Folies Bergere and Lord Bernard Delfont 1949

I have been looking again at Lord Bernard Delfont’s autobiography called ” East End, West End”. There is a fascinating story about the time he presented the “Folies Bergere” Show at the Birmingham Hippodrome on a pre-London try-out. It also illustrates the problems that producers sometimes had getting the shows passed as suitable by the Birmingham Watch Committee.

This Committee, which in the days of theatre censorship was not only responsible for the Police but also the maintenance of public morals, was notorious for its strictness. Indeed, in the mid-1930s, comedian Max Miller had fallen foul of the Committee when he appeared at the Empire Theatre on Smallbrook Street/Hurst Street. Representatives of the Committee would attend the first house on a Monday night (or even the Monday morning band-call rehearsal) to ensure that the script kept within the bounds of decency.

Max, of course, was well aware of the situation and he would tone down his jokes for that performance, reverting to his stronger material thereafter. The Committee were equally aware of his ploy and made an impromptu second visit to his performance later in the week. By this time he was earning £1,000 a week and the Committee fined him his week’s wages at the Empire for not sticking the agreed script. He vowed he would never play Birmingham again but of course he did!

Bernard Delfont wanted to bring the Parisienne “Folies Bergere” to Britain. For a number of years before WW2, a watered-down British version had toured the country – it had first been staged at the Hippodrome in the week of 15 February, 1926, when it included “16 Folies Bergere Girls and the Palladium Beauty Chorus”.

To stage a more authentic show presented Delfont with a number of obstacles, especially in the person of Paul Derval, “a temperamental Frenchman, the begetter of the modern Folies, who watched over his creation with the possessiveness of a mother hen”. He also needed a large London theatre in which to stage the new show and Delfont tried to persuade Val Parnell, the boss of Moss’ Empires, to support him. Val was very reluctant and told Bernard in strong terms how he felt about the project. However, Val finally agreed to take a look at the try-out show at the Birmingham Hippodrome, which opened on 21 March, 1949 and ran for three weeks.

There were the usual panics. Scenery and costumes were held up at Portsmouth because of a dock strike and, when the crates were opened, much of their contents were in poor condition. At the last minute, many of the costumes had to be re-made. However, there had been a good response to the auditions, when over 2,000 girls turned up for 100 jobs. The Lord Chamberlain, the ultimate theatre censor, had to ensure that in the show none of these girls would move and Delfont had to strike a tricky balance between scenes featuring nudes and those where the participants were fully clothed.

When rehearsals began at the Hippodrome, the Watch Committee- all men- were invited to oversee proceedings. Bernard continues the story: –

“(They) seemed to enjoy the rehearsals – they stayed long enough, anyway. But one after another took me aside to confess their great worry, that come first night, one of the girls would actually move. ‘It doesn’t have to be deliberate, you know, Mr Delfont’, warned the Chairman, ‘It only takes one little mistake and we’re in trouble’.”

On opening night on 21 March, the Hippodrome had its share of VIPs. “There was the entire Birmingham Watch Committee occupying the box with the best view of the stage… (and) there was Val Parnell pacing back and forth at the rear of the stalls, barking off questions whenever he caught sight of me”.

“All things considered, the show went off well; a few rough edges but no one had yet produced a fault-less out-of-town run. The audience was friendly. At the interval, the bars were humming with good humour. Sadly, the euphoric mood did not extend to Val Parnell. ‘It’s not right’ he told me, it won’t do’.

Nevertheless, eventually Val came around, especially after Bernard Delfont had told him that “we’ve made lots of improvements. Birmingham was just a try-out. We’ve new costumes, scenery, the lot. It’ll be a first-class show”.

Finally, the Folies opened at the London Hippodrome to great reviews and ran for 17 months. Some of its success was probably due to the addition to the London version of two new comedians – Tommy Cooper and Michael Bentine!

The Archives have a copy of the Programme for the Birmingham Hippodrome show.

An interesting story that brings to life a past show at the Hippodrome, as well as providing an insight into how local censorship of the theatre worked at that time. it had been introduced in the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 and was not abolished until the Theatres Act of 1968. One of the first shows to take advantage of the new freedoms was the musical “Hair” – but that’s another story!

Bernard Delfont spent 14 years touring the Variety theatres before becoming a theatrical agent in 1937. He had been born Boris in Russia in 1910 and at the age of three, the Winogradsky family had moved to the East End of London. He had two famous brothers – Louis, who changed his name to Lew Grade, and Leslie, who had been born in England and became Leslie Grade, father of Michael Grade. They all ended up as very successful theatrical agents and impresarios and between them dominated British show business from the 1950s until their deaths.

Bernard started out as a dancer as part of “Grade and Sutton” (the latter being Albert Sutan, who became comedian Hal Monty after the act spilt up). Lew was a Champion Charleston dancer and was part of an act called “Grade and Gold”. To avoid confusion, Grade and Sutton changed their names to the Delfont Boys, billed as “eccentric dancers”.

When Albert left to get married, Bernard teamed up with a young Japanese dancer named Toko and, from around 1930, they toured as a duo called Delfont and Toko. They came to the Hippodrome in the weeks of 6 August, 1934, 20 January, 1936 and 17 August, 1936.

These appearances were part of Variety bills headed by Jack Payne and His Band, with whom Delfont and Toko toured in this country and to South Africa. Again, the act was described as “eccentric dancers”. Later, they were billed as “Aristocrats of Dance” and they made their first entrance directly after Jack Payne’s Band had played their signature tune “Say It with Music”. They also opened the second half, which was billed as “Jack Payne’s Radio Party” and featured top acts. Delfont and Toko were with Payne for about two years, after which the act split up and Bernard became an agent.

An interesting connection between seemingly unrelated topics but which come together in the Hippodrome’s rich history.