Dodging the Turnips

Amateur night in a Glasgow music hall

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Britannia Panopticon 1999

Photographs by Wishart Frankfield (1999-2002)

Amateur night in a Glasgow music hall

“You’ve got to ‘ave a bit of fun you know, life’s all fun!”

I’m surprised I’ve never been knocked down by a car or a bus – my head is always in the clouds, visualising, daydreaming, thinking up plots for stories. However, I never imagined being run over by a tramcar! The last time I saw a tramcar on a Glasgow street was in 1962.

But this was only last week, and there I was, sauntering along the Trongate. Not an unpleasant day for once, cloudy but not too cold for March. I stopped to look at the window display at Michells Amusements, the arcade on the ground floor of the pale blue building once called the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall, (the building had other names before that).

The display showed old posters and press photos of Harry Lauder, Jack Buchanan and Stan Laurel. I was so engrossed with all the items on display, but then I noticed a strong tobacco smell emanating from the doorway of Mitchells, which was strange, as there were was a no smoking sign posted on the entrance.

Mitchells Amusements Trongate Glasgow

The window display changed and found myself standing in front of the entrance to the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall in all its former glory. The people walking past looked different, dressed in Edwardian clothes, some were untidy. I stepped back, stunned at the sudden change.

The wide pavement I had been standing on had disappeared and I now found myself standing in the middle of the road. I was startled by the shrill toot of the tramcar as it came trundling towards me. No attempt was made by the tram driver to stop. As I jumped out of the way, he shook his fist at me. I could see him clearly, because he was standing on the driver platform and there was no door or window to protect him from the elements. I was left in no doubt that I was in the wrong.

My head was spinning and as I stepped back onto the pavement, I thought I was going to faint. I put my hands out in front of me to cushion the fall and protect my face. But my hands grasped a wooden rail – and now I was inside the Panopticon. The smell of tobacco smoke was much stronger, along with the odour of damp clothes. I was on the balcony, looking down upon a lovely young fresh-faced girl who looked so helpless as I became aware of the noise from the audience.

“Get aff! Ma man can sing better when he’s drunk!”, a big woman shouted from the stalls.

Howls of laughter filled the tightly packed theatre, but the object of the big woman’s derision still gamely sang her song.

“If I were a bird on the wing and I could see heaven above…”, frightened by the hostile audience, her sweet voice was trembling in fear.

“Aye – if only. Ah think I’d rather hear the sparra than listen tae you!”

The big woman was on form. This was the only pleasure she had, coming here every Friday to the ‘pots and pans’, the Panopticon. It made her forget her problems she had at home.

The young lady on the stage seemed familiar to me, and I seemed to know that her name was Mary, and what would become of her.

Mary was only seventeen, with a sweet voice that soothed the troubled soul and enraptured all who would listen quietly to her own compositions. She was clearly an outstanding talent and had she been in the right setting, in the right theatre, the audience would have fell in love with her.

But this was the Panopticon, a garish theatre near Glasgow Cross. Very few genteel people visited this establishment on the Friday Amateur Night. The clientele consisted of poor, tough, working class adults, some working very hard to earn a pittance of a wage and living in squalor.

Outside, bright posters proclaimed “A E Pickard Proudly Presents Amateur Night Every Friday.” Other posters advertised his other entertainments. “End 1906 With a Visit to The World Famous Freak Show!” It was so popular that the eccentric Yorkshireman, Mr Pickard could charge double, 4d (4 old pennies).

Poor Mary stopped singing. She looked terrified as the baying audience, who by now had become a rabble, throwing rotting apples, tomatoes, small cabbages, and, deadliest of all, potatoes.

A local fruit and vegetable merchant had quickly capitalised on the Panopticon’s infamous heckling given to unpopular performers and sold sacks of rotting produce to the theatre goers as they entered the building. For a farthing, they could have enough ammunition to pelt at least three acts, if used sparingly. Mr Pickard, the theatre proprietor let this practise continue, as it was preferable to the Clyde shipbuilders in the audience throwing rivets, which had caused Mr Pickard to put up a wire mesh to protect the orchestra in front of the stage.

Mary covered her face with her hands as the fruit and vegetables rained down upon her. The final indignity came when a large pole was seen to come out left of stage. Attached to the pole was a large metal hook, which was large enough to fit around the victim’s waist. On seeing this familiar part of the proceedings, the audience gave a loud cheer, and stopped throwing missiles. The pole was operated by Mr Pickard himself, sitting on top of a wooden ladder at the side of the stage, unseen by the audience. With practised precision, he hooked the tearful young lady’s waist and gently pulled her towards him, stage left, much to the glee of the cruel rabble, their triumphant cries filling the small theatre.

Mr Pickard came down from the ladder and put his arm around Mary, gently taking her away to a small room that served as his office. He quickly summoned the next act to go on stage, a comedian.

The audience liked this comedian right away. Dressed in a clown’s baggy trousers and braces, but wearing no make-up, he fired off raunchy gags in quick succession, forcing the audience to listen carefully, lest they miss a funny line. The comedian pranced about the stage, swinging his baggy trousers suggestively as he made a raunchy punchline, the violinist in the orchestra pit decided to join in and played one note sliding up the fret quickly, each time this happened, adding to the effect. Every now and then, the comedian would kick a rotten apple or a potato off the stage and into the orchestra pit, much to the delight of the audience. They erupted in laughter as one of the orchestra members threw an apple back at the comedian just as he turned his back in the middle of a little comic dance – the apple bouncing off the comedian’s head.

Mr Pickard was very shrewd, and tried to select the acts in a certain order, avoiding putting two dubious acts on one after the other. He knew the comedian would be a safe bet. There was no point in getting the audience too worked up. In Mr Pickard’s office, Mary still sobbing uncontrollably, despite one of Mr Pickard’s assistants putting her arm around the poor soul to comfort her.

“This crowd is not for you dear,” the assistant said, “you picked the wrong stage to sing your songs, which I am sure are lovely. But don’t let that put you off. I am sure that some other places like church halls would love to hear you sing.”

But irreparable damage had been done, and Mary would never sing in public again. It had taken all the courage she could muster to step out onto that stage and face a tough audience. She had talent, but her beautiful voice and lovely lyrics had been snuffed out simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mary came from the tenements, just like everybody else, but in her heart she believed for a while that she could rise above all the squalor and misery and sing her songs of hope and love. She would end up being married to a brutal man of no ambition, bringing up children and living in the same damp tenement building for many years. Her dreams shattered, the only audience that would ever hear her sing would be her children, when she gently sang them a lullaby at bedtime, waiting in fear for her drunken husband to come home.

The young lady’s sorrow only added to the gloom within the building. The misery of the animals locked in cramped cages, the sadness of the unfortunate souls branded as freaks and laughed at by a paying crowd, just because of a genetic accident at birth. This gloom pervaded the building, etching into its very walls.

I was back on the pavement outside the Panopticon. At the entrance to the arcade, I saw the unmistakeable figure of Mr A E Pickard. He was dressed in his plus-fours and carrying a walking stick, nodding his head in approval at the sound of money being made and lost.

I was angry with Pickard. How could he allow such atrocities to happen in this building? Then I realised that it was a different era, times were hard. And if you were poor, you had to eke out a living somehow. The people who performed here chose to do so and no one understood or cared how the spirit of a wild animal was broken, having to live in a cage barely big enough for them to move.

To me, The Panopticon was such a miserable place which always gave me a feeling of dread every time I went inside. But things were different in 1906. Different values, a different way of life, and much harsher. Mr Pickard had created in the Panopticon, a monument to a time gone by, where many people failed to realise their dreams on that stage, but a few others survived and went on to become international stars, notably Stan Laurel, Harry Lauder and Jack Buchanan. Pickard turned and looked at me. He winked and uttered his favourite saying in his famous Yorkshire accent, “You’ve got to ‘ave a bit of fun you know, life’s all fun!”

With that, he walked east, towards Glasgow Cross and then slowly faded away.

I had to move too. I was standing in front of the amusement arcade again and was getting funny looks from passersby, because I was standing like an eejit, gawping in the direction of a man who was no longer there.

The gloom and despair of the Panopticon was still with me. I headed west towards the city centre. Usually when I have episodes like this, I am in need of a wee dram.

© Wishart Frankfield


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