When looking through our collection of playbills, it’s easy to let them all blur into one. Girls! Strip shows! Dancing! But what was it like to be one of those girls, and were they all doing the same thing? Librarian Zoe Scott Fitzgibbon chatted with Audrey Mann to find out more.
Audrey Mann, born in 1930, performed at Leeds City Varieties on many occasions over the course of the career. We hold seven playbills from the years 1959-1964 with her name on, but she remembers working there on many more occasions. The playbills give very little information, only referring to her as ‘The Vivacious Audrey Mann’ or ‘The Personality Audrey Mann’. So what did her show entail?
‘Well I was an all-round entertainer.’ she announces over the phone. ‘Basically, I used to sing, dance, play the piano and chat to the audience.’ Mann points out that what she was doing was stand-up comedy, decades before there would be high profile female comedians. Nowadays she’s still keeping it funny ‘I’m always laughing all the time – laughing or trying to stand up!’
Mann was a featured performer, well known and respected enough to have her name and sometimes picture on the playbills. She would perform solo in variety shows with people who are still household names, and many famous people were desperate to bring her on tour with them. Mann worked with Morecambe and Wise, discovering that she and Eric Morecambe had gone to the same school several years apart. She worked in nightclubs with Barbara Windsor, witnessing Windsor’s ascent to fame. ‘She and I auditioned with each other in London in Soho, a place called the Astor Club. She was auditioning as a singer and I was auditioning as song and tap-dancing. She met a woman called Jo Littlewood who thought she had good comedy talent, and she used her for various things and she went on to become a big star.’
Mann was undeniably successful, being featured on television and travelling across Europe and Asia to perform on Army and Naval bases. ‘I used to get on very well with the American soldiers and the Polish Air Force. Yes, they all enjoyed me. And I enjoyed it all!’ Her fame, however, never reached the height of Barbara Windsor or Morecambe and Wise. Why? In Mann’s opinion, it’s because she was too busy having fun. Now, she blames herself for being ‘absolutely ridiculous… I really haven’t got any common sense. I’ve done the most stupid things in my life. I had a top producer that really liked what I did, and what was I busy doing? Flirting with all the band boys! I must have been mad! Because he was the top guy.’
Ignoring top producers wasn’t the only risk-taking behaviour Mann engaged in. ‘I worked a lot with gangsters. Yes! But they were no trouble to me whatsoever. I thought it was very exciting. I was in various nightclubs and they were always hanging about.’ She believes that she was lucky not to get embroiled in some real trouble, associating with such shady characters.
Though Mann received a fair amount of attention from band boys, gangsters and the troops, she wasn’t interested in getting married. She ‘put it off’ as long as possible, busy enjoying the glamour and fame associated with her career. When she eventually did marry, her first husband was dismissive of her career, claiming that she was boring when she talked about ‘things he didn’t understand’. Her second husband, a WWII RAF pilot, was much more supportive. ‘He was such a nice guy… a lovely person’ she reminisces. They lived together in his home town, also making time to travel across Canada by train. ‘He wanted to take me to all the places that he’d been to in Canada and show them to me. So that’s what we did!’
Our playbills imply a level of debauchery and raunchiness at Leeds City Varieties, with nudity and strip-tease featuring prominently. Mann herself didn’t strip, but knew many who did. ‘There were a lot of strip shows around, but we weren’t. We were just variety performers. But there were a lot of strip shows.’ Mann never saw herself as better than these performers. ‘We didn’t look down on the other girls, it’s just what they did.’ Mann had started off dancing in the chorus, before making enough of a name for herself to go solo. ‘I wasn’t just one of the girls, I managed to become a featured performer. I did what I wanted to do.’
Now 90, Audrey Mann is living in a care home in Lancashire, and is still doing what she wants to do. She plays piano, watches BBC Bitesize to learn all the things she ‘couldn’t be arsed with’ in school, and admires her calendar of Spurs manager José Mourinho, her one and only pinup. She describes herself as ‘very happy… there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.’