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History of the Royal Variety

The origins of the Royal Variety Performance date back to 1912, when His Majesty King George V, and Her Majesty Queen Mary, agreed to attend a 'Royal Command Performance' at the Palace Theatre in London's Cambridge Circus, in aid of the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund (the previous name of the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund) and its proposed plans to build an extension to its Home for elderly entertainers, Brinsworth House. This first staging was a lavish occasion, and the theatre was decorated with 3 million roses draped around the auditorium and over the boxes.

palace theatre old

The organisers did not invite Marie Lloyd, one of the most famous music hall artists of the time, partly due to a professional dispute and partly, it was said, due to her act being 'too risqué' for the times and too inappropriate to be performed before Royalty. Instead, she held a rival performance in a nearby theatre, which she bitterly advertised as "by command of the British public". Thereafter, the name of the event was changed to prevent any possible future Royal embarrassment.

28th July, 1919, saw the second Royal show and was the first to be billed a "Royal Variety Performance". Held at London's Coliseum, the show was staged as a 'celebration of peace' and, as the official announcement expressed it, "had been commanded by the King to show his appreciation of the generous manner in which artistes of the variety stage had helped the numerous funds connected with the War".

The Royal Variety became an annual event at the suggestion of His Majesty King George V from 1921, when he became Patron of the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund. His Majesty King George V decreed, after the show, that 'the Monarch, or a representative of the Monarch, would attend an annual performance in aid of Brinsworth House and the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund, once a year thereafter'.

 

The Alhambra Theatre in 1926 saw the first-ever Royal Variety Performance to be broadcast. It was, of course, on radio, and to overcome the potential awkward silences during visual acts, the BBC broadcasters would provide 'commentary' on the performances, rather like modern day sports commentators.


king george v
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V

1930 saw an ever increasing involvement by the BBC; apart from the simple broadcasting of the show, BBC broadcaster, Gillie Porter was a huge success on stage, and Jack Payne and his BBC Band closed the show. 1935 proved a very special year, coming in the Silver Jubilee Year of His Majesty King George V and Her Majesty Queen Mary. Despite the King's illness, excitement and expectation was ever greater than usual and applications for tickets were received from all over the world; an American millionaire offered £500 for two seats! In every respect the show formed a fitting climax and, sadly, an appropriate finale to the great support that His Majesty King George V had given to the variety profession, for the 1935 Royal Variety Performance sadly proved to be His Majesty King George V's last. The Sovereign who, to paraphrase Sir Oswald Stoll's words back in 1912, had invited 'the Cinderella of the arts to the ball', died a few months later, in January 1936, leaving the Royal Patronage of the Fund to live on in his heirs and successors.

 

 

After one year's gap, during the short reign of His Majetsy King  Edward VIII, the Royal Variety Performance came back with a flourish two years later in 1937. Once again at London's Palladium Theatre, but this time before His Majesty King George VI and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother), who watched their first Royal Variety Performance as Monarchs.


king george vi
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE VI

No-one could have foreseen the onslaught of War on the horizon, but the 1938 Royal Variety Performance, held at the London Coliseum for the first time in ten years, was to be the last until 1945. The finale of the show, involving around 250 artistes, was the biggest ever for the Royal Variety Performance and seemed an appropriate, if unintentional grand finale before the grim and desperate years ahead.

Royal Variety Performance 1947 The Royal Box

Above: The Royal Box in 1947. From left to right: Princess Margaret, Prince Philip, Princess Elizabeth, His Majesty King George VI and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

In 1951, the audience was in for a surprise this year when the Royal Party arrived, for along with Her Majesty The Queen and Princess Margaret were nurses Ruth Beswetherick and Doreen Pearce, who had been nursing His Majesty King George VI through his recent illness. His Majesty was too ill to attend the Victoria Palace but as Her Majesty the Queen told an enquiring Bud Flanagan: "He is going on very nicely, thank you." And when told how sorry everyone was that His Majesty couldn't attend, Her Majesty the Queen replied, " So is he, but he is listening in." Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne appropriately sang, "We're very sorry someone isn't here today and here's a special message that we'd like the band to play" followed by "Here's a health unto His Majesty."

In 1952, much was expected of the year's Royal Variety Performance and much attained, coming as it did as the first of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's reign. "This is the best show of all" was Her Majesty's verdict on the programme, which included a number of artistes making their Royal debut, among them the Beverley Sisters, singer Ian Wallace, and zany comedian Norman Wisdom. Tony Hancock was a particular hit with the Duke of Edinburgh in his sketch featuring a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy.

RVP 1952

Above: Her Majesty the Queen arriving at the London Palladium in 1952 for her first Royal Variety Performance as Queen


 Above: Bob Hope with Jane Russell at the Royal Variety Performance in 1954

1955 had two Royal Variety Performances, the first staged outside the capital for the very first time at the Opera House in Blackpool, and eatured many acts familiar to Blackpool audiences. Highlights included Reginald Dixon, Jimmy Jewel & Ben Warriss, George Formby, Arthur Askey and a couple of young comedians by the name of Morecambe & Wise.

The 1955 London audience, saw Benny Hill, Lena Horne and the Chinese Classical Theatre Company and the year also marked the arrival of Independent Television, who made a bid to televise the show. The bid was turned down by the Lord Chamberlain's office on the grounds that television might endanger variety theatres all over the country!

Perhaps it was just as well that 1955 had two Royal Variety Performances, for the 1956 one has gone down in history as the Royal Variety Performance that never was. All the performers and theatre staff were busy in rehearsals, when Val Parnell called a halt to make an announcement, 4 hours before curtain-up. He informed them that he had just heard from the Palace that the evening's Royal Variety Performance had been cancelled due to the mounting  Suez Canal crisis and that at that very moment British troops were landing in Port Said, Egypt. The Soviet Union was threatening to retaliate with rockets unless British and French forces accepted a ceasefire.  Her Majesty quite rightly felt it in-appropriate to attend. There was widespread disappointment amongst the cast. The Crazy Gang had specially put together a burlesque of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh  and John Mills were on the bill. Liberace broke down on the stage in tears, whilst Gracie Fields did what she could to comfort others in the cast as deeply affected, but it was the Cockney comedian Jimmy Wheeler who restored flagging spirits when he took out his violin and announced "I've rehearsed this bloody act for a fortnight so somebody's gonna hear it" and promptly went into his full routine, adding several gags that would never have found their way into the show proper!


Above: Her Majesty the Queen presented to Judy Garland in 1957

1958 marked the first of the long-running series of Delfont/Nesbit productions and began the partnership that year at the Coliseum with a large and impressive cast including Roy Castle, Max Bygraves, Tony Hancock, Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Norman Wisdom and Eartha Kitt.

The 1960 Royal Variety Performance was the first to be televised and will probably always be remembered as the Sammy Davis Junior's show. "In eight electrifying minutes", wrote the Daily Sketch, "this entertainer made the word 'star' seem inadequate".

 

 Above: The Crazy Gang at the Royal Variety Performance 1960

1963 was when Beatlemania hit the Royal Variety Performance. The Beatles attracted ecstatic fans outside the Prince of Wales theatre and through the Sunday rehearsals the noise of the throng could be heard by the artistes on stage. It was necessary to construct a screened passageway between the theatre and the hotel next door, where the Beatles were staying, in order to get them in and out of the theatre without being seen. The effect of the crowds obviously affected the other artistes on the bill and Marlene Dietrich made a point of always being in evidence when the photographers were around! During rehearsal Paul McCartney managed to get his guitar caught in the curtains, but on the night itself the Beatles took the show by storm and John Lennon passed into Royal Variety history when he made his celebrated suggestion that those in the cheap seats should clap their hands; the rest could just rattle their jewellery. You can watch their full performance by visiting 1963 in the Archive section of this website. Click Here.


The cast of the Royal Variety Performance 1963 await to be congratulated by Her Majesty the Queen Mother & Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret

1966 saw the entire English football team take to the stage after their World Cup triumph, and in 1967 Sandie Shaw will be remembered for changing from her stage outfit to meet Her Majesty the Queen, "A mini is fine on stage, but I am told it would be more elegant to be presented to the Queen in something a little more special!". 

1968 was hailed by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, a seasoned connoisseur of music hall and variety, as being one of the best ever. Diana Ross used the opportunity to make a moving tribute to black civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated earlier in the year.


Above: Royal Variety Performance in 1969. Her Majesty The Queen with Lord Bernie Delfont, presented to Ronnie Corbett, Cilla Black & Danny La Rue



Above: Poster advertising the 1971 Royal Variety Performance

1974 marked an important year for the show's beneficiary, when the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund (the VABF), changed its name to the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund, marking its help for a wider spectrum of show business. The year also marked another 'first' in the show's history, by having a female compere for the first time, Noele Gordon.

Above: the Royal Variety Performance 1974 with Santanna & Paper Lace

In 1976, after sixteen years of recorded television broadcasts, the Royal Variety Performance was broadcast live on television for the first time, and in 1977 a Royal Gala Performance was arranged to celebrate Her Majesty The Queen's Silver Jubilee. Lord Delfont and Lew Grade joined forces to present a truly spectacular trans-Atlantic bill with Bob Hope as compere.

In 1979, Lord Delfont handed over the organising and presentation of the Royal Variety Performance to Louis Benjamin, and the show was held at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, for the first time in its history.

1980 had particular significance, as it marked Her Majesty the Queen Mother's 80th birthday, and was devised as a salute to Her Majesty, by presenting a programme that spanned and reflected the very best in the field of light entertainment, from a nostalgic look back to the 1930's to the exciting tempo of the 1980's.

RVP 1980 LARRY HAGMAN, PEGGY LEE, BRUCE FORSYTHE, CLEO LAINE HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN MOTHER

Above: Her Majesty The Queen Mother presented to Larry Hagman, Mary Martin, Bruce Forsythe and Cleo Laine in 1980.

 

queen mother

HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH THE QUEEN MOTHER

1981 saw another innovation, stimulated by the need to counter the mounting costs of staging the Royal Variety Performance. For the first time, sponsorship was introduced to pare down, in the words of EABF General Secretary, Reg Swinson, "unavoidable ever-increasing production costs, as a prudent and acceptable alternative to increasing seat prices". Louis Benjamin call also be acknowledged as the initiator of increasing television fees, for the UK and abroad, brochure advertising and the introduction in 1981 of sponsorship.


Above: The Royal Variety Performance in 1984, with Her Majesty the Queen Mother, The Prince & Princess of Wales and Lord Delfont

 

1986 marked the first year that the BBC produced and presented the show, taking over from the helm of the EABF's, Louis Benjamin. From then on, broadcasting and production of the annual Royal Variety Performance alternated each year between the BBC and ITV, until 2010.

 


Above: His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales presented to the reformed Take That in 2006, and then again with Robbie Williams, in 2010

The Royal Variety Performance has been hosted  by many cities throughout the UK,  outside of London, including, Manchester in 1959, Birmingham in 1999, Edinburgh in 2003, Cardiff in 2005, Liverpool in 2007 and Blackpool in both 1959 and 2009.


Above: Her Majesty The Queen presented to Simon Cowell at the Royal Variety Performance 2007, in Liverpool.

Since 2008, the hugely successful ITV show, 'Britain's Got Talent', generously donates a large proportion of the money raised from viewer's telephone votes, to the Royal Variety's benficiary, the Entertainment Artistes' Benvolent Fund, each year. In return, the EABF, arranges that the series winner of the show is awarded a coverted spot on the annual Royal Variety Performance.


Above: Her Majesty the Queen presented to Lady Gaga at the Royal Variety Performance 2009, in Blackpool. In the background, members of Diversity - the 2009 series winners of Britain's Got Talent

In February 2011, the E.A.B.F. awarded ITV1 with exclusive broadcast and production rights for the Royal  Variety Performance for 10 years, until 2021; further strengthening the links with the broadcaster.

The year 2012, will mark the 100th anniversary of the Royal Variety Performance.

 

queen elizabeth

HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II

Please visit our huge Archive section to see year by year, the enormous amount of acts from around the globe, who have performed at the Royal Variety Performance and view the original show programmes. Click Here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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