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It’s nearly ten years since I first heard and blogged about Mary [Mollie Bagot Stack] and her Women’s League of Health and Beauty—an organization so successful that they had shows every year in the Albert Hall, and displays in Hyde Park and Wembley Arena. Since that post was published, I’ve discovered a couple of other really wonderful online treasures related to the League.

The first is Adele Caroll’s short documentary about it, This is the League that Jane Joined, which includes an extensive interview with Prunella Stack (1914–2010) who, after her mother died, took on the League and was responsible for its enormous and long-lasting success. There are also interviews with women who had been in the league in the 1930s, and were still doing the exercises decades later, and reconstructions of some of the exercises danced to the records made by the Linguaphone Institute at some time in the early 1930s, with Mollie Bagot Stack giving the instructions.

Thanks to a collector who has the whole set of those records, you can now hear them for yourself. I love the way he presents the records: you literally watch him put the record on the player and hear it play in real time.

It’s hard to pick out a favourite bit—though I love the way that you have to keep your “exercise calendar” card to hand, on which different positions are labelled with letters of the alphabet. Mrs Bagot Stack calls out the relevant letters in perfect RP, perfectly on the beat, not so different from a ballet exercise, but there’s something wonderfully bureaucratically efficient about the lettering system and the way it’s used to mediate between body, language and music. Occasionally, especially when the movements get faster, she only just manages to get all the words out in time, but she never falters, never flusters.

I also love the way that the breathing exercises—very practically—being with blowing your nose:

The pianist on these records, Madge Gillings, is fantastic. Apart from being responsive to the split second to Mrs Bagot Stack’s voice, as a pianist she has all the elan of Carroll Gibbons and a lot of his style as well, which makes me wonder whether she was inspired by him—or did everyone play like that in those days? Her playing reminds me of Carroll Gibbons accompanying Noël Coward’s Poor Little Rich Girl. That wonderful stride and swing that seems to just fly and skim over the keyboard is in Madge Gillings’ playing, and I wish I knew more about her.

I don’t know if it’s Madge’s voice that comes in with a waltz version of Loch Lomond at 24.38, but it’s just one of many lovely curiosities on this very special collection.

When I first started writing about music and ballet, I used to have a mental construct that I thought of as the “Les Sylphides gap”—the distance in time between that ballet’s first performance in 1909, and the historical era (the Romantic ballet) that it was meant to celebrate (a key date being La Sylphide, 1832), and the lifespan of the composer of the underlying music (Chopin, 1810–1849). My interest in that figure—which is approximately 70–80 years, is that when Fokine created Les Sylphides he was looking back to an earlier period, recreating it in ballet. It’s astonishing (to me, at least) to think that we are able now to hear and see (through some of the Pathé newsreels on YouTube, for example) people, events and music that exceeds the “Les Sylphides gap” by several years. Here, over 80 years ago, are members of the League leg-kicking to Jeepers Creepers (a song less than a year old at the time). I’m longing to know whether there was a live band, or if the music had been pre-recorded for the event—the tempo changes are tricky, but efficient.

2 thought on “Madge Gillings and Mrs Bagot Stack on record”
  1. Very interesting. Couldn’t help thinking how different this organisation is compared to mass movements in Nazi Germany before the war, and indeed displays in the Eastern block.

    1. I’m glad that’s how it comes across to you, because I had just been thinking about how to add something to that effect on the earlier post (which I’ve done). There’s such a temptation to see them as symptomatic of a general trend, and similar as you say to the BDM or Sokol, especially given the meeting between Prunella Stack and the Germans in 1939. But they are very different, not least because of course, the League was a private enterprise, quite unconnected to government policy.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist