We in America have no true equivalent to British music hall and television impresario Valentine “Val” Parnell (1892-1972). The closest would be if you crossed Edward Albee (the vaudeville boss, not his playwright grandson) with Ed Sullivan maybe, combined with a little, believe it or not, Candice Bergen.
Sure! Well since the latter comparison is the outlier I’ll explain that first. Parnell was the son of the great British ventriloquist Fred Russell (Thomas Frederick Parnell), whom we wrote about here. Through his dad’s connections, the younger Parnell began working as an office boy in the music hall circuits as a teenager, circa 1905. By 1945 he had taken the reins of the mighty Moss Empires Group, with over four dozen theatres, which included as one of its crown jewels the 2300 seat London Palladium, built in 1910. So here’s another difference with the States. The American vaudeville circuits had been dead for a dozen years by this point, but in Britain music hall was still a factor. American entertainers, many of whom had come up through the vaudeville circuits, often topped his bills, people like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Sophie Tucker, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. But he also booked native stars like Gracie Fields, and gave young Julie Andrews her start.
In 1956, he became managing director of ATV (Associated Television), a station within ITV, which served London and the Midlands. It was here that he presented a variety show from his famous venue which was broadcast on ITV: Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the Palladium. The famous Tiller Girls were a regular feature of the show. As he had at his brick-and-mortar theatres, Parnell booked big American acts in addition to British stars, and this increasingly meant appearances by rock and roll stars. This paved the way for Britain’s own homegrown rock and pop acts of the ’60s like the Beatles, Cliff Richard, Petula Clark, the Rolling Stones, etc, who enjoyed national and then international fame as a result of the exposure. Unlike, the rough American equivalent Ed Sullivan, Parnell did not personally host his programs, but hired a succession of seasoned emcees to take on the task.
The original incarnation of the show was cancelled by Sir Lew Grade in 1967, by which time Parnell had sold most of his theatres. After his death in 1972, the show was revived numerous times. Its most recent season was in 2017!
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To learn more about the variety arts, including British music hall and TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.