Old-time variety returns to Blackpool, with a new face

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The Independent Culture

But attempts to revive this once-proud tradition will culminate tonight in the opening of a National Theatre of Variety in its natural capital, Blackpool. The seaside town's elegant Grand Theatre, which has staged variety since it was built to the design of the Victorian theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1894, has been selected as the national theatre's home.

It will include a centre of excellence where new generations of variety performers will train and perform, an archive of the genre, which has roots in 18th and 19th-century "song taverns" and pub "harmonic rooms", an annual conference and variety festival.

The centre's creation is the culmination of five years' work by the Equity union, which established a task force to examine how to nurture and celebrate variety traditions, still manifest in street art, contemporary circus and stand-up comedy. The task force, including Jo Brand, Jimmy Cricket and Tony Robinson, found there was no venue to celebrate the "home-grown" art of variety.

The new archive provides a glimpse of some of variety's most famous acts, whose work became best known through programmes such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium and the BBC's The Good Old Days, which was broadcast for 30 years from the Leeds City Varieties Theatre until its demise in 1983. Many household names owe their careers to the latter, including Ken Dodd, Barbara Windsor, Roy Hudd, Jimmy Cricket, Les Dawson, and Leonard Sachs, who fronted it.

But Equity insists the new theatre will also capitalise on a new-found public appetite for the burlesque and a more edgy kind of variety show is drawing big audiences. Few of the new faces are more talked about than Nina Conti, daughter of Tom, the actor, with her acerbic monkey, who have taken ventriloquism to parts Keith Harris and Orville never reached.

Ms Conti is a favourite of Mat Whitley and Milly Sanders, whose Medium Rare company stages louche, rowdy and hugely popular variety nights in London. The A-list audience reportedly includes Sting and Trudi Styler, Liberty Ross and Gillian Anderson.

Other examples of the new vaudeville success on the nightclub scene include the burlesque Whoopee Club and Duckie, a variety experience described as a "post-gay" cabaret which blends burlesque, music, comedy and performance art, which has played from the Barbican and the new De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, an establishment built in 1935.

"Variety is alive and well," said Martin Brown, a spokesman for Equity. "It has changed enormously over the years, with performers breathing new life into old acts. The opening of the national museum is a dream come true for us but the last thing we want it to be is a museum of variety. It is something that will go with variety into the future."

The timing of the theatre's opening has a particular resonance in Blackpool, where 22,000 variety tickets a night were once sold at the height of the summer season. A hundred years ago today, the founding father of the town's variety traditions, William Henry Broadhead, established the Variety Artistes' Federation, which later became part of Equity. Broadhead, who also became mayor, converted a swimming baths into his first theatre and eventually ran 16.

Bernie Clifton, Syd Little and Frank Carson will launch the national theatre tonight.

Greats of the stage

* Lydia Thompson

Signed up by PT Barnum in 1867 and headed for New York with her burlesque troupe. They were a huge hit with their scantily clad performers but the US press turned on them, calling them "indecent".

* Bob Hope

British-born Hope started winning prizes by impersonating Charlie Chaplin, then got spotted by the comedian Fatty Arbuckle and got steady work with Hurley's Jolly Follies. Then Hope formed the Dancemedians with the Hilton Sisters - conjoined twins who had a tap-dancing routine.

* Max Wall

Best remembered for his ludicrously attired Professor Wallofski. Blacklisted by several music halls after leaving his wife for another woman but re-established himself through his Evening with Max Wall show.

* Jimmy Cricket

With his catchphrase, "And there's more", he worked as a Butlin's Redcoat before tuning his act in Northern variety clubs and making it to TV.

* Keith Harris and Orville

Started out playing a ventriloquist's dummy on his father's knee for £20 per weekend. Made it to TV between 1982 and 1990 and now doing well at Butlin-type shows.

* Nina Conti

Her sidekick is an edgy monkey with negative opinions of nature programmes and great impression of Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes. After just seven months of practising her ventriloquism, Conti won a BBC Talent New Comedy award in 2002.