The Good Old Days

1953 | United Kingdom

With a resounding barrage of garrulous and loquacious avidity, and a bang of his gavel for emphasis, master of ceremonies, Leonard Sachs, would herald an evening of entertainment awash with nostalgia starring some of the best known stars of the day as they recreated the magic and intimacy of the Edwardian music hall for BBC television. It was a formula that proved so successful that it ran for 30 years and in the process introduced around 2000 performers. 

It was Producer Barney Colehan, who in 1953, proposed outside broadcasts from the Leeds City Varieties Theatre. It wasn't a wholly original idea because the BBC were already transmitting a series called Music Hall which began in 1950. The idea was to send the cameras into an audience filled music hall show in the hope of picking up and relaying into people's homes the same sense of atmosphere of people having a night out. Music Hall was usually broadcast from the Scala in London's West End, and produced before an audience. One of the Music Hallprogrammes was staged in the Bourneville Hall, Birmingham, thus giving the Midland TV audience their first local relay of television variety; another from the Theatre Royal Leeds, opened TV programmes for the North. 

Leonard Sachs in The Good Old Days
Master of Ceremonies Leonard Sachs

Colehan's idea was to have a master of ceremonies who would compere proceedings and the show would include more audience participation, singing along to the popular music hall songs of yesteryear. Derek Guyler hosted the series which was called City Varieties. But that same year (20 July) it changed its title and got a new host: Don Gemmell, who after only three shows handed over to Leonard Sachs. Sachs was on familiar territory hosting The Good Old Days. In 1936 along with Peter Ridgeway he had acquired premises on the top floor of 43 Kings Street, Covent Garden and rapidly established the Players' Theatre Club. In 1937, they presented an evening of Music Hall entertainment. The show was an instant success. 

After the Second World War Sachs was asked to present a similar show at the Festival Gardens, for the Festival of Britain. So favourable was the response, that the great theatre chain of the time, Moss Empires, invited Sachs to undertake a long tour of all the major variety theatres in the United Kingdom. It was only natural that the BBC should be the next to make an approach. His impact on The Good Old Days was instantaneous and the show, which was originally scheduled for four outings, was then extended to thirteen, then twenty-six weekly editions. It remained a part of the BBC light entertainment for 30 years. 

Leeds Variety Theatre
Leeds City Varieties Theatre

Tickets to the show were free the only stipulation being that to sit in the audience you had to be in period costume. So women donned their shawls and bonnets and men their blazers and boaters - and often their smartest Edwardian military uniforms - and there was never a shortage of either. By 1975 there was a waiting list for tickets of 24,000 people. 

Those lucky enough to get tickets were treated to an atmosphere set within an authentic Edwardian theatre resplendent with plush drapes, galleried upper floor with boxes and were entertained by the likes of Danny La Rue, Tessie O'Shea, Roy Hudd, Ken Dodd, Arthur Askey, Roy Castle, Reg Varney, Bernard Cribbins, Frankie Vaughan and countless others, each dressed in similar garb to the people in the auditorium. The audience would laugh along at the jokes and sing along with the traditional music hall standards before being invited to close each show with an exuberant exaltation from the Chairman to join in the chorus from 'The Old Bull and Bush' featuring the whole cast, "but chiefly yourselves". 

The last show was broadcast on Sunday 2 October 1983, and two months later, on Friday 30 December the BBC broadcast a documentary Goodbye to the Good Old Days. There were still enough people waiting for tickets to keep the theatre full for another 5 years.

Published on December 19th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus (Reference: | The Television Annual for 1950/51 | The Television Annual for 1952 | Television The First Forty Years by Anthony Davis (1976)) for Television Heaven.