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City Varieties poster from 1968 for Parisienne Scandals starring Jake Thackray

Jake Thackray, City Varieties and a burlesque artist

Now we’re agreed that we’re in love,
We’ll have to face the lah-di-dah.

A new book – Beware of the Bull – The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray – sheds amusing light on the part played by the City Varieties in the early career of Leeds-born Jake Thackray, one of the UK’s greatest and most original singer-songwriters.

Written by Paul Thompson, author of Beware of the Bull.

In the mid-1960s, Jake was working as an inspirational, creative, highly unorthodox young teacher in Bramley. He started writing hilarious, story-filled songs to amuse himself, his friends and his pupils, and it wasn’t long before the BBC in Leeds spotted his talent.

He was soon recording at Abbey Road studios, where he met and influenced The Beatles. He became a huge television star, performing classic songs such as Sister Josephine and Lah-Di-Dah every week on programmes including Braden’s Week and That’s Life!.

There were less happy experiences along the way, though, including when Jake performed at City Varieties in May 1968, shortly after turning professional.

Jake Thackray playing an acoustic guitar on stage

He was headlining in Parisienne Scandals, a variety show featuring comedy mime artist Roger L’Idiot, Vi Tye and Nina Shaw, the winner of an ITV talent contest.

However, it wasn’t quite the triumphant homecoming Jake might have hoped for.  The week-long run was a treadmill, with two shows a night, plus matinees on Tuesday and Saturday. Furthermore, whilst he was top of the bill, in reality, he knew that the audience was there to see Vi Tye, the legendary Leeds strip artist who, unlike him, performed in both halves of the show.

At this time The Varieties specialised in glamorously titled burlesque shows: Parisienne Scandals  was followed a week later by Pardon My Tassel, featuring ‘the greatest Tassel Dancer in the World, Miss Fluffles’!

City Varieties poster from 1968 for Parisienne Scandals starring Jake Thackray

City Varieties Music Hall poster from 1968 for Parisienne Scandals, credit Leeds Libraries

Jake’s spot was after Vi Tye’s, and his act was received in total silence: apparently the seedy-looking men sitting in the front row, with raincoats folded over their laps, threw coins at him, and not as a sign of appreciation!

Years later, Jake declared bluntly: “At the Varieties I was very, very bad because I didn’t know how to do it”. It was not the most auspicious beginning to his professional career, but he learnt much from the experience and, thankfully, there would be many happier moments in the years ahead.

Programme from the 1968 City Varieties show

Programme from Parisienne Scandals, 1968, credit West Yorkshire Archive Service

Although Jake may have ‘died’ at the City Varieties in 1968, his music has lived on, and it made a welcome return to the venue in 2005, when a musical based upon his songs, Sister Josephine Kicks the Habit, played to good audiences. It didn’t feature a strip artist, but did contain a burglar disguised as a nun. Whatever would Vi Tye have made of that?

Watch Jake Thackray in action with his song The Bull, and find out more about the book:

Beware of the Bull – The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray by Paul Thompson and John Watterson is available now from Scratching Shed Publishing and all good bookshops. 

Praise for Beware of the Bull:

‘A terrific and illuminating portrait…’
Neil Gaiman

‘A timely paean to a velvet larynxed, storytelling wonderman.’
Cerys Matthews

‘The labour and the love seep from every page…gather a book or two for Jake.’
Jon Richardson

Beware of the Bull - The Enigmatic Genius of Jake Thackray book cover