George Robey as a Mayor in The Sketch magazine, 18t May 1904. Museum no. NAL 131655 PP.10, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
In the early music halls, songs were central to the performance. Singing was the heart of the music hall act and comic singers its most famous stars. Many songs, and much of the comedy, were a comment on social conditions. They reflected working class life. Marie Lloyd’s hit 'My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and Don’t Dilly-Dally on the Way' was about doing a moonlight flit to avoid paying the rent and Gus Elen’s 'If it Wasn’t for the Houses in Between' was about the overcrowded living conditions in London’s East End.
Music hall songs and jokes were about day to day life: lodgers, mothers-in-law, bailiffs, overdue rent, drink, debt, adversity, unfaithful wives (and husbands), hen-pecked husbands (and wives). Other songs were unashamedly patriotic or sentimental, about true love, mother love, moon and June, idyllic villages, shady trees and wandering streams.
Audiences would return again and again to hear the same song and the same patter. Actors made their name with only one or two songs – they needed very little material if they were successful. There were no recordings or radio or television so people could only hear the song if they went to the music hall.
Character songs, where the performer portrayed an individual or a character type, were interspersed with comic patter or chat with the audience. This was rarely improvised. Other songs, like those sung by the ‘swells’ George Leybourne and The Great Vance, were wish fulfilment songs, about the fashionable social world to which the vast majority of the working class could only aspire.
Great comic singers included Dan Leno, Gus Elen, Marie Lloyd and George Robey. Many great music hall singers went on to star in pantomime.
Lions Comiques were the heart throbs of the Victorian era. They had the same cult status as the boy bands of the 1990s. Known as ‘swells’ these character singers dressed as fashionable, swaggering young men and sang songs about high life and drinking champagne. While their songs boasted about being seen at the most fashionable places, their attitude was distinctly laddish. A critic in the late 19th century remarked that Lions Comiques were men who set women just a little higher than their bottle.