Welcome to the third and final part of our mini series exploring all things musical in Special Collections & Archives – just in time for Kent’s Summer Music Week! Today we’re stepping into the modern age with pantomime and stand-up comedy; what more could you want on this glorious Thursday?
Pantomime: celebrity, pop culture and the power of music in storytelling
Just as melodrama and popular Victorian entertainments use music in conjunction with other theatrical effects, so pantomime develops the use of music with visual storytelling even further. At Kent, our pantomime material can be found in the incredible David Drummond Pantomime Collection alongside lots of material in our previously mentioned Melville and Pettingell archives.
Pantomime’s links with music go all the way back to its origins in the 16th century ‘commedia dell’arte’ Italian entertainment with stock characters; when the stories initially began to appear on the British stage in the 18th century performances would have no speech at all – just music. (This was in part due to theatre licensing regulations restricting the use of speech in performances, overturned by the Theatres Act in 1843.) Fast forward to the 19th century and pantomime became an incredibly lavish affair for many theatres, particularly for London’s Drury Lane theatre which became known for its elaborate, expensive performances which lasted as long as five hours!
Music, of course, is one of the most consistently integral parts of the pantomime genre, from libretti (which you could often buy as a souvenir of the performance) to audience participation. Many songs used in pantomime are familiar to their audiences and often have lyrics rewritten for a particular show. Sometimes theatregoers are encouraged to sing along and participate, with the music helping to give pantomimes a very two-way performance between its stars and the audience.
Today, we generally associate pantomime with famous stars – but did you know this, too, has musical links? In the 19th century music hall stars began to join pantomime performances – partly to bring in new, younger audiences and partly to add some celebrity glamour to the show! This trend has continued through the 20th century and up to today, with debates about whether this ‘ruins’ pantomime ever-present.
The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive: the next evolution of music hall and challenges for archivists
We couldn’t finish a tour of all things musical without stopping in at the 20th/21st century wonder that is our British Stand-Up Comedy Archive (known as BSUCA for short because we all love an acronym). Created in 2015 and funded through the University’s Beacon projects to celebrate Kent’s 50th birthday, six years later BSUCA contains over 30 different collections and it’s still growing.
What’s particularly brilliant about BSUCA is that for an archive about what initially appears to be a fairly niche subject, it packs one heck of a research punch. Topics it covers include the history of performance, artists and venues, Thatcher’s Britain and the miner’s strike, protest, counter-culture, publishing, audience interaction, celebrity and much more. So – are you surprised that it’s also a great source for all things musical? You shouldn’t be!
Stand-up comedy as a genre has its roots in both popular performance and variety. Tony Allen’s stand-up comedy developed in part during his time with the Rough Theatre group, whose plays included rewritten gags from music hall shows. The Alternative Cabaret collective (which included Tony Allen, Alexei Sayle, Jim Barclay and Andy de la Tour) performed shows that lasted several hours and included musicians and comedians working together. The links between music hall and stand-up don’t end there: CAST New Variety, a left-wing theatre company founded by Roland and Claire Muldoon, was also responsible for helping to save the Hackney Empire music hall in late 1986 by using it for gigs.
When the 1980s Comic Strip group began performing, academic Olly Double notes that several publications compared their gigs as doing to comedy what punk did for the music world (2020, pp.32 – 33). This comparison is further strengthened by the fact that they released an LP:
All of this music inevitably leads us to questions about how we look after such material. Caring for music archives is a lot of fun but it can be tricky! Fortunately preserving most paper-based material such as song sheets and play scripts is a relatively straightforward process (acid free boxes + stable temperature and humidity = happy collections). However, audiovisual material (LPs, videos, CDs, cassette tapes) is generally incredibly sensitive to environmental changes not to mention the rapid development of technology that renders media obsolete relatively quickly. So for us, managing audiovisual material is one of our key priorities at the moment; it involves knowing what material we have and in which formats and then working to prioritise items most at risk. You can read more about how we transfer collections from audiovisual to digital here.
One thing is certain though: these days music is just a big a part of our culture as it’s ever been, whether we listen to the radio, stream music online, or enjoy it as part of live performance. And as long as it continues to be such a large influence on our lives, we’ll continue to collect material on how it’s used in popular culture!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-series about music in Special Collections & Archives; do visit our website for more information on the collections and if you have any queries please drop us a line (email@example.com).
Anderson, Gillian B. “Synchronized Music: The Influence of Pantomime on Moving Pictures.” Music and the Moving Image, vol. 8, no. 3, 2015, pp. 3–39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/musimoviimag.8.3.0003. Accessed 7 June 2021.
Mitchell, G. (2017). ‘Mod Movement in Quality Street Clothes’: British Popular Music and Pantomime, 1955–75. New Theatre Quarterly, 33(3), 254-276. doi:10.1017/S0266464X17000306
‘The Story of Pantomime’ at the V&A Museum: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-story-of-pantomime
Double, Oliver. Alternative Comedy : 1979 and the Reinvention of British Stand-Up, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kentuk/detail.action?docID=6120964.