(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/16; Photo: Slapstick and sentimental songs … Pat Kirkwood in the 1956 musical comedy Stars in Your Eyes. Photograph: networkonair.com.)
Our series on films about theatre continues with a British comedy in which variety acts face an existential threat when TV steals their audience
Theatres around the country are shutting their doors and there are scarce opportunities on stage for actors. That’s the grimly familiar scenario in the 1956 British film Stars in Your Eyes, which charts the final years of variety. But this musical comedy – received as “cheery” and “disarmingly inconsequential” when it was first reviewed – strikes a further chord in Covid times by celebrating the resilience and ingenuity of theatre’s workforce.
Northern variety stars Nat Jackley and Pat Kirkwood get top billing as Jimmy and Sally, married entertainers who see audiences dwindling on their latest tour. “Rosa was in earlier,” one of them grumbles to the other. “Rosa?” “Rows a seats.” Jimmy and Sally’s act has been eclipsed by television and, after a month on the road, their revue won’t get any further than Scunthorpe. “The only way you can fill a theatre nowadays is to take all your clothes off,” sighs their agent.
After Jimmy unsuccessfully auditions for a TV gig, the couple spot an opportunity to open their own theatre with the help of washed-up songwriter Dave (Bonar Colleano) and his estranged wife, Ann (Welsh singer Dorothy Squires, in her only film role). Nothing can stop them apart from perhaps a leaky roof, a pair of devious property developers and the public’s telly fixation.
Written by Talbot Rothwell and directed by Maurice Elvey for Adelphi Films, Stars in Your Eyes shows how the entertainment industry constantly shifts to suit changing tastes and technologies – much like Singin’ in the Rain did for Hollywood talkies a few years earlier. The film is structured as a showcase for sketches and songs, usually filmed on stage but sometimes integrated into the storyline, especially in Jimmy and Sally’s domestic life where they still operate as a kind of double act. There’s a wonderful physicality in these scenes, whether it’s the rubber-limbed Jimmy ironing his ties, and his own mug, or Sally furiously buttering her toast. A lengthy holiday camp sketch is performed by Jimmy at his screen audition, which reveals the TV industry’s nervousness about variety; after creasing up at his act, the producer uneasily declares it too broad for the small screen.
Jackley has the funny bones you get when you’re born – as he was – into a circus dynasty with several generations of stage performers. In the film, it’s Dave who comes from a family of entertainers. The venue they plan to reopen, the Majestic, is a bombed-out theatre his parents once ran. It symbolises the state and perception of variety at the time: dusty, outdated and abandoned. Watching in lockdown, it’s as poignant to see this empty, rundown playhouse as it is to see the scenes of London’s bustling streets. But before you can say “keep calm and carry on” Jimmy is sewing some costumes and Sally is giving the walls a new lick of paint.