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As Time Goes By: When Peanuts Came In Shells

Eileen Perrin remembers glorious nights at the music hall and the early days of radio.

To read earlier chapters of Eileen’s enchantingly detailed autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/as_time_goes_by/

“Now is the time for dancing” - the bright notes of Henry Hall’s dance band filled our ears once more as Vera and I put away our dolls and set the ‘medicine’ aside from our game of hospitals. We had made cups of liquorice water which we’d been stirring for ages, kneeling on the rag-rug near the red glowing window of the paraffin stove, while sucking on our aniseed balls, which we took out of our mouths at intervals to check if the colour had changed.

“Come up to the table now.” Auntie Alice put a cushion on my chair to make me higher, and we ate our pilchard in tomato sauce with bread and butter, drank our sweet milky tea and finished off with a slice of Golden syrup.
By which time, we heard a well-known voice, coming from the fret-saw front of their mahogany helmet-shaped wireless set.

“This is Henry Hall speaking. Thank you for listening and ‘Here’s to the next time’” - and the band struck up his well-known signature tune.

Going home in the dark on the bus from Crouch Hill with Mum, I always had a feeling of being in a trance as the lights of shops slid by, passing under the glare of sodium street lamps, until I had to rouse myself to get off at Southgate Road.

We lived in Islington until I was fourteen, and from being a small child, was taken to the pictures by Mum. As both my parents liked entertainment, I was lucky to be taken out in the evenings from my earliest years to the music hall. We went to the Alexandra Theatre in Kingsland Road, the Hackney Empire and once or twice to Collins Music Hall on Islington Green. As in the cinema, at the end of the performance when we made our way out of the row of seats, our feet would crunch over carpets of peanut shells. They were a favourite snack of the masses, long before popcorn, and went on being so until Smiths Crisps came in during the 1930s. The bags of potato crisps would come with a little packet of salt in the corner, screwed up in a bit of blue paper.

I count myself lucky to have seen legendary music-hall stars. Among so many I remember Florrie Ford singing a Gertie Millar song Three Pots a Shilling, which I often heard my grandmother singing as she watered the geraniums on her windowsill. There were the Houston sisters Billie and Renee, the debonair whistler Albert Chevalier, coming on stage with his black opera cloak flung back, his cane under one arm, as he took off his canary-coloured gloves while he whistled his signature tune, andRawicz and Landauer at two pianos.

I didn’t care for ‘those cads’ the Western Brothers, but was always moved by Harry Welchman’s Desert Song, which he sang as he stood in the limelight, against a back-ground of Egyptian pyramids and sand.

Disguised as the Red Shadow he was dressed in jodhpurs, riding boots and spurs, an Arab burnous on his head, a riding crop hanging from his wrist.

He sang ‘Lonely as a desert breeze I can wander where I please...’
Then as the applause rang out, he would take off his burnous to become the Englishman once more.
His song One Alone was often sung by my romantic Mum as she did the ironing.

Another popular music hall star was Nellie Wallace. She would stagger backwards from the wings on to the stage, saying ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.’

Dressed in big button boots, a coarse sacking apron, a small black straw hat stuck with huge hatpins, perched lop-sided on top of her tousled hair, and holding a birdcage in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, she looked right and left.

Then there followed the song that everyone knew.

My Old Man said follow the van
Don’t dilly-dally on the way
Off went the van with me home packed in it
I followed on with me old cock linnet
But I dillied and dallied, dallied and dillied,
Lost me way and don’t know where to roam
Now you can’t trust the specials like the old-time coppers
When you can’t find your way home.

Well, Dad finally agreed we could have a wireless set, which pleased Mum who liked to sing as she did the housework.

I can just about remember the Scots comedian who broadcast regularly in the early days. That was Sandy Powell with his ‘Can you hear me mother ?’ I didn’t care for him.

But I do remember dear old Henry Hall playing us off the air while Al Bowly sang ‘Here’s to the Next Time and a merry meeting’.


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