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Barney Colehan checking the line-up on the Chairman's desk while rehearsals take place on stage

The Good Old Days by Barney Colehan

On Monday 20 July 1953, the long-running hit celebration of Music Hall, The Good Old Days took to our stage for the very first time.

Produced by Barney Colehan, the show would air on the BBC for thirty years and continue to tread the boards off-screen thereafter. In honour of the final screened series, Colehan wrote a commemorating piece. Fresh out of our archives, here it is.

Written by Barney Colehan, 1983.
Research by Bryony Jameson.

I never expected The Good Old Days to last more than a week, let alone thirty years. The original programme was a ‘one-off’, a straightforward history of Music Hall from Victorian times to the present day – the early 1950s then, of course.

I joined the BBC in 1947 after completing my wartime military service. I started as a Radio Producer and some people may still remember Have a Go and Give ‘Im the Money, Barney! In 1952 I moved over to television when the BBC opened its northern television transmitter and began to produce programmes with a regional flavour.

Looking for ideas, I decided that the City Varieties Theatre in Leeds would make an ideal location for a light-hearted story of Music Hall.

The Chairman – Don Gemmell from the Players Theatre in London – was on stage whilst Deryck Guyler portrayed ‘The Spirit of the Theatre’. He sat in one of the boxes as the production moved through more than a century of show business.

Sitting on a box next to Deryck were extras wearing the appropriate dress of each period. Because the show was live, they kept dodging in and out of the box to change whilst each act was on stage.

It proved to be a success – so much so that I was asked to produce another show. I suggested to the BBC that it should evoke the atmosphere of Music Hall, rather than its history, using material from a particular era, with guest stars portraying famous names of the past.

The line-ups for the pilot episode 'Life of a Music Hall' - 7 January 1953 and first The Good Old Days line-up, 20 July 1953

The line-ups for the pilot episode 'Life of a Music Hall' - 7 January 1953 and the first The Good Old Days line-up, 20 July 1953

It was decided to do four productions, set roughly in the early twentieth century – the hey-day of Music Hall. As Don Gemmell was not available, I invited Leonard Sachs, whom I had seen at the Players Theatre in London, to be the Chairman.

The long words with which he is now so associated were not evident in the initial stage; this form of presentation has evolved over the years. Although some of the words seem to be incomprehensible, they are all to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Players Theatre Company has also, over the years, become an integral part of the show. The opening routines give the programmes colour and excitement, whilst their closing scenes depicting the songs of Music Hall favourites such as Marie Lloyd, Vest Tilley, Harry Champion, etc., always bring our shows to a fitting climax.

In the early days, because all the cameras were in fixed positions, only part of the audience could be seen by viewers. However, over the years as the equipment became more flexible and we were able to feature more and more of the audience, we found that everyone we invited to see the programme was very willing to dress up. Approximately 250 people arrive for each show wearing period costume, and before each recording my Assistant, Dorothy Bickerdike, sends out notes on the type of costume which would be most appropriate. Our audiences then either hire, make, or raid their grandparent’s attics in the search for authentic costumes suitable to present themselves in exotic arrange for the programme. There are still 20,000 on the waiting list hoping for a visit.

The Good Old Days - Costume Guide - with instructions of what you can/can't wear

The Good Old Days audience costume guide.

There are few British stars who have not appeared on The Good Old Days at some time or other. Many leading artists have, indeed, made their television debut on the show; these include Ken Dodd, Hylda Baker, The King’s Singers, Rod Hull & Emu, Bernie Clifton, Lennie Bennett, Ray Alan & Lord Charles, Hinge & Bracket – the list is unending.

Sometimes, stars making their first visit have been rather taken aback by the cramped – to say the least – facilities backstage. Those used to star dressing rooms with private bathrooms and all the trimmings have been surprised to find that the most they get is a tiny room with a wash basin – which they inevitable share with someone else!

I remember that Eartha Kitt was a little upset, until I pointed out that she was occupying a dressing room once used by Charlie Chaplin. By coincidence, Chaplin was her idol.

Some of my biggest thrills have been taking the show to other countries. We have been to Scandinavia where it is extremely popular, and late in 1977, I was asked by my friends in the Belgian Television Service to produce a special edition in Flemish.

There was one great international star I had wanted, for many years, to feature on the show – Bing Crosby. For our Jubilee series, I finally got him to agree to appear – but it was never to be. I met him on what became his last European tour in the autumn of 1977. I had previously been in touch and he had expressed an interest in the show, but had never been able to fit in an appearance. When I talked to him in his dressing room at the London Palladium, he said that when he made his return visit to Britain in 1978 he would definitely appear. I was stunned, therefore, when I heard a couple of weeks later that he had died. It would have been one of the proudest moments of my career if he had lived to appear on The Good Old Days.

The Good Old Days - Notable Acts over the years. Top: Barry Cryer, Middle: Ken Dodd and Company, Bottom: Eartha Kitt with Leonard Sachs

The Good Old Days - notable acts over the years. Top: Barry Cryer, Middle: Ken Dodd and Company, Bottom: Eartha Kitt with Leonard Sachs. Credit BBC The Good Old Days

The City Varieties Theatre in Leeds is a historical building, over 200 years old, with proud reputations in both past and present. It may be small, but on those television evenings, when electrically powered ‘gas lamps’ are turned on and the audience settles down, the Chairman, Leonard Sachs, with his gavel and his gift of the gab opens the show, and there is little doubt that Dan Leno or Florrie Forde, or any of the old ‘greats’ would have been delighted to give of their best before an audience of Twentieth Century Edwardians.

All in all, over the past thirty years, I have combined the roles of a Music Hall Manager of old, and a Television Producer, booking the artists, selecting the material where necessary, and building a bill of fare to set before an audience, mostly born long after Music Hall passed into history. It has been my personal pleasure, over a period of thirty years, to try to recreate some of this history, and to give our audience at home, and in the theatre, the opportunity of revelling for a little time in the nostalgia of a bygone age.

Barney Colehan signed photo

Barney Colehan at The Varieties