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The audience of The Good Old Days in costumes, in the boxes at City Varieties Music Hall.

Looking the part at The Good Old Days

As City Varieties Music Hall celebrates its 159th birthday, we’re looking back at a staple in the venue’s history; BBC’s The Good Old Days. Diving into the archives, we’re shining a light on one crucial element of the show that guaranteed the immersive experience that would become iconic across the globe – the costuming.

Written by Aaron Cawood

Playing dress up

“Dear Sir/Madam. Thank you very much for agreeing to come along to the above programme in old-time costume. People who want to be in the theatre audience should dress and look like Edwardians.”

From suggesting walrus moustaches for men to capes of fur, velvet or silk for women, this introductory letter penned by Producer Barney Colehan only goes to show that costuming for The Good Old Days was a serious affair. Audience members would rent appropriate attire, lest they sew their own or find true vintage pieces in the depths of their wardrobes.

In the following pages, sketches and suggestions were attached, with a strict warning to “not copy any of the designs exactly.” 

A letter providing costuming details to audience members of The Good Old Days, featuring an illustration of a group of Edwardian people.

Introductory letter given to audience members. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Illustrated costume sketches of Edwardian attire.

Suggested costumes given to audience members. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service.

As Barney wrote in 1981: “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.”

Audience members in a box at The Good Old Days, all in Edwardian dress.

A box at The Good Old Days. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service

The audience at The Good Old Days, all in Edwardian dress.

The audience at The Good Old Days. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service

Staff in the spotlight

Sketches for staff members of The Good Old Days showing black and white striped costumes.

'Theatre Staff' costume sketches by Brian Castle. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service

In a broadcast where so much of the venue was on display, it is perhaps no surprise that even the staff were subject to period-appropriate attire. In these sketches from 1989, we can see examples of costume designs for our Front of House team which include some of the same hallmarks as the suggestions given to patrons – large puff sleeves, tightly fitting bodices and lace trims, to name a few.

Designed by BAFTA-nominated costume designer Brian Castle, these pieces are only ever briefly visible in episodes of The Good Old Days, but provide a compelling thread in the tapestry of the ways The Good Old Days has been interwoven forever into the history of The Varieties.

The Good Old Days ran from 20 July 1953 to 31 December 1983 as a television show, amassing 30 series and a total of 245 episodes. The show would go on to run, untelevised, at The Varieties until its last performance in 2022. Though The Good Old Days no longer sees the venue filled with Edwardians of the modern day, there is no changing the ways that the show and it’s effervescent identity has shaped City Varieties Music Hall. As new audiences attend every day, in perhaps fewer bustles, to see the best of comedy, variety and screenings, we think back to the same experience that audiences had decades ago, arriving at The Varieties for the first time through the television, as Leonard Sachs welcomed them to a trip back in time.

Two images of a staff member behind the desk at The Good Old Days,

Pictured behind Leonard Sachs, a staff member in costume.

Into the 160th year

Take a moment to listen. If walls could talk, they’d tell you tales of Houdini’s mystifying performances, royal romances, a baby born during panto, and mischievous schoolchildren firing peashooters at striptease acts. The echoes of renditions of Down at the Old Bull and Bush, the laughter of Liverpool’s beloved comedian with his tickling stick, and Russell Crowe’s Indoor Garden Party linger in the air – all welcomed by generations of dedicated staff and volunteers.

What started as a one-off endeavor, The Story of Music Hall, turned into a cornerstone of local and national history. There is no end to stories we could tell about The Good Old Days – from Barbara Windsor to Eartha Kitt and beyond. As The Varieties continues to serve as a home to acts from every corner of the arts, we can only hope the venue will forever have stories to tell as good as this one; once, there was a music hall, a piano and an idea. The rest is history.

Read more about The Good Old Days in Barney Colehan’s words.


Stairs curving up from entrance of City Varieties