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here are many, myself included, who have been waiting for a well-researched and critical account of Scottish music hall such as Paul Maloney offers here. Moreover, his book is revelatory not only for what it tells us about Scotland, but also about England. We are used to tracing the influence of London music hall on other cities of the UK, but Maloney shows that there are also commonalities to be found between Scottish, Welsh, and northern English urban entertainment. Glasgow, as a ‘city of religion, industry and empire’ is the focus of the study, but the author makes frequent reference to other Scottish cities.

One of the opening claims is that music hall was ‘the most successful popular theatre form’ of the nineteenth century. The British bias is immediately apparent. This is scarcely true of North America, where blackface minstrelsy was ousted by vaudeville only in the 1880s. It is patently untrue of Europe: in France, cafés-concerts were well ahead of the game in terms of commercial marketing, star culture, and rights enforcement. Glasgow rarely played host to more than a dozen music halls at any one time during the nineteenth century, and smaller halls seem to have had a surprisingly young audience, with a large proportion of boys aged 12—18.

The development of the Scottish stereotype — perhaps most familiar in the shape of Harry Lauder — makes interesting reading. Whereas, in London, the Cockney stereotype has often been taken by writers on music hall to be an affectionate and fairly accurate transposition of the working man to the stage, no such ‘reflection of life’ arguments have been accepted in the case of the kilted Highlander. Here we find differences of emphasis in the study of music hall in England and Scotland. In the former, class tends to be the primary issue, whereas in the latter national identity often takes precedence. The question boils down to: ‘what is real Scottish identity, and what is theatrical convention?’ Tartan, the kilt, the St Andrew’s flag, a sprig of heather: these are the signs of Scottishness, just as the cap pulled to one side, the pearly buttons, and the barrow of vegetables are signs of‘Cockneyness’.

Yet the accent of the Cockney signifies class, the accent of the Scottish performer nationality. What is more, although general contrasts between Highland and Lowland accents are sometimes made (for the purpose of stereotyping the Highlander), it is immaterial wrhether the Lowland accent hails from Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Dumfries. Moreover, when Maloney cites evidence for the normality of Lowland Scots dialect in Victorian Scotland, there is an implication that everyone spoke it, of whatever class — that it was as normal in Edinburgh’s Newr Town as in Glasgow’s Saltmarket. It is one among several examples of class being sidelined in discussing Scottish identity. To be fair, he does comment that if Glasgow audiences preferred performers with whom they could identify this could mean shared social class as well as shared nationality. He also looks at the survival of locally organized working-class halls around Glasgow at a time when mergers, takeovers, and touring stars characterized the larger city-centre halls. He maintains that working-class halls lasted longer than in England, surviving the big takeovers and the Moss-Stoll circuit in the 1890s.

In Glasgow, the music hall developed in the poorer areas, like the Saltmarket, and this meant that a mixed-class audience was not as easily attained as in London, where, with the exception of the Canterbury (in Lambeth), the larger halls were in 'safer' neighbourhoods. Glasgow's first halls opened in the 1850s (Brown's Royal Music Hall and Shearer's Whitebait Music Hall), and relied heavily on the kind of 'free and easy' entertainment found in the back rooms of pubs. The parallel with London is obvious, but Maloney shows that other entertainments fed into the music hall, some of them with a distinctly Scottish character. One such influence came from the touring players who erected canvas and wood theatres (known as 'goggies') and often relied on scenes from Scottish history or literature (especially the novels of Walter Scott). The ceilidh tradition, brought to Glasgow by Highland and Irish communities, also influenced music hall via the free and easies.

Maloney argues that the distinctly working-class character of Glasgow music hall remained until the 1890s, when city-centre variety venues developed. The picture, however, is by no means clear. For example, he also points out that 'music hall as a form quickly moved beyond local and regional success to establish itself on a national scale' (p. 40), and suggests that a new cosmopolitanism and commercial sophistication was evident in the 1870s. Perhaps, as in most accounts of music hall, there is a tendency to emphasize the proletarian character found in the smaller halls and ignore the petit bourgeois nature of the larger halls in terms of both the audience (shopkeepers, clerks, etc.) and the middle-class subject position of much of the entertainment. Indeed, Maloney quotes a police report of 1875 that remarks upon the 'respectable audience' of the Royal Music Hall in Dunlop Street and the moral propriety of the entertainment ('skirts reaching below the knee' and no 'throwing up of the legs’ in the cancan).

This book is informative about the building and business of the halls. Among the interesting details that emerge in the 1870s and 1880s is that

a number of music hall businesses were continued by the wives of deceased managers. The best-known innovator in terms of financial management and changes in the presentation of entertainment is Edward Moss. He showed his entrepreneurial skills at the age of 25 by becoming the manager of the Gaiety Theatre in Edinburgh and making it so profitable that he was able to purchase it. He moved into the Glasgow market with a partner in the 1890s, and stated that his aim was to 'command the good wishes and support of all classes of society. [p. 65]

The strategy of the syndicated managements that dominated the halls at the end of the century was to introduce variety entertainment as a means of broadening the audience, rather than displacing one audience with another. Cleaning up the acts, rather than doing away with them, was another concern. The proprietor of the Britannia went as far as to add a note in the printed programmes, declaring himself 'obliged to anyone who will inform him of any suggestive or offensive word' that may have escaped his notice (p. 62). However, the power of the syndicates was too much for the Britannia, which lacked the economic advantage of being able to engage an artist to perform a 'turn' at more than one theatre on the same night, and eventually ran into severe financial difficulties. In the early twentieth century Moss and Thornton, who had become Moss Empires, dominated variety theatre. At the end of the period studied in this book, Glasgow had eighteen music halls, and the favoured location had become the 'respectable' area around Sauchiehall Street and Hope Street. Maloney advises that the perception that there was an imposed homogeneity of variety entertainment as a result of syndicates is to some extent inaccurate, since the Moss Empires' circuit was the only one that was UK-wide; the others were regionally oriented.

Three chapters of the book are given over to research on music hall performance. The first of these concentrates on performers’ activities, social backgrounds, and career development. For this information, Maloney has sought out individual biographies, since little documentary and statistical data is available. Performers in Scotland, as in England, came from a variety of backgrounds, often skilled wrorkers or from the lower middle class, though Harry Lauder was a Hamilton miner. The route to the music hall stage was usually via amateur concerts and competitions, benefit concerts, and events organized by temperance groups. In the 1890s, amateur nights became popular at music halls — it was on nights such as these that a failing performer was liable to be hooked or lassoed off the stage into the wings. In discussing careers, Maloney nails the myth that Hany Lauder was the first Scottish performer to find success in London (Scottish performers had featured in London music halls from the beginning). Especially interesting is the information this chapter contains on the lesser-known, ‘jobbing’ performers, their work, and their earnings.

The theme of performance continues with an exploration of the community of music hall professionals. The social milieu in which this community moved is located by means of census and valuation roll returns. Although visiting performers gravitated towards guest houses near theatres, Maloney’s valuable empirical research has provided evidence of the existence of a music hall community based in Glasgow. The focus then shifts to respectability and the profession. Some fascinating detail is given on dress inside and outside the theatre, and on devious practices such as the undercutting of fees and the theft of performance material. However, the growing professionalism of music hall in the late 1880s is apparent in other details, for example the increased use of terms like ‘pro’ and ‘artiste’.

A chapter on patriotism and empire discusses the socio-political character of music hall in Scotland and, where imperialism was concerned, how Scottishness related to Britishness as well as English ness. Despite the different cultural context north of the English border, Scottish acceptance of imperialist endeavour was assumed by music hall performers to be the norm: Glasgow was, after all, known as the second city of Empire, and the role of Scottish regiments in the expanding of the British Empire was considerable. The cultural conflict most often presented in Scottish music hall was between Highlander and Lowlander, but this is to a large extent the clash between rustic and city dweller found in all forms of nineteenth-century European and American stage entertainment. Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly localized, and the audience could draw upon a store of knowledge about Highland incomers to the cities. Besides, many aspects of Highland life, from costume to piping and dancing, were crucial to ideas of Scottishness. Maloney sees these representations and their audience reception as more complex than do some commentators. He also enhances existing knowledge on patriotism and the music hall.

The final chapter looks at the music hall audience, measuring its social composition against claims made by hall managers, and assessing the wider social impact of the entertainment—the spreading influence of the halls as seen in pantomime, seaside shows, and domestic music-making. Evidence suggests that, though the halls first relied upon an entirely working-class clientele, middle-class males began attending in a largely surreptitious manner in the 1870s. The reforms of the 1890s were significant for encouraging an increase in female attendance, but how far middle-class women were prepared to be seen at a music hall—unless it was, for example, a gala evening or other special occasion—is difficult to say. The very fact that newspaper reviews remarked upon the presence of ‘ladies’ may suggest that this was untypical. More research is certainly needed in this area. The rise in admission charges for the stalls and circle, however, does indicate an ability on the part of larger halls to move upmarket.

The whole issue of class and the music hall is vexed. Working-class entertainment is not always going to be recognizable as something displaying clear opposition or resistance to bourgeois ideology; in fact, the music hall was often an arena for negotiation between working-class and middle-class values. Maloney would appear to support this idea; he contends, for example, that a working-class character is likely to be found in the fact that music hall songs call for audience participation, rather than in the content of their lyrics. It is a pity, then, that critical evaluation and analysis of the music is absent from this study. I assume that this is because the author is an empirical sociologist and feels ill at ease discussing music. Yet I note that he holds the position of Publications Editor for Scottish Opera, so perhaps we need to wait patiently for a further book. His achievement in the present publication nevertheless deserves a warm reception: his research findings leave us with the overall impression of a music-hall tradition that was able to retain its own national character while, at the same time, welcoming stars of the English halls onto its bills. By the end of the nineteenth century, music hall had become the dominant form of urban entertainment in Scotland as in England.

A variety of figures, lithographs, and early photographs are scattered throughout the book, and certainly add interest and atmosphere. There is also a useful appendix giving tables of admissions charges. I was puzzled by the picture on page 44 of J. A. Wilson, a ‘leading Scottish minstrel’, since I could not find his name in either the text or index. That aside, one thing I really could have done with among all these interesting illustrations was a map of nineteenth-century Glasgow.


Maloney, Paul. Scotland and the Music Hall, 1850—1914. Studies in Popular Culture. (Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2003. pp. xiv + 240. £14.99. ISBN 0-7190-61474.


Last modified 1 March 2017