Comedy at St George’s Hall
‘An Irish boatman, full of fun, wit and anecdote’
An 1871 playbill was found during the recent refurbishment of St George’s Hall. It describes an evening of entertainment catering for Irish audiences with musical entertainment and laughter-provoking character...
'With Paddy O Flaherty, rare specimen of an Irish boatman, full of fun wit and anecdote, and Judy O Flaherty - true hearted Tipperary woman full of the wonders of England …that barbarous nation.'
The performance includes the popular ballads Come Back to Erin, Kate Kearney, Coming Through the Rye, Dublin Bay and finishes with a Rale Ould Irish Jig.
This document gives us an insight into the importance of humour and music in entertainment for the many hard- working Irish people who lived in, and helped to build, Bradford during the Victorian period.
Variety and Vaudeville
In the Edwardian era, St George’s Hall presented a wide range of entertainment. Although always a concert hall and never a music hall, this included Variety evenings with comic sketches and elements of Vaudeville.
At this time New Century Pictures, the pioneering film company based at the hall presented The Bohemians who performed their musical and humorous entertainment, An Atlantic Trip. The troupe of 9 in nautical costume played comical characters such as The Captain and Passenger, Miss Isa Miller.
In 1907 there was an evening of entertainment presented by the theatrical impresario Francis Laidler (who founded the Alhambra Theatre). The show included 18 often comic ‘turns’ such as the sketch Misery Jim presented by two pantomime performers, a musical piece entitled Millionaires and a humorous act called The Bandstand in the Park.
Comic Heroes of the Silver Screen
St George’s Hall was a cinema for over 20 years from 1926 -1949, and many of the films shown during that time were comedies.
Comic films with huge Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy were shown at the venue along with Ealing comedies and mad-cap romantic comedies such as Klondike Annie with Mae West.
In 1939 the George Formby film It’s in the Air was shown at the venue alongside an event to help recruit men to join the RAF.
Throughout World War 2 the programme of light-hearted, humorous films shown at St George’s Hall would have helped to boost the morale of Bradfordians during this period of extreme uncertainty.
‘How tickled I am’
Comedian Ken Dodd’s performances at both the Alhambra Theatre and St George’s Hall span 7 decades from 1955 to 2015.
After St George’s Hall re-opened as a concert hall in 1953, musical events took centre stage for several decades. In comparison, the nearby Alhambra Theatre hosted many of the great comedians of the time, such as Tommy Cooper, Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd, Norman Wisdom and of course the late, great Ken Dodd.
However, from the 1980s onwards Ken Dodd performed his show on an almost yearly basis at St George’s Hall. His performances were legendary for their popularity and length. And after keeping audiences in stitches for hours, Ken would usually travel back to his beloved home in Knotty Ash, Liverpool.
Ken is reported as saying 'It's where I've always lived. I just didn't get it when people said it sounded funny, but then I remember driving to Bradford and seeing signs for Heckmondwike, Shelf and Idle. You have your share of weird place names!'.
The New Wave
In the 1980s, amongst a programme of highly popular music events, St George’s Hall hosted a wide range of comedians.
Many of these, such as Bobby Davro, Les Dennis, Cannon and Ball, Russ Abbott, Jimmy Cricket and Michael Barrymore, had shows on TV. In 1984 after major refurbishment the hall reopened with the Grumbleweeds’ Christmas and New Year Show which ran for 4 weeks.
By the late 1980s however, new ‘alternative’ comedians were making appearances. These performers started their careers in venues like the Comedy Store in London or appeared on the TV show Saturday Night Live.
Seaside postcard-type humour was out, to be replaced by hard-hitting social commentary and off-the-wall, sometimes surreal, comic characters. Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Lenny Henry, Harry Enfield and Julian Clary filled the venue.
Comedy is the new Rock ’n’ Roll
In the 1990s as more bands start playing to vast crowds in huge arenas, comedy becomes the new rock ’n' roll at the venue, with sell out shows filling the auditorium.
Alternative comedy is now mainstream with a diverse range of new comedians appearing such as Lee Evans, Lily Savage, Jack Dee, Harry Hill, Eddie Izzard, and Frank Skinner.
Popular new double acts famed for their TV shows such as Reeves and Mortimer with Shooting Stars, Newman and Baddiel with The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Rick Mayall and Ade Edmondson with their Bottom, fill the venue.
And for the first time high-profile female stand-up comedians such as Jenny Éclair and Jo Brand perform.
Comedy takes Centre Stage
In the 21st century stand-up comedians draw huge crowds to fill theatres and arenas across the UK. Many well established and emerging artists perform sell out shows at St George’s Hall.
Big name comedians such as Bill Bailey, Tim Minchin, Russell Brand, Jimmy Carr, Al Murray appear. St George's Hall welcomed stars such as Billy Connolly and even the late great Joan Rivers graced the stage with her acerbic humour.
Many of these comedians performed at St George's Hall with multiple visits of the same tour. One of the most notable was the box office phenomenon Peter Kay with his show Mum Wants a Bungalow. This show, performed over 3 consecutive nights in March 2003, sold out in record time.
The Comedy Revolution Continues
In the 2010s live comedy continued to evolve and we saw an even wider diversity of comic artists performing.
Alongside comedians like Jason Manford, Michael McIntyre and John Bishop, the venue welcomed great performers such as Sarah Millican, Alan Carr, Omid Djalili, Stephen K Amos, Sandy Toksvig and Romesh Ranganathan who all played to packed houses.
A range of comic shows tailored to particular audiences such as Menopause the Musical, Mrs Kapoor’s Wedding, Grumpy Old Women, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Fascinating Aida were also hugely popular.
Live and Loud
In the 2020s, after major refurbishment and despite a pause caused by Covid 19, comedy continues to dominate the events diary at St George’s Hall. In times like these, comedy is more popular than ever.
Up and coming comedians continue to emerge on traditional formats such as TV, radio and in comedy clubs, but also on new forms of technology such as YouTube, streaming services, Podcasts and a variety of social media platforms.
This includes artists such as James Acaster and his Cold Lasagne Tour, YouTube comedy club sensation Paul Smith and the hilariously funny Katherine Ryan.
As the ways of enjoying comedy continue to diversify through new digital technology nothing can really beat the experience of live comedy in our fabulous Victorian venue.