The Royal Variety Performance has been a national treasure since its first show in 1919. To celebrate the event’s centenary, Nick Smurthwaite takes a look back at the eclectic band of performers who have graced its stage, from international favourites like Judy Garland to the stars of ITV’s talent contest Britain’s Got Talent
Even in these cynical times, a summons to appear at the Royal Variety Performance is a significant one to most performers, not least because it commands a worldwide TV audience of 152 million in more than 65 countries.
This year’s show, taking place at the London Palladium next week in front of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, marks the centenary of the event becoming the Royal Variety Performance from its original incarnation as the Royal Command Performance.
Changing the name put the emphasis on the variety content, since it was always intended as a fundraising event for Brinsworth House in Twickenham, the home for retired entertainers.
The idea of performances commanded by royalty stretches back to medieval times and the Master of the Revels. It was Elizabeth I’s court that created a more structured and regular entertainment with her own personal theatre company, Queen Elizabeth’s Men.
In modern times, it was music hall performers, ballet dancers and acrobats who made up the programme for the inaugural show in 1912, although Marie Lloyd – the most celebrated performer of her day – was excluded from the first Royal Command Performance because the organisers felt her material was too saucy for King George V and Queen Mary. In a fit of pique, Lloyd staged a rival performance, dubbing it “By Order of the British Public”.
George V agreed to be life patron of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund – now called the Royal Variety Charity – and by 1926 the show was being broadcast on BBC radio.
The royal couple’s silver jubilee performance in 1935 put tickets at a premium – one rich US visitor paid £500 for a pair – and it proved to be George V’s variety swansong as he died a few months afterwards.
After a seven-year hiatus in the build up to, and then during, the Second World War, the Royal Variety Performance returned victoriously to the London Palladium in 1945. Robert Nesbitt directed the show, which was hosted by Tommy Trinder and attended by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and their two daughters. It would be the start of a long association for the present Queen.
Legendary variety producer Val Parnell raised a few eyebrows in 1947 when he chose international stars, such as Bob Hope and Judy Garland, over home-grown talent, although the public was not complaining. Neither was there any objection to Parnell’s discovery of 13-year-old Julie Andrews in 1948 who led the cast in singing the National Anthem in the finale.
‘Organisers felt Marie Lloyd’s material was too saucy for King George and Queen Mary’
After the accession of Queen Elizabeth II there was a particular buzz about the show, attended by the glamorous young monarch and her dashing husband. The cast included Norman Wisdom, the Beverley Sisters, and a young comedian called Tony Hancock, who went down particularly well with Prince Philip.
It was also the start of a run of appearances by the Crazy Gang, a six-man comedy troupe, by this time something of a national institution, who broke with tradition by mingling with the audience before the start of the show, posing as cleaners and ice-cream salesmen. They were the forerunners of the Goons and, later, Monty Python.
ITV made a bid to broadcast the show in 1955 but producer Bernard Delfont turned down the offer on the grounds that TV’s intervention would threaten the stage-led variety format. He finally gave in to the lure of TV in 1960, and, up until 2011, the TV coverage alternated annually between ITV and BBC.
It was in the third year of broadcast that the Beatles made a memorable appearance at the Royal Variety Performance. John Lennon famously exhorted “Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.”
The first ever live broadcast took place in 1976 but a plethora of technical hitches meant the decision was quickly taken to return to pre-recorded shows. The following year Delfont presided over the Silver Jubilee show, hosted by Bob Hope, and broadcast across the US.
In 1986, the show was produced by the BBC for the first time, marking a big change in direction. Laurie Mansfield, veteran producer and life president of the Royal Variety Charity, says: “We negotiated a six-year deal with the BBC and ITV that enabled them to produce the show have a say in who appeared in it but this also gave the Royal Variety Charity more financial security. From then on, the charity acted more in an advisory capacity, and in 2011 we did an exclusive deal with ITV to produce the show.”
The advent of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent in 2007 was another game-changer for the Royal Variety Performance. Its combination cash prize and headline spot at the event for the winner has given the show priceless publicity.
“Much to our surprise, even the younger performers are keen to do the Royal Variety Performance,” says Giles Cooper, executive producer and chairman of the Royal Variety Charity. “It has given us a younger audience.”
The winner of this year’s BGT, 89-year-old Chelsea Pensioner Colin Thackery, will be one of the star attractions of the 2019 show, along with Rob Beckett, Romesh Ranganathan, Rod Stewart, Petula Clark and the cast of Mary Poppins.
The Royal Variety Performance is at the London Palladium on November 18. Details: royalvarietycharity.org