With the enforced closures brought about by last March’s Covid-19 pandemic, theatres across the UK found themselves out on a limb. Unable to welcome the public to present shows, theatres (and those working in, around and with them) found that they had to think creatively to support their local communities, work to produce online alternatives and generally completely reinvent the way they operated. For some it was easier than others. But for smaller theatres particularly, the box office income was their lifeblood. Their already delicately-balanced finances and small, often underpaid, often volunteer teams were decimated by a lack of Arts Council funding support. Over six months later, the majority of the UK’s large and mid-sized venues and organisation finally received some cash. But hundreds of theatre and organisations were left out in the cold.
Ignored by government, they did the only thing they could – they turned to their audiences. Supported by organisations like The Theatres Trust and Crowdfunder, they set up funding appeals to their audiences and the general UK public. In essence they asked all of us to support them – or lose them.
The Theatres Trust set up their own #SaveOurTheatres campaign, where donors can give to a central pot distributed to theatres most in need.
But they also brought together 60 individual fundraising campaigns from theatres and arts venues to make it easy for donors could look for the venue nearest to them and help to keep them going.
And the great British public certainly came through! At the close of the year many fundraisers had smashed their targets and reached even more ambitious stretch targets.
To date, almost 23,000 supporters have contributed over £1.6 million (including Gift Aid’s tax scheme).
Here’s just one example – my oft-mentioned favourite the tiny Finborough Theatre in West London. This tiny, 50-seat room above a pub runs on a shoestring and still produces work which is world-class. Their fundraiser campaign’s initial target was £25,000 but thanks to a very generous matching funds pledge, as of today they have smashed that target and raised over £35,000 (when Gift Aid is factored in).
These individual and collective appeals, originally due to close at the end of December, are carrying on so that all of us still have a chance to support your local theatres as they – like us, face an uncertain immediate future.
It’s incredible to witness the love and support the public are showing – but we cannot afford to let up in our support for them- we can’t have come all this way to stop the support too early and revive the risk of loss yet again.
So if you haven’t yet supported, or even if you have, please see if you can spare a few quid to help keep our small, local theatres going. Because when this is over we will need them even more!
You can find the details of the Theatres Trust campaign featuring all 60 local campaigns,here
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!
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!
On the anniversary of his passing, we take this opportunity to celebrate one of the greats of UK theatre architecture, William George Robert Sprague (?/?/1863 – 4 December 1933).
Sprague was born in Australia in 1863 to actress Dolores Drummond, who spent some years in Australia, before returning to London in 1874.
At the tender age of sixteen, Sprague became an articled clerk for the legendary architect Frank Matcham for four years. In 1880 he was an articled clerk for Walter Emden for three years. He then formed a partnership with Bertie Crewe until 1895. His work rate was quite prolific, designing a number of theatres and music halls, mostly located in London. At the height of his powers he produced six intricately detailed and richly detailed jewel-box theatres in Westminster in less than four years. Unlike Matcham and Emden, Sprague studied architectural forms and conventions and applied his knowledge into his designs, was quoted that he “liked the Italian Renaissance” as a style for his frontages, but was happy to take liberties when needed “to get the best effects”. In 1902, the theatre newspaper The Era described him as “Britain’s youngest theatrical designer, with more London houses to his credit than any other man in the same profession.”
Sprague favoured two-tier auditoria, which invariably paid off for audiences in terms of atmosphere and sight-lines. Wyndham’s is a personal favourite and, to my mind, one of the most perfectly designed theatres I have ever had the pleasure to sit in.
Today most of his surviving theatres in the West End are owned (and lovingly restored) by the Delfont Mackintosh organisation. The Strand (now the Novello)(1905), The Globe (now the Gielgud) (1906), Wyndham’s Theatre (1899), The Queen’s (now the Sondheim) (1907), and the New (later the Albery and now the Noel Coward) (1903) all form part of DMT’s classy and well-maintained portfolio of theatres.
Other surviving Sprague West End theatres include two intimate under 500-seaters, the St Martin’s Theatre (1916) (current home of the Mousetrap) and the neighbouring Ambassadors Theatre (1913). There is also the Aldwych (1905), the “sister theatre” to the Strand, Outside the West End we can still find the Coronet in Notting Hill (1898) (for most of its life a cinema but now returned as a theatre), and The Camden Theatre (1900) (now a nightclub called KOKO).
His most significant design outside London was the Sheffield Lyceum (1897), thankfully restored and now a Number One touring house.
Later years saw Sprague designing fewer buildings, but he left with a wonderful swansong. The Streatham Hill Theatre was the last theatre credited to him (in association with W. H. Barton), opened in 1929. A massive suburban hall seating more than many a West End House, 2800, its size made it vulnerable later but thankfully it still survives today (read more in my article here).
Regular readers of this blog will also be interested to know that Sprague was the architect of the now-lost Fulham Grand Theatre, which was featured in my Lost Theatres collection (find the article here)
Sprague died in Maidenhead in 1933, leaving a legacy of some of London’s most beautifully intricate houses. It is fitting that we remember this great architect whose work has given such pleasure to so many audiences- and will continue to do so for years to come.
For those interested, the encyclopaedic ArthurLloyd.co.uk site has an interesting article headed A Chat with Sprague from 1905, which you can find here.
The month of September welcomed Music Hall Wednesdays (part of Lambeth Heritage Festival’s first totally ‘online’ season) which gave an entertaining look at Brixton and Lambeth’s Music Hall history from a number of viewpoints.
The organisers have now loaded all five talks to their YouTube channel (Music Hall Brixton and Beyond). So if you missed out on a talk, or enjoyed them so much you want to go back and see them again, they are all now available online for you to enjoy at your leisure.
Here’s a quick reminder about each talk:
COME ROUND ANY OLD TIME – BRIXTON’S MUSIC HALL COMMUNITY, where Sue McKenzie looks at how and why Brixton was home to so many people from music hall, early cinema and variety in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She also tells the stories of some of the performers in what was a precarious and unpredictable world. Link to Sue’s talk here
THE EMPRESS THEATRE OF VARIETIES, where Bill Linskey talks about the history of The Empress Theatre of Varieties, now long-demolished. Opened in 1898 it quickly became one of Brixton’s best-known venues; described as ‘one of the finest of London’s suburban music halls’. Link to Bill’s talk here
RESEARCHING BRIXTON’S MUSIC HALL CONNECTIONS, where Christine Beddoe and Tracey Gregory share stories of music hall people associated with the legendary address Glenshaw Mansions on Brixton Road and reveal some of the sources they have used to uncover the stories. Link to Christine and Tracey’s talk here
MUSIC HALL JUGGLERS OF LAMBETH, Charlie Holland’s talk on music hall jugglers features original props, posters, programmes and photographs, and draws you into the globe-trotting lives of Paul Cinquevalli, the Mongadors, and Hanvarr & Lee. Link to Charlie’s talk here.
INTERNATIONAL MUSIC HALL is an interesting panel discussion on how music hall linked Brixton to the world, and how changing performance names and personas disguised true identities. Featuring Alison Young (a solicitor who has turned her research skills to exploring the lives of her paternal family of music hall performers); Steve Martin, (Brixton based historian and author specialising in Black British history); Amy Matthewson, (Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). Link to the panel discussion here
In addition to the talks, the Music Hall Brixton and Beyond collection on the fascinating historical website Layers of London continues to grow. They now have over 50 short histories of music hall people in and around Brixton. You can explore street by street. It’s well worth a visit, and all praise to the contributors for the ingenious way it has been created and the detail which is available. You can find LAYERS OF LONDON by clicking here
The group have been delighted by the large online attendance for each of these events and are consequently planning more talks and possibly walks live or virtual.
Please do share the links to the talks and the Layers of London music hall collection with anyone you think might be interested. They’re all well worth a look!