The age of variety is drawing to a close, but its spirit lives on with the society of entertainers known as The Water Rats, and here is the current President Ben Warriss to introduce this film that seeks to keep the memories of the form alive. He tells us an anecdote about the origins of the society's name, which has passed into legend, then is joined by two other members, Charlie Chester and Wee Georgie Wood, for a bit of business and to further set the scene for the next three quarters of an hour as comedians like them and others well-versed in the theatrical environment are given free rein to deliver routines as they did for around a century or more...
Top of the Bill was considered a lost film until a print showed up decades after its initial release and was broadcast on television, not that it generated the interest that, say, discovering a print of London After Midnight would have, and on watching it you could see why. It was one of the stable of Arnold L. Miller films, a man who made a small fortune with nudist films and the British equivalent of mondo movies and whose career was winding down by 1971 when this was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. It was, as with his other productions, as cheap as he could get away with, sticking the camera on a stage and allowing the turns to do their acts.
Yet as this was an attempt to keep variety and music hall in the public consciousness, the irony that this would be seen in a cinema was seemingly lost on the makers, and would only have been greater had it been broadcast on contemporary television since the small screen had wreaked havoc on the careers of the artistes commonly found in the theatre. Having an act perfected was all very well, but if you were invited onto television to do it, everyone would have seen it already meaning there was very little point in leaving the house to see it again in some draughty old venue about to be converted into a bingo hall - if it was lucky.
As another presenter, Davy Kaye, relates, most of the variety theatres had been knocked down by this point, leaving very few left to promote some now ageing performers. Not that the audiences were disappearing entirely, its simply that those who remained who recalled the golden age this lot romanticised were dying off, and the new generation preferred something made for them, not their grandparents. We see the outside of a number of London venues where punters are asked about their memories, yet oddly Miller didn't venture inside and the acts we see could have been filmed in a church hall for all the evidence of an audience there is. Indeed, there is none: the canned laughter on Scooby-Doo, Where are You? was more convincing than what accompanies these performers.
Speaking of which, if this was the best variety had to offer then it was no wonder it was on its last legs, as Warriss introduced a succession of dusty routines, some by himself, from comedians to singers to acrobats. There was the inevitable George Formby impression (from Ken Goodwin, who actually didn't do too badly on television) and Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen impersonators crooning Underneath the Arches (none too brilliantly), plus a Max Miller run through, but it was all a bit tatty and desperate, so you could observe it was entirely accurate in that respect, by the early seventies at least. To be honest, you would have a lot more amusement watching an episode of The Good Old Days on the BBC, which ran from the fifties to the eighties and almost single-handedly reminded the British public they could go out and see this stuff instead of watching it at home. Admittedly, not so much in the eighties, and even less so today, though you'd hope what does endure is more entertaining than Top of the Bill.