The Tiller Girls c. 1960
I didn't hang around watching the Jubilee Show tonight though over supper I did catch Tom Jones, Robbie Williams, Lenny Henry and Rolf Harris. I had work to be getting on with after that, so came down to my desk to continue translating a beautifully observed, utterly unmawkish death scene, but my mind was still running on the festivities, so I found myself comparing what I had just watched on the telly with the Sunday Night at the London Palladium shows of my childhood, and particularly with the Royal Variety Performances of the same period.
Suddenly my mind was full of jugglers and novelty acts, the names of both actual performers and imagined ones. I was in the world of Beat the Clock, the various comperes from Bruce Forsyth through to Jimmy Tarbuck, but also The Crazy Gang, Bob Monkhouse, Cilla, Yma Sumac, Nellie the Elephant and, finally, like the glue that held them all together, The Tiller Girls.
The Tiller Girls were the regular high-kicking chorus line of the show, sexy but proper, a gesture to the wilder vaudeville or strictly off-limits Parisian versions of the same thing. It was precision that mattered to them: in that respect they were the female equivalent to the Changing of the Guard. Busby Berkeley turned such disciplines into a kind of vulgar high poetry, Hitler turned them into the Nuremberg Rally. Today it is hard to take them seriously.
My personal memory of The Tiller Girls is of the time we actually went toThe Palladium as a family, my father beside me utterly mesmerised as the girls shifted off-stage, kicking all the time, the whole line shimmering in silver, seemingly a dream of fair women. But not quite women. Individual women were all but anonymous in the glitter: the chorus had merged into a single idea of woman, a mechanical yet numinous apparition that touched something in my father's imagination, something comprised of no more than a sheet of silver and a memory of forbidden softness, the lot being wound in then yanked into the wings.