Former British PM John Major on his family's Victorian music hall past

First aired on The Sunday Edition (30/09/12)

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The British music hall was a mainstay in Victorian England. Smoky auditoriums were jammed with boisterous audiences every night. It was a world that was sentimental and vulgar, a place where working-class performers could become rich and famous, and where women worked alongside men and led licentious and unconventional lives, and where characters like "Little Titch" and "The Great Farini" flourished. All of this is the subject of a new book by former British prime minister John Major, who has a strong personal connection to that historic entertainment scene. My Old Man: A Personal History of the British Music Hall begins with the story of Major's own parents -- his father was a song and dance man who played the music hall circuit.

His father was already elderly when Major was born, and Major recalls sitting next to his 70-year-old father's bedside and listening to his stories of the old days in the Music Hall. Major's father was English, but was brought up in the United States, where he began his career as a trapeze artist. When he was suspected to have a heart murmur, he returned to Britain. Major isn't sure exactly how his father began his music hall career. "I was too young to know or think about asking him while he was alive," he admitted in a recent interview on The Sunday Edition. What is know is that Major's dad did become a music hall artist. "He joined up with a lady named Kitty and they worked together for the better part of 30 years, married, and eventually formed their own show that toured the U.K. and America," he said.

At first they were know as Drum and Major and their act involved a lot of acrobatics. But they soon moved away from that and became known as Tom and Kitty Major. Their act came to an abrupt end when Kitty died tragically after a terrible accident on stage. "The safety curtain fell and hit her on the head while she was rehearsing," said Major. "She lingered for a few days, but she died. In many ways, that took the heart out of my father for continuing in music hall, although it may also be the case that music hall was coming to the end of its natural life."

Major's mother, Gwen, was also a part of Tom and Kitty's act, and when Kitty was dying, she asked Gwen to take care of Tom after she was gone. She did, and the couple married and conceived a future prime minister...who would also go on to record their music hall legacy.

But Major's book is more than a personal family history: he also talks about the history of music hall (which was essentially the British predecessor to the American vaudeville circuit), and relates several eye-opening anecdotes, including a sad one about a woman named Lottie Collins, who literally danced herself to death. "Lottie Collins had one song that was part song and part dance -- it was called Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay - -- and it was a sort of can-can. She had a slightly bad heart, but night after night she would dance this extremely strenuous dance," said Major. "She would have encores demanded, and she would honour the encores. She would then move on to the next theatre and do it again at several theatres a night, and eventually her health just broke up with the strain."

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