the signing was a great success, and all credit goes to Trish for organising it. Mr Callow was charm personified, and he was fascinated by the pieces from Geoff’s collection. As a ‘thank you’ gift, we treated Geoff to a copy of the history of the National Theatre, which Mr Callow signed with a personal dedication. He also signed Geoff’s battered old copy of Being an Actor, and remarked, ‘This book has obviously been well-loved.’ He was right.
Anyway, Geoff showed me some more of his collection while we were waiting for the laptop to run a couple of diagnostic utilities. Anna’s mother Olga made us lunch and supper,  we shared a couple of bottles of beer, and I eventually got home much later than I’d originally expected. It was a most enjoyable day spend in excellent company, and I’d like to thank them both for their hospitality.
Needless to say, since the advent of Ebay and Amazon, Geoff’s collection has increased in size considerably. As well as all his books, programmes, playbills, prints and photos, he’s accumulated a large number of postcards relating to the theatre. We spent a good while looking through some of his folders, and he outlined the stories behind some of the pictures.
We live in a time when theatres in South Wales are closing, being threatened with closure, or operating a ‘reduced programme’ (see The End of Culture and some of my other recent posts.) Similarly, small cinemas are being squeezed out of the market by out-of-town multiplexes. It was poignant, therefore, to see so many reminders of an era when every sizeable community in the Valleys boasted at least one theatre and/or picture house.
Geoff showed me several old photos of colossal Victorian theatres in Cardiff, which must have seated well over a thousand people apiece. Here’s one example: the New Theatre in Cardiff has a seating capacity of 1,144. I think I’ve only seen it full to bursting point once, when Jerome Flynn played Tommy Cooper in John Fisher’s uproarious show Just Like That. It’s hard to imagine that there must have been a dozen or more similar venues in the city centre alone.
Geoff showed me pictures of theatres/cinemas in Treherbert, Ebbw Vale, Blackwood, Hirwaun, Aberaman, and a host of other towns throughout Wales. Nearly all of them have gone now. Similarly, he has loads of pictures of superb Art Deco cinemas; nearly all of them have been demolished, or converted into something else. When I was younger, the Rex Cinema in Aberdare used to show films on Saturday mornings, and I remember the queue stretching halfway down Victoria Square. The last film I saw there was Pink Floyd: The Wall, in 1982.
The Rex itself featured as the run-down fleapit in the Welsh-language comedy film Rhosyn a Rhith, in 1986. Now it’s a car park. When I was growing up, the Palace Cinema used to be clearly visible from the sitting room window of Mams’ and Dads’ flat in Hirwaun. The flats were demolished ages ago. So was the Palace. So it goes…
Geoff also has a large collection of photographs showing some of the acts themselves – a bewildering roll-call of long-forgotten song and dance troupes, jugglers, conjurers, mind-readers, comedians, vent acts, dog acts, monologists… in short, the kind of fare that would be familiar to anyone who remembers the BBC TV show The Good Old Days.
Performers like those were the meat and drink of popular entertainment until the 1960s. The spread of television slowly killed off the variety circuit, until only ‘summer season’ in seaside resorts all over Britain survived. (That’s an era which was perfectly captured in another BBC TV series, Hi-De-Hi!).
Needless to say, Geoff has postcards of the Butlins holiday camps at Barry and Pwllheli, showing their massive theatres at the centre of the complexes. Barry Butlins was demolished in 1997; the site at Pwllheli closed the following year.
I vaguely remember seeing a summer season show in Torquay, when I was thirteen or fourteen. Jim Davidson topped the bill and the singing duo Peters and Lee supported. I’m not sure whether it was the same summer, or a different one, when Ray Alan and Lord Charles were on the bill. Another time, in Blackpool, we saw Little and Large, with an up-and-coming lunatic named Michael Barrymore some way down the bill.
That was over thirty years ago. The must-see family outing for the summer holidays is probably the theme park, bowling alley, or Hollywood summer blockbuster (in 3D, of course), except in a handful of popular seaside towns. Well, we saw shows in 3D when we were kids – and we didn’t even need special glasses!
Another postcard shows what might be a repertory company, photographed during a stint in South Wales. Repertory companies were the proving ground for young actors back in the day; they toured from small town to small town, living in ‘digs’ of various quality, performing one play while rehearsing another. At the end of John Schlesinger’s 1963 film Billy Liar, Billy and Liz find themselves at the railway station at midnight, waiting for the train to London. The camera hovers briefly on a nearby table, where a small group of people are arguing about accommodation. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if these minor characters were supposed to be a rep company, heading off to a new town and a new production.
In the first volume of his autobiography A Better Class of Person, John Osborne paints a vivid, sometimes funny, but often rather depressing picture of his life in rep. I was very surprised to learn that Geoff hasn’t read it. I’ve promised to lend it to him; I think he’ll thoroughly enjoy it.
(Incidentally, one of Geoff’s treasures is a programme for the first production of John Osborne’s dramatic milestone Look Back in Anger. It has a cover price of 6d – it’s probably worth considerably more today. We looked through his old copy of Theatre Review for the first half of 1956, and it was pleasing to see that, right from the start, it was recognised as a revolutionary piece of British drama.)
Geoff’s thinking of compiling an illustrated history of Welsh theatres; I suggested a few publishers which might be interested in such a project. I hope he manages to fit it in between his many other interests. It would be a fascinating archive of a lost era, and an indictment of a planning process which has allowed our architectural and cultural heritage to be obliterated in such a cavalier fashion.
Yesterday’s trip down Memory Lane pointed out (once again) that I’ve left it far to late to embark on my Vanishing Valleys project. I now know that I should have started it not just a few years ago, but a few decades earlier. Here’s a particularly topical example of the industrial-scale vandalism which has been allowed to happen all over South Wales since the 1960s.
The ever busy Cynon Valley History Society published two books called Aberdare: Pictures from the Past, the second volume appearing in 1992. Thanks to their diligent research, I’m able to tell you that Aberdare’s Temperance Hall was built in 1858, at a cost of £3,000 donated by the Total Abstinence Society. It could accommodate an audience of 1,500, and also contained a six-bedroom temperance hotel and a coffee house. It hosted public meetings and entertainments, including operettas, minstrel shows and appearances by General Tom Thumb, amongst others.
Subsequently, it became the Palladium Cinema, then a bingo hall, and is now being demolished to make way for flats and a supermarket. It appears that the superb classical frontage will be retained, but the interior has been completely destroyed:
The Palladium, April 2011
Aberdare Palladium, April 2011
Aberdare Palladium, June 2014
Aberdare Palladium, June 2014
Aberdare Palladium, June 2014
Aberdare Palladium, June 2014
Please bear in mind that this demolition is taking place in the heart of a ‘conservation area’. So much for that!
As for Aberdare’s sole surviving theatre/cinema, here’s an exclusive preview of forthcoming attractions at the Coliseum:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Look at that long run where there are ‘no films’. Welcome to Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC’s brave new world of the ‘reduced programme’! Admittedly, the new X Men film is there at the end of June – for one evening and one afternoon screening. If I blink, I’ll miss it. All I need to do to avoid spoilers in the meantime is to keep well away from Facebook, the papers, and film reviews on the radio; we’re getting it a full month after it hit the screens in the rest of the UK.
After that, no doubt, we’ll return to the same menu of kids’ flicks and action blockbusters, which are pretty much guaranteed to put bums on seats. And much as I love the Colstars, do we really need another revival of Guys and Dolls?
I confidently predict that things will get a lot worse in the next few years. I told you a few months ago that both the New Theatre and Saint David’s Hall in Cardiff are threatened with closure. If the big venues in the city centre are haemorrhaging cash, in spite of their thousand-plus capacities and extortionate ticket prices, what hope is there for places like the Coliseum? Maybe I should finally bite the bullet and buy a television – because there’s precious little else happening in the way of entertainment in Wales.
If I were Geoff, I’d hold fire for a little while before submitting my book to a publisher. At this rate, the long list of Wales’s lost theatres will need a few more entries.
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