V is for Variety
The Glasgow Empire Theatre is renowned as being the place where comedians went to die.
In common with many cities, music hall and then variety were popular pastimes for working people. After a week of hard toil, if a Glaswegian paid a few shillings he’d expect to be entertained, and his standards were high. Add to this the peculiar licensing laws of the time where the interval was the last chance to have a drink: men – and women – would pour as much liquor as possible down their throats and return to their seats, paralytic, armed with the left-overs from the produce markets. Unless, that is, they worked in the shipyards, in which case they’d fire rivets at the stage using catapults.
American acts brought with them the glamour of Hollywood and always went down well. Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra and Laurel & Hardy all brought the house down. But if you were an English comedian, you had to be exceptional to escape the wrath of the Empire crowd.
One evening Ken Dodd was headlining to nothing but catcalls from the crowd. One man in particular was hurling abuse at him. Dodd faced the Weegie and asked, “Well, what would make you laugh?” Fast as lightning came the reply: “A comedian!”
Mike & Bernie Winters’ act began with Mike coming on stage, playing a chirpy wee tune on his clarinet (not a euphemism). When his brother Bernie poked his head around the stage curtain with a silly grin on his face, a wag from the stalls shouted, “Christ, there’s two of them!”
The most famous story concerns Des O’Connor. He was so petrified of the crowd he pretended to faint and was unceremoniously dragged off the stage.
But my favourite story concerns Roy Castle, an English entertainer who sang, whistled, played the trumpet, danced and told jokes. Castle was going through his repertoire, desperately trying to find something to entertain the hard Weegie crowd. A voice came from the unimpressed audience, “Is there nae end tae that man’s talents?” Priceless.
Sadly, the Empire closed in 1963, but in Glaswegian homes on a Saturday night, the spirit of the theatre lives on: “Fur gawd’s sake, that lassie cannae sing fur toffee!”; “That man’s a chancer. He widnae know a joke if it skelped him oan the face!”; “Oy! Coco! Yer jokes are shite!”