Order at the Back! Club Entertainment across the Years
‘I say I say I say….. Did you hear the one about…….?’
Just the mention of social clubs for many people immediately brings to mind club concerts - the good, the funny and the downright bad. All club users have memories of concerts they have sat or talked through, even joined in, with some great memories quickly springing to mind. Even people who have never stepped foot inside a club (perhaps it’s about time they did!) have clear images about concerts, garnered from popular TV shows such as Phoenix Nights and Wheeltappers and Shunters Club. Clubland has provided the largest number of venues for live entertainment in this country and club entertainment has a strong and ongoing tradition. The history and development of club entertainment, then, is not solely about ‘having a laugh’ and a bit of light relief from the daily grind but is an important source of employment for thousands of entertainers, as we shall see.
A Bit of History (we are, after all, Club Historians!)
There has always been one form or another of live entertainment going right back to the very early working men’s clubs. The upper class patrons of the first clubs hoped that education would play a key role in member’s club hours as a useful addition to the ‘sober discourse’ and games such as billiards and dominoes. But the working men often wanted a spot of entertainment as well to brighten up their hard, often quite dull lives. Music halls were very popular in the second half of the 19th century, with some of the earliest beginning in side rooms of local pubs. Working people were used to this form of entertainment where they were encouraged to clearly express their appreciation or dislike of singers, comedians, jugglers, fire-eaters and the like. Audiences were not backwards in coming forward so to speak if the entertainers weren’t up to scratch and this practice extended into clubs as they began to include paid ‘artistes’ for weekend concerts.
Early concerts were likely, however, to be provided by members themselves with DIY amateur dramatics, including extracts of Shakespeare’s plays. This at least fulfilled to some extent the desire of the patrons to see something ‘uplifting’ going on in clubs. Anyone with a bit of talent for singing, telling a joke or two or doing any other sort of ‘turn’ was welcome to help entertain their fellow members. Thus began the ‘free and easy’ which remained a staple feature of club entertainment well into the 20th century and will still be found today.
By the end of the 19th century, professional concerts were very popular in working men’s clubs with some clubs building specific facilities such as stages for this aspect of club life. The club circuit had been born with artists keen to perform in different clubs and make a name for themselves.
Club Entertainment in the 20th Century
The mixture of professional entertainers and the free and easy persisted into the 20th century. Some local members were happy to play the piano or sing a song at their club, and often would be called upon to do so on an evening. Their reward might be a pint or two. Or just a hearty round of applause. There was a lot of talent amongst ordinary members which probably would have surprised many from higher up in society who viewed clubs (usually from the outside) in very limited and uninformed ways. Maybe during weekdays, a man turned a lathe repeatedly in the factory or dug out coal: but perhaps at the weekend he could sing his heart out or play piano like it was going out of style. Weekend concerts were a time when men were likely to take their wife and children along to the club making them more of a family event.
In their heyday in the early 1970s there were over 4,000 CIU affiliated clubs with more than 6 million members. Thousands of entertainers were employed up and down the country, some professional, some semi-professional. Additionally the ‘do-it-yourself’ entertainment remained popular with a desire for the talented club members to do their bit. Members liked the combination of seeing their own people perform as well as the glamour of paid artistes coming along. Clubs were spending large sums of money on refurbishments at this time, with plush concert halls which would usually be full to overflowing at the weekends. Club members would use their Associate and Pass cards to go to other clubs which staged big concerts.
The club Entertainment Secretary became a powerful person, with the power to hire groups, singers, comedians, fire-eaters and the like for the weekly concerts as well for other special events such as Gala Performances. A good Ent Sec understood the necessity for getting it right in terms of what members wanted to watch and their choices could make or break an evening’s takings. They were only human, however, and sometimes booked the wrong acts. The audiences were usually good at expressing their views if they didn’t like a performer who would be booed or just ignored. The Ent Sec might constantly call for ‘order at the back!’, or in my local club, switch the lights on and off, but if the artiste was ‘rubbish’, then the members would just carrying on talking. The performer probably wouldn’t make it to the second half of the concert, being paid off half way through!
There was quite a lot of money involved at this time and increasingly agents became involved in promoting acts. Some club entertainers believe that there was too much commercialism with too much money being made by people outside the club movement such as the booking agents. Some clubs held ‘shop windows’ on Sunday mornings when performers could play in front of club members but also Ent Secs from various clubs, in the hope of getting bookings.
According to a Geoff Jackson*, a Club Historians reader and himself a club entertainer, there was a ‘Federation’ entertainment agency in the North East during the early 1970s. This was set up by the clubs with support of the CIU with the aim of cutting out local entertainment agencies who charged a commission for their services. According to Geoff, it was an attempt to introduce a more socialist way of booking performers though it didn’t seem to last. Geoff seems to remember it was funded by the Coop Bank but if anyone reading this has any further information on this venture, then please get in touch! Geoff remembers that after the collapse of the Federation, he and other entertainers had to go back to the previous private enterprise agents who had opposed the Federation, cap in hand so to speak.
In my view, the Federation seemed to echo the self-help and mutuality principles of the CIU, with clubs working together and helping each other without having to give up some of their takings to outsiders. The clubs, we must remember, were non-profit institutions with any money made from the sales of drink and other services being put right back into the clubs. Paying private booking agencies meant that some of the club member’s money was being lost, in this sense. But clubs do not operate in a bubble and by bringing in professional acts, it was hard to avoid using the private, profit making agencies.
Many acts were fairly local, the entertainers holding down a day job: it was as a source of extra income and many built up large local followings. The clubs nurtured home grown talent without the need for reality TV programmes like the X Factor although Opportunity Knocks with Hughie Green was a popular destination for some club performers hopeful of making it into the big time in the 1960s. Some did get their TV break and even became internationally known figures. Gerry Dorsey (Engelbert Humperdinck) turned up one Sunday lunchtime at Spinney’s Hill working men’s club in Leicester and the audience of 200 people didn’t realise how famous he would go on to become. I have been told that some even booed him! But he became a household name in the 1970s. Other famous club performers include the comedian Jimmy Tarbuck and Mr Hips himself, Tom Jones. There was always the possibility of finding fame and success through the club circuit but this is now fading. Engelbert’s Sunday lunchtime audience of 200 would be a very welcome sight on a Saturday night now for many clubs who might see half a dozen people coming through their doors.
Many club entertainers seem to have it in their blood so to speak and are hardy souls. Ian Glenn**, for example, another Club Historians reader, was first employed as a drummer at a working Men's Club at the age of 14. For him, ‘the 70's and 80's were some of the best years that there were in clubland. I was privileged enough to play to Paul Shane (Hi De Hi), Keith Hallome, Mighty Atom & Roy, Lynne Perry (Ivy Tilsley from Coronation Street), Elizabeth Dawn (Vera Duckworth also from Corrie), and Mark Ritchie.’ In 1974 he had a motorbike accident and tragically lost his left arm, but that didn’t stop him playing. He continued to play the drums to acts, one handed, until 1995. He writes, ‘I found it a pleasure to work in the clubs of Castleford and surrounding areas.’ This shows not only commitment to his music but the sheer pleasure that club entertainment can provide not only to the audiences but also the performers.
Current Situation- This is not so funny!
We are well aware that many clubs are closing down nowadays and all they once offered might be lost. Various factors for the decline of clubs have been discussed elsewhere on this website. These closures mean a loss of venues for live entertainment which clubs once nurtured so well. If they are declining so rapidly, where are performers to go?
When struggling clubs look to make savings, the entertainment budget is often seen as an easy target. This might be false economy however, since without a few ‘turns’, there is even less to attract members to use their clubs let alone entice others to join. Only the few steadfast regulars will show up, come what may but clubs need more customers, and younger ones at that, to help them remain afloat. Some clubs have found some success in attracting a younger crowd by having groups play on various evenings. One example of a success story is the Albany Club in Earlsdon, Coventry, founded in 1899. They found that younger people would come in to listen to bands in the back rooms and they have made this a regular Friday night feature. (See the Club Journal Dec 2008, p.5) There are other forms of entertainment for older members. The famous Bethnal Green Club in East London is another. It regularly holds diverse events such as the Burlesque Night - I once went to on a Saturday night. In the other room, the usual club goers play bingo and do the usual activities. (See Club Journal Feb. 2009, p. 5)
Many club goers expect entertainment especially at the weekends, right across the generations. There seems little point in going out to sit gloomily in a room with only a few other people. It’s just not fun anymore, people complain, not like the old days when the concert rooms were full to overflowing. Maybe we won’t see those days again but there is still a place for good, live entertainment. Many clubs have underused concert rooms and other facilities which perhaps could once again bring in members, old and new. And maybe nurture new talent along the way. The era of large scale concerts may be over but there is still room and rooms for entertainment in clubs to suit changing trends and audiences.
* A note of thanks for Geoff Jackson for his club story. Geoff has around 40 years of involvement in ‘various musical ventures’ and started singing in social clubs in 1970. He felt that he wasn’t much good to begin with but by the 1980s, had become fairly competent at club performances. He writes, though, that ‘it was too late, the clubs were in decline and I had missed the boat.’
** Thanks as well go to Ian Glenn for sharing his experiences with us.
WE WELCOME MORE MEMORIES AND EXPERIENCES OF CLUBLAND ENTERTAINMENT!!!!
Dr Ruth Cherrington, February 2009
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