King’s and Usher Hall look to past

Greg McHugh as Gary: Tank Commender. Picture: BBC
Greg McHugh as Gary: Tank Commender. Picture: BBC
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IF video killed the radio star, as The Buggles once put it, then it was the flickering images of cinema that sounded the death knell for the variety show - television hammered the final nail into the coffin years later.

For decades, the city’s music halls and variety theatres attracted huge crowds in numbers today’s producers can now only dream of, and all thanks to the draw of shows such as The Half Past Eight.

Introduced to The King’s in 1934, in the years that followed it would help make stars of the likes of Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton and Jimmy Logan.

And The King’s wasn’t the only theatre offering such fare. Before the Half Past Eight became the hottest ticket in town, the Empire Palace of Varieties, on the site of today’s Festival Theatre, boasted its attraction in its name.

Similarly the Palladium, at Fountainbridge, was another popular music hall.

These days, variety shows are few and far between, although this week, the Capital bucks the trend with not one, but two.

Opening tonight, at the King’s Theatre, Allan Stewart’s Big Big Variety Show features Andy Gray, Grant Stott, ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, rock ’n’ rollers The Tootsie Rollers, and 2012 Evening News Edinburgh Has Talent guest, Edward Reid.

On Friday, at the Usher Hall, the spotlight is very much on mirth as The Gilded Comedy Gala brings some of the top names in comedy together in a star-studded bill to celebrate the venue’s 100th birthday.

They include the Capital’s own Greg McHugh, making a rare appearance in character as Gary Tank Commander; Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ Phill Jupitus and stand-up comedians Dylan Moran, Rich Hall and veteran Barry Cryer. With music from local band Withered Hand, Arthur Smith hosts.

Both shows should prove popular - after all, it’s not that our love of variety has diminished, it’s just that we’re more likely to turn on the TV for our weekly fix now.

Blame Britain’s Got Talent for that. Like Opportunity Knocks and New Faces before it, BGT is basically a televised variety show.

One man who knows that better than most is Edward Reid. He made the semi-finals of 2011 series, famously wowing the audience and judges with his Nursery Rhyme Song.

As with the music hall stars of the past, who frequently had their own signature tunes (Arthur Askey’s The Bee Song, for example), Reid’s hilariously dramatic medley of Old MacDonald, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Jack and Jill, and If You’re Happy And You Know It, has become a staple.

“I will be doing the full version of The Nursery Rhyme Song,” he confirms.

“Allan Stewart asked me what I wanted to do. I was having a field day to myself, thinking of all the things I could do... but then I thought, if I don’t sing The Nursery Rhyme Song people will just ask why. That happens all the time. So I’m going to do that because I only have a short time on stage.

“But I don’t mind. I’ve been performing it for more than three years now, and still haven’t got bored singing it. I always think, ‘There could be somebody in the audience who has never heard it before’.”

Revealing the origins of his overly-flamboyant delivery, which won him a standing ovation on Britain’s Got Talent, he laughs, “It came from imagining that when I sang, I was like Whitney Houston or Shirley Bassey, when actually I wasn’t.

“That all came about because the social clubs I started off in weren’t always the nicest of places. So, in my head, I was in Las Vegas, there was a spotlight on me, and I was dressed like Liberace.”

Reid will finish his turn by giving the audience a singing lesson - it could almost be an edition of The Good Old Days.

“Edinburgh audiences are great. They always jump on board with whatever I decide to do,” he says. “I will be teaching them Doe A Dear, from The Sound of Music, and I want everyone to leave their inhibitions at the door.”

Variety, says Reid, is the perfect vehicle for what he does.

“I love musical theatre, but I have the attention span of a child sometimes, so I do like variety. I like that fact that it constantly chops and changes. You don’t know what’s coming next - one minute somebody’s singing and the next there’s a bit of comedy or a bit of dance. Variety shows were made for me.”

For many attending the Gilded Comedy Gala at the Usher Hall, on Friday, the highlight of the evening will be the appearance of Greg McHugh as Gary Tank Commander - another comic turn that could have easily appeared in the Half Past Eight Shows of yesteryear.

The former St Thomas of Aquin’s pupil first unleashed the camp, well-meaning but naive Sergeant Gary McLintock on Channel 4 audiences in 2006, before further developing the character at The Stand Comedy Club, and winning his own BBC comedy show, which ran for three years.

McHugh, who was born and brought up in Morningside and is today best known as Howard in the highly successful Channel 4 comedy Fresh Meat, says: “I am very excited at the prospect of getting to play the Usher Hall.”

As Gary himself might say, “Having performed to rooms of only a few people in Edinburgh festivals past, Gary has finally found where he belongs . . . The Ushered Halls! Brulliant!” he adds.

• Allan Stewart’s Big Big Variety Show, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, tonight-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinee 2.30pm), £22-£25, 0131-529 6000

• A Gilded Comedy Gala, Usher Hall, Lothian Road, Friday, 7pm, £22-£49.50, 0131-228 1155