Minor work wastes good Major material
Though he writes about his parents with tremendous love and tenderness, Major mostly attempts to normalise the raffishness and sheer oddness of his background, and avoids his father’s evident eye for the ladies, opting instead to use his life as a springboard to tell the story of the rise and fall of British music hall.
The My Old Man of the title refers to a famous music-hall song as well as to his dad, and it is the halls rather than the family that is the focus of the book.
This is a pity. I would far rather learn more about this amazing family and their good and bad times, seen through the eyes of a little boy who would one day grow up to be a prime minister, than read yet another history of the halls full of stuff already on public record.
And, alas, much of My Old Man is written in a print version of that dull, strangulated drone. Music hall was never boring, surely, but John Major sometimes makes it seem so. He correctly identifies the basic appeal of such entertainment – a strong identification by a poor, working-class audience with performers drawn from their ranks, who spoke to and for them about the daily concerns of life. As the heyday of the halls is now beyond the reach of living memory, he can only fall back on the familiar reference material upon which all theatre historians draw. Roy Hudd, for example, has already covered most aspects of music hall and variety in a series of warm and entertaining books.
For the novice, though, Major provides brief lives of most of the big stars of the era, some basic social commentary and plenty of startling anecdotes of triumph, degradation and excess. Factual mistakes are rare (though it should be pointed out that it was Herman’s Hermits, not Manfred Mann, who had a hit with Harry Champion’s old song I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am in the 1960s).
But while the general subject of music hall may now belong to history, in one significant way its shadow lives on, and in a form unimaginable to those who were around at the time. Some of the stars were filmed, elderly but still brimming with zest, and these clips are now freely available.
So if you want to learn about the charm and fun of music hall, you don’t need to read any book; just go to YouTube, and there, among many others, you’ll find the great male impersonator Ella Shields crooning Adeline, the comedian Lily Morris plaintively wondering Why Am I Always the Bridesmaid? (make sure you stick with Lily for her dance at the end), Little Tich doing his big-boots routine, and – the essence of music hall – the irresistible sand dancers Wilson, Keppel and Betty.