Belfast Telegraph

"Those in the cheap seats clap your hands, the rest of you can just rattle your jewellery"

More than a century since the first Royal Variety Performance, the show still attracts some of the biggest names in show business. Jeananne Craig looks back at some of the highlights from this right royal knees-up

By Jeananne Craig

There aren't many concerts in which Robbie Williams and Alicia Keys share the bill with a dancing dog, or Cilla Black shows off her pins (and then some) in a racy leotard, but then the Royal Variety Performance is a show like no other.

Since the first event was held back in 1912, in aid of the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund (now known as the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund), we've seen home-grown stars, Hollywood A-Listers and, more recently, Britain's Got Talent winners, light up the stage.

This year's line-up at the London Palladium doesn't disappoint either - viewers can look forward to Dame Shirley Bassey, Bette Midler, One Direction and Ed Sheeran, among others.

But before settling down in front of the TV for your royal appointment, let's look back on more than a century of song, dance and comedy - and the occasional gaffe. Royal Variety Performance, it's time to take your bow ...

Home-grown talent

From Rochdale's Gracie Fields to West Lothian's Susan Boyle, the Royal Variety Performance has showcased some of the nation's brightest and best talent over the years. And while most acts are on their best behaviour for the gig, there has been no shortage of surprises over the years.

In 1963, Beatles fans clamoured outside the Prince Of Wales Theatre while the Fab Four rehearsed inside. On the night, the band played a handful of their hits and John Lennon famously said to the audience: "For our last number, I'd like to ask for your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands, and the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewellery ..."

Meanwhile, Cilla Black raised eyebrows in 2001 when she performed You Gotta Get A Gimmick, from the musical Gypsy, in a skimpy basque with strategically placed light-up hearts. Saucy co-star Lily Savage (aka Black's good pal Paul O'Grady) quipped: "Mind you don't singe yourself".

Hollywood comes to town

The Royal Variety has also played host to top international stars. Wizard Of Oz actress Judy Garland lit up the stage in 1957, Rat Pack star Sammy Davis Jr wowed the audience during the first televised performance in 1960, German actress Marlene Dietrich performed in 1963 (the same year as the Beatles' jewellery-rattling appearance) and The Jackson 5 brought the house down with a medley of hits in 1972.

But big-name stars occasionally bring big demands; singer Jennifer Lopez reportedly insisted on an all-white dressing room when she performed in 2001 (Sir Elton John, on the other hand, apparently only requested a simple cheese and pickle sandwich the same year).

And then there was 2009, when pop divas Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus were on the bill. Former squeaky clean teen star Cyrus raised a few eyebrows when she sang her track Party In The USA complete with leather hotpants and raunchy dance moves, but it was Gaga who really stole the show.

She sang Speechless atop a swing playing a piano suspended high up in the air. Her outfit? A puff-sleeved, full-length red latex number (which can't have been too comfortable under those bright lights), topped off with an Elizabethan ruff.

As host Peter Kay remarked afterwards: "Never mind Speechless, my nan's shell-shocked ..."

Meet and greet

Every year, the royal guests of honour meet and exchange pleasantries with the line-up of nervous-looking celebrities - which leads to the occasional gaffe and clumsy curtsy.

In 2012, Neil Diamond discovered the Queen was more interested in talking to his wife, Katie McNeil, than him. "We had a nice chat but she really wanted to chat to my wife about horses," he said later.

When One Direction met the Duchess of Cambridge at this year's performance, Harry Styles took the opportunity to congratulate the pregnant royal on her "bump", but later revealed that she "didn't look bumpy". Bandmate Louis Tomlinson, meanwhile, was concerned he had committed a faux pas: "I didn't say, 'Ma'am', I said, 'Hi. How are you? I'm Louis'."

Perhaps the funniest line came in 1969 when Prince Philip - not usually one to mince his words - asked gravelly-voiced Tom Jones: "What do you gargle with, pebbles?"

All for a good cause

The Royal Variety Performance has been the "financial bedrock" of the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund since the first show, according to the fund's chairman, Giles Cooper.

The money raised from each performance helps the charity operate its nationwide grant scheme and fund its nursing and residential care home, Brinsworth House in Twickenham, south west London, for retired members of the entertainment business.

"Without this annual fundraising event, the EABF would not be able to carry out the vital work that we do in helping elderly, sick or impoverished members of the entertainment industry, year after year," says Cooper.


Extra-time: meet this year's acts

Michael McIntyre (host) - "When the Queen FaceTimed me and asked me to host the Royal Variety Performance again, I was utterly thrilled," says McIntyre. "I plan on wearing the dress Catherine wore at the St Andrew's University fashion show, to guarantee I hold Prince William's attention."

Russell Kane (comedian) - "I'm utterly thrilled and honoured to be performing this year. The only person happier is my mum. When I told her, it was like someone dropped a Berocca into a Diet Coke and shook it."

Sarah Millican (comedian) - "I'm thrilled to be doing the Royal Variety Performance for the second time. I think on the third time, you win a member of the Royal Family."

Bette Midler (singer) - "As a little girl growing up with dreams of being a singer, I never imagined I would one day perform for members of the Royal Family," says Midler.

Stephen Mulhern (magician) - "It's a dream come true for any performer to be invited onto one of the most prestigious variety shows in the world."

Watch this year's Royal Variety Performance on ITV on Monday, December 8.

For more information on the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund, visit

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