The variety show started with its usual act. Around the middle of the last century, the “Monday Night at Eight” show on BBC TV started every week with a song from a large red haired woman named Regina Gibson. Apparently, the BBC had an unwritten law: “The show cannot begin until the fat lady sings.” Regina specialized in patriotic and religious songs, and scraped a living singing the national anthem before various sports events. This particular week, her chosen song was “Amazing Grace.” That rather odd choice was presumably intended to segue into the next act of the show—a magic exhibition by The Amazing Manzoni.
Manzoni’s act included a lot of juggling and some sleight-of-hand tricks with playing cards and colored balls and scarves. However his concluding stunt never failed to impress audiences of all ages. He produced a white dove singing in a glass cage. Then he covered the cage with a large black shroud. When he whipped the shroud away a minute later, the cage and the bird had disappeared. Even people who knew how the trick was done were impressed when it was done well. The bird was trained to fly into a pocket in the magician’s robe when the door of the cage was opened. Then the “glass” cage, actually constructed of sheets of transparent plastic, collapsed into a flat pack which was then slid into a pocket inside the shroud. If the bird failed to exit the cage on cue, then it would be crushed when the cage collapsed. So any performance in which a bird was not crushed was considered a success. Manzoni wowed the audience and triumphed on the night in question.
The next act featured Lonnie Donegan—a guitarist, banjo player, and blues, folk and rock singer. He was a mediocre instrumentalist, but he was a good-looking guy with a “bad boy” persona. So he appealed more to women than to men. On that specific night, he sang three songs—“Frankie and Johnny,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Rock Island Line.” In between the songs, he titillated the audience with patter about whore houses in New Orleans, though he had to be careful not to be too raunchy because this was an 8PM show when the kiddies might be watching.
The star of the show, and closing act, was Max Wall—a stand-up comedian and movie character actor. He had a reputation for doing “blue material,” and had been banned from the BBC for a couple of years. His triumphant return was responsible for the show’s exceptionally large audience that night. People were curious to see whether he would be banned again, or whether he had wimped out and stopped telling dirty jokes. Of course, back then (around 1950), almost any reference to sex was considered blue material—especially on the BBC and on an early evening show. However, “Monday Night at Eight” was broadcast live without a time delay.
Most of Max’s jokes were unexciting. He had fallen back on mother-in-law jokes and regional jokes (“Anybody here from Newcastle?”). The response from a disappointed audience was muted. It wasn’t clear whether Max had decided to wimp out and then changed his mind at the last minute, or whether he was merely saving his best stuff for the end. But his last joke was a deal breaker for the BBC. It went something like this: “For my holidays, I went mountain climbing in Northern Spain. I was working my way along a two-foot ledge, with a vertical rock face on my left and a sheer drop of several hundred feet on my right. Then I rounded a corner and saw a blonde bombshell coming towards me. What should I do? Block her passage or toss myself off…”
TV screens went black for about 30 seconds. Then the MC made a brief appearance, mumbling an apology, and the credits started rolling. Max was subsequently banned from the BBC for life. But, of course, the publicity was invaluable for his night club and movie activities. And the BBC had record ratings for his final show.