OBITUARY : Margery Manners

Denis Gifford
Wednesday 30 April 1997 23:02

If Sophie Tucker was dubbed "The Last of the Red Hot Mammas", then surely Margery Manners should have been called "The Last of the Cool Curvaceous Chorusers". She strode the stages of the last British variety theatres belting out the song hits of yesteryear as if she still lived in the days when it was a long way to Tipperary. Never top of the bill even in her heyday, she was nevertheless much loved by those who belong to such groups as the British Music Hall Society, for whom she sang until quite recently, and by the comedian Roy Hudd, a variety aficionado, who booked her for many of his nostalgic recreations.

Manners was born in Coventry in 1926, and, like many of the music-hall stars she came to emulate, began appearing in public as a child, aged eight, singing popular songs of the day in the working men's clubs of Birmingham. Four years later the 12-year-old turned professional and joined that popular show band of the Thirties, Billy Merrin and his Commanders, for their seaside summer season at Ramsgate. Returning home she became a solo artiste for the first time, singing in cine-variety on a tour of the Paramount cinemas, beginning in Birmingham.

She had yet to find her forte as a chorus singer in the traditional style, something which would come with the Second World War. Meanwhile, at the age of 14, she turned cowgirl crooner and joined the famous radio series then touring the halls, Big Bill Campbell and his Rocky Mountain Rhythm.

As the war deepened, the silver-haired ranch boss from Canada and his hill-billy band enlisted in Ensa. His large show was divided into two units, and toured service stations everywhere from Orkney to Iceland. Manners sang aboard every kind of naval vessel, from the decks of battleships to aircraft carriers, before illness through overwork caused her to return to civilian life after serving 15 months hard singing. She was thrilled to receive a letter of commendation for services rendered, signed by the twin heads of Ensa, the producer Basil Dean and the actor Sir Seymour Hicks.

Manners turned to radio broadcasting and, with her experience of getting sailors to sing along with her choruses, became a great hit with the factory audiences of the lunchtime BBC series Workers' Playtime. More and more she incorporated yesterday's favourites into her act, and soon rivalled that other queen of the chorus songs, Bertha Wilmot. But there was plenty of room for both in those bombed and blacked-out days when a singsong in the shelter was just the thing to drown the sound of the blitz.

Her links with the music hall grew even stronger when she became almost a fixture on the BBC's old-time music-hall series, Palace of Varieties. What listeners did not suspect, however, was revealed when they saw Manners on stage: she played both the guitar and the accordion.

Christmas pantomimes could hardly pass such a singer by, and from the age of 16 she became a regular principal boy, starting with a splendidly thigh- slapping Prince Charming in the production of Cinderella that toured the Stoll and Moss circuit. From 1946 she joined the annual pantomime productions presented by Francis Laidler. In the Fifties the link between Manners and music hall was finally forged to perfection: she played none other than the mistress of chorus singing herself, Florrie Forde, in a television production called The Passing Show. Later she appeared frequently on The Good Old Days, televised from the City Varieties Theatre in Leeds.

Despite never attaining true top-of-the-bill status, Margery Manners was always popular with audiences both at home and abroad, and from the Sixties to the Seventies she starred in the theatres of South Africa with great success. In 1968 she appeared in her only film, Mrs Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter. While Herman's Hermits sang the latest hits of the day, Manners sang "My Old Man's a Dustman".

From 1969 she toured the last remaining variety theatres in a nostalgic bill called The Golden Years of Music Hall. She sang her chorus songs between such veterans as Bob and Alf Pearson ("My Brother And I"), Nat ("Rubberneck") Jackley, and Sandy ("Can You Hear Me Mother") Powell. In 1975 Roy Hudd brought her out of retirement to star in a special Sunday-night show at the London Palladium, and 14 years later she sang once more for Hudd in the special video show On Stage Please, recorded at the Hackney Empire, in east London. For the last time she strode the stage as Florrie Forde - singing her famous "Flanagan, Take Me to the Isle of Man Again" - and they all joined in the chorus.

Margery Manners, singer and dancer: born Coventry 18 March 1926; married; died London 27 April 1997.

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