My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall By John Major

The former PM eloquently ties the story of mass entertainment to his family history

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The Independent Culture

Well who'd have thought it? Mocked throughout his time in No 10 as ponderous and pedantic, Britain's most maligned Prime Minister has re-emerged as a fluent and lucid author.

In 2007 he wrote More Than a Game: The Story of Cricket's Early Years. Now he has followed that celebration of his favourite sport with a celebration of his favourite art form. John Major is renowned as the man who ran away from the circus to become an accountant, and that quip is partly true. His father, Thomas Ball, was an accomplished singer, sketch actor, acrobat and baton twirler – hence his military stage name. With his first wife Kitty he formed a double act called Drum & Major, but their stage wasn't the circus tent – it was the music hall. They performed alongside stars like Marie Lloyd and George Robey, and though they rarely topped the bill they soldiered on until 1928, when Kitty was struck by a steel girder that fell (ironically) from the safety curtain. She died a few months later. Tom Major married a dancer called Gwen Coates and retired from the stage in 1930. In 1943, his second wife became John Major's mum.

Major begins this book beside his father's deathbed. His deep affection for his parents inspires his finest writing, and throughout the rest of My Old Man you long for Tom Major to resume his rightful place at the centre of the stage. There are some tantalising snippets but sadly, the title of his son's book promises a bit more than it delivers. Tom was 64 when John was born, and the details of his early life are sketchy. Tom and Kitty's career is largely confined to a single chapter. This brief but fascinating profile is almost worth the admission price alone, but inevitably the rest feels somewhat impersonal by comparison. You long to learn more about John Major's half-brother, also a music-hall artiste. Tact and discretion, admirable virtues in a PM, aren't such an asset for a biographer.

Nevertheless, My Old Man is an entertaining and intriguing potted history, full of quirky details about this quintessentially English phenomenon. Major shows how the music halls mirrored our changing society, from the cosy Song & Supper rooms of the Victorian era to the palatial Variety theatres of the interwar years. Booze played a huge part. For many performers, alcoholism seems to have been virtually obligatory, and the tangled love lives of the biggest stars proves that celebrity gossip - and tabloid prurience - is nothing new. Prostitution was often rife, but not all music halls were places of ill repute. Britain's first bona fide hall, the Canterbury Arms, doubled as an art gallery, with pictures by Gainsborough and Hogarth.

My Old Man shows music-hall entertainers were a pretty conservative bunch. For all their lewd irreverence, they were monotonously patriotic. Major ignores the irony that the closest modern thing to music hall, alternative comedy, was fuelled by fierce contempt for Margaret Thatcher, but his passion for the halls is infectious. Music hall may have vanished, but in countless comedy clubs around the country, its bawdy spirit lives on.