Show and don’t tell: Secrets of the Royal Variety Performance

Lady Gaga is among the big names who have performed at the Royal Variety show.
Lady Gaga is among the big names who have performed at the Royal Variety show.
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The Royal Variety Performance returns to our TV screens next week. But what, asks Chris Bond, is its enduring appeal 
and is it still relevant to modern audiences?

THERE’S a famous snippet from the 1963 Royal Variety Performance that has been replayed so many times you probably know it off by heart.

Before introducing his band’s rendition of Twist and Shout, John Lennon speaks into his microphone: “For our last number I’d like to ask for your help,” he says, smiling mischievously towards the cameras.

“For the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands... and the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.” Cue laughter and the Queen Mother smiling in the royal box, looking a little nonplussed by it all.

It was perhaps the moment when the Fab Four cemented themselves in the hearts of the Great British public, but it showed, too, that this annual showbusiness extravaganza had its finger on the nation’s pulse.

That year The Beatles shared the bill with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Harry Secombe and Pinky and Perky – an eclectic cast if ever there was one.

But then the Royal Variety Performance has always juggled (usually with success) slightly eccentric acts with the superstars of the day.

Since the first event was held back in 1912, in aid of the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund (now known as the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund), we’ve seen home-grown stars, Hollywood A-Listers and, more recently, Britain’s Got Talent winners, take to the stage.

There aren’t many concerts in which Robbie Williams and Alicia Keys share the bill with a dancing dog, but then the Royal Variety Performance is a show like no other, having produced more than a century of song, dance and comedy.

There have also been the occasional gaffes. In 2011, the Royal Variety Performance encountered so many technical problems that host Peter Kay joked the event had been “20 minutes of entertainment dragged out over two-and-a-half hours”.

For the most part, though, the concert has proved hugely popular and over the years it has attracted stars like Gracie Fields, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr, who wowed the audience during the first televised performance back in 1960.

Throughout the 60s and 70s the show was a big hit with viewers and in 1984 it was the most popular programme on TV. Even today it’s still going strong, with last year’s show pulling in more than 8 million viewers.

The show has faced criticism in recent years with some people saying it’s out of touch and questioning what they see as a tired format. But it’s still able to attract some of the biggest names in the business. In 2009, pop divas Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga were on the same bill, with the latter stealing the show when she sang Speechless on top of a swing while playing piano suspended high in the air.

This year’s line-up at the London Palladium is pretty impressive, too, featuring Dame Shirley Bassey, Bette Midler, One Direction and Ed Sheeran, among others.

Dr Dan Laughey, senior lecturer in media theory at Leeds Beckett University, says the Royal Variety Performance has remained true to its roots. “It comes from the long-standing music hall tradition and it taps into our sense of nostalgia for the good old days.”

He believes that this kind of mainstream, family entertainment is enjoying a revival right now. “I think through shows like Britain’s Got Talent we’ve seen a renewed interest in Variety, in the same way that Strictly Come Dancing has had a huge impact on ballroom dancing. It’s actually quite refreshing to see some of these traditional forms of entertainment being revived and the Royal Variety Performance shows that Variety is still very much alive.”

This year’s Royal Variety Performance is on ITV on Monday, December 8.