We are very amused

The Royal Variety Performance is vulgar, brash and unbelievably naff. Fantastic, says Brian Viner. You've got to love a show that puts Jamie Cullum and Ronnie Corbett on the same bill - just ask the Queen

This evening, the London Coliseum hosts the 76th Royal Variety Performance. Last Wednesday, a phone call to the producer's office asking who the headline acts will be, drew the withering response: "At the Royal Variety Performance, they are all headline acts." OK, I said wearily, so who will the acts be? The answer was Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Cliff Richard, Ozzy Osbourne, Girls Aloud and Gwen Stefani, among others. An A-list bill, by any standards.

This evening, the London Coliseum hosts the 76th Royal Variety Performance. Last Wednesday, a phone call to the producer's office asking who the headline acts will be, drew the withering response: "At the Royal Variety Performance, they are all headline acts." OK, I said wearily, so who will the acts be? The answer was Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Cliff Richard, Ozzy Osbourne, Girls Aloud and Gwen Stefani, among others. An A-list bill, by any standards.

Last year, for its 75th anniversary, the show moved out of London, to the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. It took place in front of the Queen, Prince Philip, and, in row U, seat 21 of the stalls, me. Nobody I knew envied me the experience. Of all the people I told I was going, including my mother, not a single one responded with enthusiasm. "Oh dear" and "bad luck" and a laconic, unadorned "why?" were the standard responses, as if I had said I was being despatched to the Russian steppes to write a story about vivisectionists.

This disdain for the Royal Variety Performance, at least among the chattering classes, is a curious phenomenon. In some ways it represents a disdain for what and who we were, in the years when variety was king. How could we ever have been so uncool as to ooh and aah at a husband-and-wife knife-throwing act from one of the Baltic states? Still, at least there's nobody still around who can admit to applauding "Chirgwin, the White-Eyed Kaffir" in the inaugural show of 1912.

Meanwhile, of the three words in Royal Variety Performance, it is not only "variety" that is besmirched; "royal" gets modern hackles rising, too. At least there's no longer a "command" involved, but it's no wonder that some folk consider it to embody the reactionary forces of class and wealth-based privilege. Which is what John Lennon was getting at 41 years ago when he famously invited those in the cheaper seats to "clap your hands - and the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewellery..."

The Beatles shared a bill that evening with Pinky and Perky, who didn't mind being upstaged, and Marlene Dietrich, who did. The Queen, pregnant with Prince Edward, wasn't there, so the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret stood in. It was reported the next day that Princess Margaret, during the Beatles' four-song repertoire of "She Loves You", "From Me To You", "Til There Was You" and "Twist and Shout", "tapped her feet".

As for me, to attend one Royal Variety Performance might be regarded as unfortunate, to attend two looks like carelessness. But I make no apology. I had a great time last year, despite nodding off briefly during Cirque du Soleil. After all, there was not only the thrilling sight of The Osmonds, one of them with a walking-stick, singing "Crazy Horses", there was also real tension, notably during the on-stage royal walkabout at the end, when a desperately frail-looking Luciano Pavarotti had to be propped up between Dame Edna Everage and Gloria Estefan, and looked as though he might collapse with a tuneful thud before the Queen reached him.

Her Majesty, incidentally, attended her first Royal Variety Performance in 1945 (on the bill: Vera Lynn, Maurice Chevalier and The Crazy Gang). The old Jimmy Tarbuck joke is that only Max Bygraves has done more Royal Variety shows than the Queen - or maybe it's a Bygraves joke about Tarby. At any rate, Bygraves holds the all-comers' record of 19.

"I did my first in 1950," he once told me. "That year we had 140 people in the finale, and the idea was for Gracie Fields to have a bellnote, then she would start singing 'God Save the King' and everyone else would join in. But she hit the wrong key. It was disastrous. The orchestra were in one key, the Coldstream Guards in another, Gracie in another. I was standing next to her on stage, and she whispered to me out of the side of her mouth, 'I really buggered that up, didn't I?'"

The watching royals were probably richly amused. But how much they generally enjoy a show supposedly staged for their delectation has always been open to question. Not that it was even questionable in that first show back in 1912. When male impersonator Vesta Tilley stepped on stage in gentlemen's trousers - as her act rather demanded - Queen Mary thought the spectacle so immodest that she ostentatiously buried her face in her programme.

Applause was consequently muted, and the organisers mortified. But the royals kept coming, often with demonstrably limited enthusiasm. Still, the venerable show has raised millions for the Entertainment Artistes Benevolent Fund and its retirement home, Brinsworth House. Moreover, there have been 7,000 performers over the years - "14,000 if you include Ken Dodd's writers", according to another stalwart, Ronnie Corbett - and some iconic cultural moments, such as that Beatles performance, and of course astronomer Patrick Moore's extraordinary xylophone solo in 1981.

Backstage stories alone from the Royal Variety Performance could fill a book. "I remember one very curious year when I shared a dressing-room with Les Dawson and Buddy Rich," Ronnie Corbett told me recently. "It was curious because Buddy Rich had terrible toothache and a dentist was called from Harley Street. This dentist actually performed a procedure in the dressing-room, while at the same time Jack Parnell came in to pay due reverence to Buddy Rich. Very surreal. And then I went home accidentally with Les Dawson's dress shirt. My wife said, 'Where has this tent come from?' I suppose his wife thought he'd picked up someone else's handkerchief."

Showbiz convention, by the way, decrees that Corbett - who made his Royal Variety Performance debut in a Nureyev and Fonteyn spoof with Danny La Rue - always supplies his own size gags. Writers are often on hand to make late tweaks, but Corbett's size gags are sacrosanct. Last year he wore tartan trews, but was mindful that too much tartan makes him "look like a Thermos flask".

I'd heard him use that line before, but I laughed, and laughed again when he suggested that during the Queen's trip to Edinburgh, Alan Titchmarsh was doing a makeover on her Buckingham Palace garden - "not many people have three acres of decking" - while Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was indoors, replacing the thrones with beanbags.

The degree to which performers can poke gentle fun at the royals is another of the show's great imponderables. Occasionally, the Palace is consulted beforehand, although in matters of taste more than matters of satire. In 1975, producers were keen to feature an excerpt from the musical KwaZulu, but feared that the Queen might be offended. "The Queen has seen topless ladies before," came the solemn Palace verdict, and the performance went ahead.

But even if she appreciated that act, what of all the others? The question of whether or not she considers the evening a drag has now filtered into the show itself. "I was smiling and clapping even though I couldn't stand what was on stage," declared Dame Edna Everage towards the end of last year's performance. A sly glance up at the royal box. "We ladies have to fake it sometimes." Indeed.

The Royal Variety Performance takes place tonight at the London Coliseum, and will be screened on Wednesday BBC1 at 9pm

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