Friday, October 03, 2014


at the British Library

Not the most atmospheric venue for this unique look at the First World War and its "silly, patriotic Music Halls"; a sparse crowd too – Ida blamed battle fatigue, and certainly war-themed entertainments are hard to avoid just now; this was my second this week.
But those who stayed home missed a real treat. Poppies in vases where the footlights would be, and a bill that included, besides the legendary Miss Barr, Jessica Walker as Vesta Tilley ["Britain's Best Recruiting Sargeant"], Paddy Glinn singing some stirring ballads, and respected expert on all things Music Hall Michael Kilgarrif, setting everything in context, and digressing deliciously at the drop of a hat. All to complement the BL's exhibition Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour.

Jessica Walker

The real-life Ida Barr was a music hall artiste whose long career covered the Great War and beyond. She died in 1967, the very year that Christopher Green was born. His act, enormously popular on the fringe, takes the name, some of the jokes, and recreates an elderly London luv whose retirement is enlivened by mashing up Music Hall memories with Rihanna and Busta Rhymes. Impossible to convey in print how well this works, but it is a total delight, from the wrinkled lisle to the Pearly Queen frock which references Lidl and the mobility scooter on which she sometimes makes an entrance. The patter, the songs, the singalong – culminating in a strangely moving Jerusalem.

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

Siegfried Sassoon

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