By: Holly Spanner
Celebrating their 150th anniversary this year, the City Varieties in Leeds holds the record for the UK’s longest-running music hall. There were once more than 500 music halls in the UK, but now only a handful remain. Hidden away on Swan Street, a quaint, cobbled alleyway just off Briggate in the centre of the city, this Grade II listed building was built in 1865, boasting a preserved Victorian interior which has survived virtually unchanged over the years.
Originally called Thornton’s New Music Hall and Fashionable Lounge, the theatre was founded by local pub landlord Charles Thornton and followed on from a Singing Room above the White Swan Inn, which had been on the site since the 1700’s. Several name changes since, including White Swan Varieties, Stansfield’s Varieties, and City Palace of Varieties it is known today as the City Varieties.
Forming an important part of our nation’s heritage, the City Varieties was where the working people of Leeds went to be entertained. If you wanted to wear your top hat – its affluent sister theatre, The Grand, was the place to be.
In 1953 City Varieties became host to the BBC TV Series The Good Old Days – a variety show based on ‘old-time music hall’ and encouraged its audience to dress in Victorian garb – they duly obliged and it was a hit. The show welcomed a host of TV stars and launched the careers of many more. Les Dawson, Barbara Windsor, Bruce Forsyth, Eartha Kitt, John Inman and Barry Cryer are only a few of the big names starring in the TV programme that ran for 30 years until 1983.
Over the years, the City Varieties has been the much-loved home of artists and comedians, including Charlie Chaplain, Harry Houdini, Marie Lloyd, Frankie Vaughan, Lillie Langtry, Laurel & Hardy, as well as the likes of Michael Macintyre and John Bishop.
The line-up for 2015 proves that the theatre is showing no signs of slowing down, with a variety of acts including Simon Amstell, Stephen K Amos, Andy Parsons, Catherine Ryan, Lee Nelson, Alan Carr, Kate Rusby, G4and Tim Vine alongside alternative acts like One Man Breaking Bad and The Tiger Lillies.
Of course, you can still catch the show that put Leeds on the map; The Good Old Days runs across seven weekends a year and dressing up is still encouraged, though by no means compulsory!