Black sheep no more

by Louis Barfe

When I see the name Roy Hudd in listings, I have to tune in. My enthusiasm is even greater when I know it’s Hudd talking about old stars of music hall, as he is an expert. so, how success ruined me (Radio 4, available on iPlayer) was a non-negotiable listen. Although in the afternoon drama slot, it blurred the lines between drama and documentary. Writer and performer Christopher Green, an associate artist at Wilton’s music hall, east London, and a clinical hypnotherapist, has been developing a show based on the life of Fred Barnes, one of the big stars of music hall at the start of the 20th century.

The show had Green and Hudd as slightly heightened – and possibly slightly scripted – versions of themselves, talking about what the show should include. Attempting a well-to-do Birmingham accent like Barnes’s, Green asks Hudd if he’s ‘on the edge of offence’. No, replied Hudd, just the edge of Edgbaston.

Barnes is a fascinating study. Openly gay when it really wasn’t the done thing, and flamboyant on stage, audiences loved him. His hit, The Black sheep of the Family – a brave bit of work – was nationally known. Barnes made a fortune, then burned through it, giving much of it to unsuitable boyfriends and drinking the rest.

Hudd keeps Green away from myth-making. When Green talked about all the aspects of Barnes’s personality and career he wanted to explore, Hudd said he was using Barnes to talk about himself. Probably fair, Green admitted. indeed, putting Barnes’s trials and tribulations in the context of a modern performer in a similar vein is a good way of making sense of the man.

Green observed that a broken Barnes died in Southend. Hudd, the old trouper, replied he’d done the same many times. A lovely bit of radio, and Green’s show sounds well worth catching.

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