Happy 110th Birthday to the legendary London Palladium!

The world-famous home of variety, The London Palladium, has had a long and colourful history since its opening on Boxing Day, 26th December 1910.

Always signifying the biggest stars, the finest productions and the most memorable entertainment, the theatre has had the good fortune to have some theatre greats at its helm – producer George Black who first promoted high-speed variety here in the late twenties with huge success. In the thirties he first brought the Royal Variety Shows here, as well as creating the Crazy Gang, who made audiences laugh for the next three decades. From the forties on, international stars became more and more in favour by the UK audiences and the world’s biggest starts appeared for a week or two, in between their other commitments to radio, movies or TV. In the fifties, Val Parnell was at the helm for Sunday Night at the London Palladium, TV’s legendary variety show which aired on the theatre’s one day off from its regular show commitments, drawing huge viewing figures for the new commercial TV network and cementing the theatre’s international status as the home of variety. Val’s son Jack Parnell conducted the Palladium orchestra for many years of the show and was a very in-demand conductor for TV and stage.

Also legendary at the Palladium were the pantomimes- always lavish, with big sets, gorgeous costumes, top talent and guaranteed full houses from opening night to closing night. Back in the day, panto season could last as long as from Boxing Day to Easter!

But what of the fabulous building itself? It was designed by the legendary Frank Matcham with his signature long, low balconies which hugged the stage and gave a genuine feeling of intimacy, despite the theatre being one of London’s largest – currently seating just under 2300. What also helped was Matcham’s style of construction which did away with the need for supporting pillars which gave unobstructed views from all three levels- Stalls, Dress Circle and Upper Circle.

Built on the site of a previous circus and wine cellars, the new theatre was an instant hit with performers and audiences alike.

For those of you interested to know what the place looked like upon opening, here is a report from THE ERA newspaper from 24th December 1910, two days before opening.

‘Brilliant in white and gold, with seating in warm red, the house sounds the last word in luxury and appointment, and the magnificent sweep of the dress circle presents a remarkable appearance from the stage.

In the great Palm Court at the back of the stalls, one thousand persons can be comfortably served with tea. This is a very striking feature of the Palladium and the Palm Court is of all Norwegian Rose granite which, especially, looks extremely attractive.

The decorations are very beautiful, Rose du Barri hangings adorn the boxes, and upholstery of the same colour has been employed in the stalls, while the orchestra is enclosed by a marble balustrade, Generally speaking, the colour scheme of the walls is pink, white and gold, with coloured marbles, and certainly there is not a dull note anywhere.

The walls of the main vestibule are painted silver. Perhaps the most unique feature is the box to box telephone that has been installed. It will therefore be possible for the occupants of one box, recognising friends in another box, to enter into conversation with them.’

Topping the bill at the Palladium was seen as the apex of the entertainment world for decades, and rightly so. The Palladium always stood for the best and that’s what audiences understood- and appreciated.

Some Palladium seasons of the stars have become legendary – from Danny Kaye’s several appearances in the late 40s and early 50s, to Judy Garland’s unforgettable seasons at a place she felt so much at home (there is a bust of Judy to remind us of the superlative talent that has graced that extraordinary stage).

After World War Two the theatre changed ownership to Moss Empires, where it stayed until the merger with Stoll to become Stoll Moss Theatres. As a Stoll Moss manager in the 1980s I was privileged to be part of the management team at the Palladium from time to time. My favourite time there was during the year-long run of Allan Carr’s flamboyant and fabulous LA CAGE AUX FOLLES starring George Hearn and Denis Quilley. It was a gloriously risque farce, but its Jerry Herman music made its charms accessible to the widest audience- and showed off its heart of gold at its centre. There was some tension with such a daring show being at the home of family entertainment, and perhaps the theatre’s huge capacity along with the AIDS crisis then unfolding so mercilessly, all contributed to the show not running for many more years. There was definitely a tension between the show and the theatre which made it susceptible to variances in public perceptions. However, a year at the Palladium is pretty amazing going!

During my time at Stoll Moss, the General Manager was a wonderful man called John Avery who had steered the Palladium through the sixties and seventies. It was very much his home, and everyone spoke very affectionately about him – rightly so, for although being fastidious for details, he was a very kind man who loved theatre and theatre people and the audiences who came. I never met anyone who had less than a kind word for John

One thing I must mention about the Palladium -which has now gone -was the enormous ticket office, which sat as a separate unit to the left of the theatre’s facade as you stand outside. It was absolutely vast! With huge wooden carousels of books of printed tickets (all this is pre-computers of course), banks of desk and telephones, it felt as large as a football field, with many windows open for different types of booking – same day, advance and special concerts, reflecting the incredible busy-ness of this incredible building.

I felt very lucky to have been part of the management at this iconic building, and for all the people that I met, including impresario Harold Fielding, showman supreme Robert Nesbit and many others – all of whom were unfailingly kind, modest and generous. Fielding’s glorious SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN with Tommy Steele ran at the Palladium for five straight years in the early 1980s, a glamorous (and ambitious) scene-for-scene rerun of the classic movie which took audiences’ breath away – and made a heck of a lot of money in the process!

For anyone interested in finding out more about this jewel in the crown of variety, in my opinion the best book you can get is The London Palladium – The Story of the Theatre and its Stars by Chris Woodward, which you can find on Amazon here

I’m raising a glass to you and thanking you for the memories, Palladium!


Stage shows to enjoy on Sky Arts this Christmas/New Year

Brighten your holiday season with these great stage shows to see on SkyArts this festive season

Boxing Day, 26th December

9.10am FUNNY GIRL

11.35am JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (CONCERT)

1.25pm THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE! (from 2012)

3.50pm Matthew Bourne’s SWAN LAKE

6.05pm LES MISERABLES 25th Anniversary concert production

9.00pm MISS SAIGON

Sunday, 27th December

9.30am THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (25th anniversary production from the Royal Albert Hall)

12.15pm The National Theatre’s TWELFTH NIGHT

9.00pm CATS (the stage show)

Monday, 28th December

9.00pm The National Theatre’s JANE EYRE

Tuesday, 29th December

9.00pm THE WIZ Live!

Wednesday 30th December

9.00pm BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL

Thursday, 31st December (New Year’s Eve)

8.10am LES MISERABLES 25th Anniversary concert production

4.35pm – THE SOUND OF MUSIC Live! (from 2012)


The astonishing survivor, Britannia Panopticon, celebrates birthday, and looks to the future

Happy Birthday to the extraordinary survival which is the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow, which dates from 1859. The Britannia Music Hall (as it was originally called) is the oldest surviving Music Hall in Glasgow and one of the very few of its time still surviving in the UK. Located above what is now an amusement arcade, at 113-117 Trongate, the building was built for property developer Archibald Blair whose family owned and leased the building for over fifty years. The family undertook a lot of Glasgow property development, always using top quality architects, and the Britannia Music Hall was no exception.

This property appears to have been built speculatively in 1857/8 as a shell with a variety of possible uses, which is why the Britannia is never described as a purpose-built Music Hall. Unusually, the ground floor was split into four units, one of which was a pub. The theatre was developed on the first and second floors of the building, although this area was originally just a shell and had initially been suggested as a warehouse. Leased to John Brand, the Hall opened on Christmas Night, 25th December 1859.

Some of its most notable points were:

The building was one of the first in Glasgow to be powered by electricity.

The stage has seen some legendary acts appear here, including Harry Lauder (in 1897), Dan Leno (in 1866), Vesta Tilley (in 1885), and many others.

The Britannia was also notable as being where Stan Laurel made his stage debut in 1906, where he was a contestant in the theatre’s regular amateur night.

Refurbishment and improvements were made several times, often upon the incoming of a new lessee, such as in 1869, 1896, 1903 and 1906, the last of which saw the incoming of super-ambitious showman A E Pickard who would expand the entertainment offerings extensively for the next three decades.  Pickard purchased the building itself around 1915, renaming the venue The Britannia and Grand Panopticon. The word ‘Panopticon’ means ‘to view everything’, a derivation from the Greek words ‘Pan’ meaning ‘everything’ and ‘Opti’ meaning ‘to see’. He certainly made the venue live up to its name, in time creating rooftop amusements, freak shows, waxworks and a zoo in the basement, with the hall being used for every conceivable entertainment including film shows, variety, boxing matches and amateur nights, to name just a few. The Era newspaper of 1906 described the newly-refurbished venue as seating about 500 people and that there were six shows daily in the hall!

After three decades of Pickard’s innovation, the Britannia was feeling the ravages of time, suffering the vagaries of changing audience tastes and the effects of the depression of the thirties; the building was finally closed in 1938, sold, and the ground floor was repurposed into a tailors’ shop and workshop. The ground floor then had a succession of occupants, but the floors above had been largely unused and forgotten until in 1997 Judith Bowers stumbled across the rare, neglected survivor. Setting to work with gusto, Bowers led the fledgling Friends of the Britannia Panopticon into a massive campaigning effort resulted in the award of a Historic Scotland Building Repair Grant, giving the venue a watertight and improved external roof. The Britannia was later a finalist for restoration funds, but not the winner, of the BBC ‘Restoration’ programme which gave valuable publicity to buildings needing public support..

In 1977 the building became a category A listed building (Scotland’s highest category of building listing), which at least fended off those wishing to demolish or gut the building, and gave the building valuable time.

The Panopticon Trust was formed to help acquire and restore the entire building as an entertainment venue and as a hub for the community. An annual programme of entertainments and events is co-ordinated by the Friends of the Britannia Music Hall Trust.

In 2009 the highly-detailed façade of the building was extensively refurbished at a cost of £900,000, the funds coming mostly from the building’s owners, the Mitchell family, and Historic Scotland. The interior of the building is the next stage of the restoration, and fundraising is taking place in earnest for this to be enabled. Although it will take some years for this to happen, when lockdown is lifted we can still visit and dream about how the hall will look when fully restored. Here’s to the future of another precious survivor!

Visit the Panopticon’s own website here


Great stage musicals and plays make Sky Arts first Freeview Christmas schedule sparkle

Sky Arts first Freeview Festive season looks set to pull out all the stops with its season of classic plays and iconic musicals.

Firstly, at 8:00pm on Sunday 20th December
The South Bank Sky Arts Awards 2020 are presented by Melvyn Bragg; the annual ceremony honours people from the worlds of art and culture, and is now in its 24th year.

Then, at 9:00pm on Monday 21st December you can see the National Theatre’s acclaimed Twelfth Night from 2017 starring Tamsin Greig as Malvolia in a gender-twist on Shakespeare’s classic comedy of mistaken identity staged at the National Theatre (available with subtitles).

At 9.00pm on Tuesday 22nd December you can see The Sound of Music – Live! This adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical was originally broadcast live on US TV from Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York, in December 2013.

At 9:00pm on Wednesday 23rd December you can see Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert- A New York City production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock musical, with an all-star cast including John Legend, Alice Cooper, Sara Bareilles and Jason Tam.

At 9:00pm on Christmas Eve, Thursday 24th December, you can enjoy The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall; Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess star in Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, marking 25 years since it opened in the West End, with the show telling the story of a disfigured musical genius who lives in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House.

On Boxing Day (Saturday 26th December) there is a remarkable Boublil and Schönberg double-bill. At 6.05pm you can enjoy the 25th Anniversary concert production of Les Misérables. This is followed at 9.00pm by the spectacular production of Miss Saigon.

Plays reappear on 28 December at 9.00pm with Sally Cookson’s acclaimed NT production of Jane Eyre.

The musical fare is rounded off on Wednesday 30 December at 9.00pm with a recorded performance of Billy Elliot the Musical.

All in all, a good variety of music and drama to keep those live theatre pangs at bay for a little while longer. Happy Christmas!