Playing the Clubs

It was in the early seventies. There were three men in a bar: an actor, a comedian and me.

Sounds like the build-up to a joke, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Far from it.

The bar was the Green Room, backstage at Sunderland Empire; the actor was in the current show, the comedian was there as a guest of someone or other, and I was there because—well, I was there! We got to talking about money—doesn’t everyone? The comedian, who played the working men’s clubs, said he’d just told his agent the week before that from then on he wouldn’t work for less than £40.

“A week?” asked the actor, impressed.

“A show!” replied the comic, as if the idea of working for £40 a week was unimaginable.

The actor’s jaw dropped. At that time, Equity minimum was just under £40 a week. It didn’t reach £45 until the end of the decade.

A few years later, when the National Museum of Music Hall was housed at the Empire, I was asked to make a photographic record of everything and I came across a 1913 contract for music hall star Gertie Gitana (who popularised that song that became almost synonymous with drunkenness, "Nellie Dean") to be paid £200 for a week’s engagement. This at a time when the average weekly wage was somewhere between £1 and £2!

I have read since that she was actually earning £100 a week by the time she was 17.

Theatre and variety / music hall / light entertainment were—and, as far as I know, still are—two very different worlds. An actor friend of mine tweeted recently, “the hardest part of being an actor is coping with the knock-backs and rejection. We have varying levels of pencil and after what was described as a Heavy Pencil for a nice advert, I was released today. #Gutted.”

Over a period of eight hours, others commented, some saying, “been there. Done that” but every one of them commiserating. Not surprising because most actors are supportive of each other.

Clubland, however, was—perhaps still is: I’ve been out of it for many years—a lot harsher.

Some typical comments I’ve heard made by other acts and even agents:

“He couldn’t draw breath” – he couldn’t attract an audience.

“He died on his arse” – his act didn’t go down well.

“He went down like a cup of cold sick” – his act really didn’t go down well.

Of course, “he” could equally well have been “she”.

But then club audiences were very different to those in theatres who, if they’re not enjoying the show, may leave at the interval but are unlikely to interrupt the play to walk out—although it has to be said that that isn’t unknown. Perhaps the closest comparison might be to the groundlings in Shakespeare’s day. Not that a club audience would throw things—at least I’ve never known them to do so—but they would talk during the act, and not in whispers either. They’d even shout out if they spotted one of their mates arriving—“Hoy Jimmy. We’re owa heah!” And deliberately audible comments of the “Oh man, fuck off!” variety directed at the stage were not unheard of.

And there were clubs which were notorious for being the club act’s graveyard. The River Wear Social Club in Hendon, Sunderland was far and away the most notorious in the North East. It was said that if they put their hands together three times, it was the equivalent of a standing ovation anywhere else.

In those days, all the big clubs had entertainment on every night, and even the smallest had “acts” from Friday to Sunday—including the strippers on a Sunday lunchtime.

The Sunderland Echo had a “Clubland” page once a week (as did the NE’s Sunday paper, The Sunday Sun) with features on the popular acts and a large advertising section in which every club advertised their acts for the coming week.

The Stage (or, The Stage and Television Today as it was known then) also had a significant light entertainment section with its own editor, Sidney Vauncez (real name Simon Blumenfeld who, in the '90s, appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest regularly working weekly journalist at the age of 87), and for a few years during the '70s and '80s I found myself working for him as a freelance, reviewing and photographing NE agencies’ showcases.

It has to be said that most of my involvement in Clubland was photographic, taking publicity stills for acts, sometimes in the studio and sometimes on stage, but I also wrote, as well as for The Stage, for Cabaret and Varity Revue and Musicians Only, doing odd things like writing up details of recording studios for hire, interviewing roadies and other such somewhat off-the-wall jobs. On a couple of occasions I was press-ganged into being a judge in talent competitions in a nightclub. The Simon Cowell of the Seventies! Would that I had been paid as well as him!

But now, to be honest, I’m not at all sure there’s such a thing as Clubland anymore. In the '70s there were over 4,000 clubs affiliated to the CIU (The Clubs and Institutes Union), the national organisation. The latest figure I have—from the CIU—is that there are now around 1,300. Fings, it appears, certainly ain’t what they used to be!

And that’s sad, because the Clubs gave many a variety act a start in the business and enabled them to go on to greater things.

Here’s another difference!

Actors have been known to go unpaid. Sometimes the producers go bust, or a profit-share production magically fails to show a profit and people have even been known to “do a bunk” with the takings, but no actor has ever had the experience of NE comic Spike Rawlings.

Back in the day (the seventies), Spike played the WMC circuit in the North East and one day he turned up at the club at which he’d been booked, only to be told that the performance had been cancelled as they’d not sold enough tickets and the money they had had been spent on the pies for the pie and pea supper.

There was no money “to pay him off” (as the phrase was), so…

It was for ever after (I’ve lost count of the number of times he told me!) his proud boast that he was the only comic in NE clubland to have been paid off in pies—as many as he liked!

He loved that story!

And there’s another lovely one which really illustrates what life in clubland was like.

It was 40-odd years ago and I’d been asked to go to a Tyneside Club to review an act which the publication—not sure if it was The Stage or Cabaret and Variety Revue—thought had a great future.

I’m pretty sure it was Bensham Club in Gateshead. Now I have a friend who lives in Bensham. He calls it “Benshame” and his descriptions of daily life there are hilarious—but only if you don’t live there! If you do, “funny” is definitely not the word you’d use.

The act, I was told, was a comedian, and he was. He was very funny. Hilarious, in fact.

But—you saw that “but” coming, didn’t you?—he was as camp as a row of tents. As camp, as they say in the North East, as arseholes, the arse on which he died in fact. Bensham, then as now, was not renowned for its sophistication! Or its acceptance of difference.

What on earth the agent who sent him there was thinking I do not know, but I suppose it was good training. If you can stand up to that sort of silent hostility you can stand up to anything!

He later became very famous! “Who was it?” you ask. As the post-War saying went, “no names, no pack drill.”

Oh yes, and Sunday afternoon in the clubs was stripper time, sometimes three or even four girls appearing one after the other. They would dash from club to club, driven by a minder / driver who would make sure they got to every gig on time and were protected from the occasional punter who would try to break the unwritten rule, “look but don’t approach”.

When I was a teacher in the '90s a 15-year-old girl told me that one of my colleagues was “a pervert”. Had Mr X behaved inappropriately towards her? No, he’d been at the same club as her dad that Sunday afternoon, watching the strippers. But, I asked, didn’t that make her dad a pervert too? Of course not, but Mr X was a teacher!