10 of the best Music Hall era period drama movies and TV series

Music hall was a cornerstone of popular culture in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

With its colourful repertoire of singing, dancing, comedy, drag, acrobatics and more, it was the precursor of the variety shows of the twentieth century.

Music hall’s leading artistes were the A-list celebrities of the time and names like Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno are still familiar today.

Here our guest writer Matthew Abel celebrates ten period drama movies and series that lift the curtain on the fascinating world of music hall.


Champagne Charlie (1944)

This lesser-known gem from the heyday of Ealing Studios charts the career of early music hall star George Leybourne (Tommy Trinder), who was known as ‘Champagne Charlie’ after his signature song.

Stanley Holloway plays Leybourne’s fellow lion comique Alfred ‘The Great’ Vance, while Betty Warren stars as singer Bessie Bellwood. The film takes considerable liberties with historical fact, but its toe-tapping tunes and Victorian nostalgia would have been a welcome escape for the war-weary audiences of 1944.

Champagne Charlie is available on DVD.


Tipping the Velvet (2002)

Several of Sarah Walters’ historical LGBTQ+ novels have now been adapted for television – Fingersmith (2005), Affinity (2008) and The Night Watch (2010) – but her acclaimed debut was the first to hit the small screen.

Whitstable oyster girl Nan Astley (Rachael Stirling) is a regular at her local music hall, having developed a crush on male impersonator Kitty Butler (The Durrells star Keeley Hawes).

When Kitty gets her big break in London, she persuades Nan to join her act, with dramatic consequences for them both.

Tipping the Velvet is available to watch on BritBox.


Lost Empires (1986)

A young Colin Firth (sporting an incongruous Yorkshire accent) leads this slightly melancholy coming-of-age drama based on J. B. Priestley’s 1965 novel.

In 1913, Richard Herncastle experiences all the pleasures and pitfalls of life on the halls after joining his uncle’s troupe of variety artistes on their last national tour before the First World War.

Sir Laurence Olivier appears in his final TV role and Poldark’s Prudie (Beatie Edney) is almost unrecognisable as Richard’s main love interest, Nancy Ellis.


Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

This classic anti-war film spotlights music hall’s role in military recruitment during the First World War (its title comes from a contemporary song by Ella Shields).

Early in the film, a glamorous music hall star (Dame Maggie Smith) entices her young male audience to take the King’s shilling with the risqué song ‘I’ll Make A Man Of You’. Ominously, when her performance is over, she begins to pull men onto the stage where a recruiting sergeant waits to sign them up.

Oh! What a Lovely War is available on DVD.


Star! (1968)

After her runaway triumphs in Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), Julie Andrews had a surprise flop with this musical biopic of actress Gertrude Lawrence.

While it is not her finest film, the first half contains some great scenes depicting Lawrence’s early career in music hall and West End revues.

Chief among these is Andrews’ stellar performance of Ella Shields’ signature song ‘Burlington Bertie From Bow’, itself a parody of Vesta Tilley’s ‘Burlington Bertie’.


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Andrews apparently declined a cameo in this much-anticipated sequel to avoid detracting from Emily Blunt’s portrayal of the magical nanny.

This time, Mary Poppins takes the Banks children on a outing into the animated world painted on a china bowl in their nursery, where they visit the ‘Royal Doulton Music Hall’.

There she joins lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) on stage for the rousing literary-themed number, ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’ – accompanied by the dancing penguins from the original film.

Mary Poppins Returns is available on DVD.


Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975)

After leaving 165 Eaton Place in the first season, restless under-house parlour maid Sarah (Pauline Collins) falls on hard times before finding a new career in the music hall.

On stage she charms her erstwhile employers’ son Captain James (Simon Williams) with the bawdy tune ‘What Are We Going To Do With Uncle Arthur?’

Written for the show in the style of an Edwardian music hall song, Collins released it as a single in 1973 and an instrumental version was used as the closing theme.

Upstairs, Downstairs is available to watch on BritBox.


The Limehouse Golem (2016)

This movie adaption of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem omits the music hall legend’s name from the title though he still appears in the film.

A darker view of life on the halls is explored here when singer Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) is condemned to death for poisoning her husband, himself the suspect in a string of grisly murders.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) swiftly builds a new act around the sensational case.

The Limehouse Golem is available on DVD.


Ripper Street (2012-2016)

A stone’s throw from Limehouse, this gritty drama follows H Division’s finest as they police the mean streets of Whitechapel in the years following the Jack the Ripper murders.

In the second season, Sergeant Drake’s (Jerome Flynn) sweetheart Rose Erskine (Charlene McKenna) leaves her unhappy life in Long Susan’s (MyAnna Buring) brothel and becomes a waitress at Blewett’s music hall. But it isn’t long before Rose takes to the stage herself, where her beautiful voice captivates the audience.

All five seasons of Ripper Street are available on DVD.


Miss Marie Lloyd: Queen of the Music Hall (2007)

It is only right that the last word in this list goes to the first lady of music hall. EastEnders actress Jessie Wallace (aka Kat Slater) is perfectly cast in this BBC drama which chronicles Marie Lloyd’s celebrated stage career as well as her unhappy personal life and descent into alcoholism.

Wallace confidently breathes fresh life into some of Lloyd’s most popular songs including ‘When I Take My Morning Promenade’ and ‘Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way’ (aka ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’).