London Open House, 21/22 September – bookings now open!

The largest festival of architecture and building design in the world, London Open House 2019 is coming in September, and the full programme has now gone live on their website.

Every September since 1992, London Open House has enabled public access to 800+ buildings, many of which are inaccessible at any other time of the year, with associated walks, talks and tours over one very busy weekend, now attracting over a quarter of a million people annually.

Run by a small team supported by volunteers, the astonishing breadth of London’s building design is celebrated by gaining rare access to private and restricted buildings.

Happily, entertainment buildings such as theatres and cinemas are also enthusiastically taking part, and it is this category which I want to tell you about.

22 theatres and 5 cinemas are listed in this year’s offerings, ranging from the grandeur of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s freshly-refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre to the Victorian charms of Hoxton Hall and Wilton’s Music Hall, to more modern offerings such as the National Theatre. All will be open for exploration via tours and/or talks on-site. Tucked away in the “entertainment” category is the first cinema to be Grade-I listed, the incredible Tooting Granada (now rather cheesily-titled Buzz Bingo, but inside still an awe-inspiring and richly-detailed movie palace)

Please note that some sites require advance booking while others do not. Do check with the Open House website on each venue’s individual listing page for full details. Also, a lot of venues will open on just one day of the weekend, not both, so do please check before you travel.

At the website you can check buildings by category and also by location to help you find Open House buildings near to you. Don’t miss this once-a-year opportunity!

Find out more at the website which you can find here

Exhibitions and events with a theatre theme to enjoy across the UK – now and soon!

COUNTRY-WIDE From 13 to 22 September, there are over 100 theatre-related events going on across the country during Heritage Open Days. Most likely a theatre near you will be opening its doors to offer tours of the buildings. Intrigued? Then take a look at their website here where you can search what’s happening near you.

LONDONV&A – Discover the creative process behind designing for performance, from costume to set design at Staging Places, which celebrates the diversity of British performance design across spaces and genres. This display, in collaboration with the Society of British Theatre Designers, presents costumes, set designs, models, photos, drawings and puppets that reveal the creative process behind designing for performance. And best of all, its free! Running now until 29 March 2020. More information here

Stockton Globe

STOCKTON ON TEES – Preston Park Museum – A fascinating exhibition about the life -and rebirth- of Stockton’s magnificent Globe is now on. The building has had a splendid history. Opened as a 2400-seater cinema in December 1935, the building closed in 1996 and has lain empty for over 20 years, falling into terrible disrepair. Thankfully Stockton Council have saved the building and it is undergoing extensive modernisation works, with a planned reopening in Spring 2020. Explore the story of the Globe and its restoration in this fascinating exhibition.  Find out about the famous acts – including Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John – who played at the venue. Plus, discover the exciting future for the newly restored Globe. The exhibition is on now until October 6th at the Preston Park Museum. Admission into the museum is paid but the Globe exhibition is presented at no extra cost. More information here. And to find out more about the reborn Globe, see their new website here.

Collins’s Music Hall on Islington Green – sadly long gone!

LONDON – ISLINGTON MUSEUM – “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay!” is an exhibition about Islington’s many popular Music Halls. For over 100 years, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the borough’s many music halls and variety theatres entertained generations of Islingtonians. Each venue promised a unique evening’s entertainment and local residents and visitors would drop in to see their favourite ‘turns’. Explore a time when variety was definitely the spice of life. The exhibition is free and a range of attached talks, shows and walks have been curated to further visitors’ enjoyment. On until 22 October. More details here

Early Bob Fosse

Now screening on BBC TWO and BBC iplayer in the UK, there’s a lot of interest around the multi-Emmy nominated 8-part biographical series FOSSE/VERDON co-produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Oscar winner Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse and four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon, the husband/wife dance legends of the 50s/60s/70s.

Watch a trailer for FX’s Fosse/Verdon here

Verdon was Fosse’s third wife (1960 until 1971). His first wife was Mary Ann Niles (1949-1951) who he danced with in the revue CALL ME MISTER on Broadway in 1946/7. Graduating into the fledgling world of television, Fosse made an early solo appearance on the fourth episode of the first series of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show as part of a comedy dance routine with Burns and nightclub dancer Harrison Muller (aired Nov 23rd 1950 on CBS – you can find the episode here) and together with Niles were guest dancers on several episodes of the 1950-51 season of YOUR HIT PARADE. By that time, they had been spotted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who had recently exploded into television as rotating (six-weekly) regular hosts of NBC’s weekly big-budget COLGATE COMEDY HOUR (1950-1956). Fosse has said that Jerry Lewis gave him his first chance to choreograph on this show, and we can see this early work in these clips from all three of their 1951 appearances on the show, available from the treasure trove that is YouTube, and with thanks to the kind people who have shared them.

Episode 22, 4 Feb 1951

Hosts: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis

Guests: Polly Bergen, Bob Fosse and Mary Ann Niles

Fosse & Niles clip here

Episode 34, 29 April 1951

Hosts: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis

Guests: Helen O’Connell, Bob Fosse & Mary Ann Niles

This show originated from Chicago, where Martin and Lewis and guest Helen O’Connell were appearing at the Chez Paree nightclub

Fosse & Niles 0.10 in until 5.20

Episode 37, 20 May 1951

Hosts: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis

Guests: Jane Morgan, Bob Fosse & Mary Ann Niles, cameo by Eddie Cantor

Fosse & Niles 18.24 in until 23.00

And the rest, as they say, is history….


Videotape was not invented until the end of the 1950s, and consequently most TV went out live. The precious recordings that survive have nothing like the technical quality that we are used to today.

These recordings are kinescopes. That is, a very basic process whereby a film camera is set up in front of a TV monitor and the sound and vision are directly recorded from that broadcast. Often the major reason a show was kinescoped was in order that the advertising agencies (who bankrolled the shows) had a record of the programme to show to their advertisers. Thankfully, a lot of kinescopes survived, and thanks to these we can see many long-gone stars of stage and screen at something like their best.

Thanks to YouTube posters and Jim Davidson’s Classic TV Info site

Is it me, or is it HOT in here?

The recent heatwave in the UK prompted this recollection, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

Back in the 1980s, the onset of scorching summer weather meant two headaches for London’s West End theatres. Firstly, ticket sales would slump as people elected to stay outside. Secondly, those that were brave enough to venture inside on those baking hot days were very good purchasers of drinks- and everything came with ice! Inevitably, on two show days, the resources of the theatres’ own ice-making machines could not keep up and it was just a matter of time before the cry went up “time to call Acorn Ice”. Their little white vans could be seen beetling around Theatreland, supplying just about every large theatre with several large glaciers-worth of the cool stuff each and every summer Saturday night.

The majority of the West End’s theatre stock was built before the advent of air conditioning. From the late 1920s, new cinemas were built with various kinds of (often rudimentary) aircon which varied in effectiveness. Theatres had to wait for aircon until the early 1990s, mainly due to their highly decorated appearance and listed status making it practically impossible to make any kind of major adjustments without impacting the “look” of the auditorium. Another issue was that West End theatres’ original designs squeezed every ounce of space out of their footprints on the most expensive land in the country, which is why you will still come across tiny toilets stuck away in odd-shaped spaces. Installing aircon in these theatres was a tricky (and costly) proposition.

Victoria Palace Theatre after renovation and aircon. Photo by Philip Vile

The kind of modification that aircon required could only take place during scheduled refurbishments which came around very infrequently, and only after a show had concluded a run and “gone dark”. Further, theatre owners were reluctant to keep theatres dark for a moment more than necessary, as in this state they brought in no earnings.

However, some theatres were luckier than others. Whilst a theatre manager in the 1980s, I was very lucky to be at the Victoria Palace – where we had an advantage.

The Victoria Palace was built in 1911 as a variety theatre (dubbed “London’s last great variety house”) and as such demanded a large capacity (1500) and a fast turnaround (for many years giving two shows nightly and three on Saturdays). Built by the doyen of theatre architects, Frank Matcham, the theatre had a number of clever design signatures which made this theatre easier to manage. As a darkened, enclosed box the heat of the day was not an issue on most days as the theatre was kept cool by simply not allowing light and heat in. However, the heat of a 1500-strong audience, combined with lights, etc , on a two show day with the mercury rising outside was quite an issue.

The “dome” within a dome that rolled off – from a pre-refurbishment photo, uncredited (apologies to the photographer)

Frank Matcham understood this, and helped all who have populated his theatres to keep cool – audiences and management both! How? Well, in the centre of the auditorium ceiling is a dome, and within that a smaller dome. But the smaller dome was rather deceptive. It was much shallower than it appeared, and was actually separate from the rest of the ceiling design. It was mounted on a large framework which was on wheels, which sat in a pair of tracks, just like a train track. This meant that on a hot day, our excellent stage crew would know what to do. Had the last people to leave the auditorium looked up, they would have seen the smaller dome moving towards the stage end to reveal – the sky!

After the magnificent renovation – the “dome” that used to roll off, now beautifully lit in blue but sadly static. Photo courtesy BuroHappold Engineeering website.

As we all know, hot air rises, so Matcham created this device to expel the hottest air. When the auditorium doors were opened to exit the first house, that rush of fresh air coming into the auditorium would effectively push through and expel the old, hot air through the hole in the ceiling. Before the house opened again, the dome would be rolled back into its original position, and audiences were none the wiser – but a lot cooler. Air conditioning was finally fully installed in the 1990s. Now superseded by a brand new aircon system (courtesy of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s sparkling renovation of 2017), Matcham’s innovation is a brilliant piece of past history, but all of us who ran the VP will recall his ingenuity with gratitude. And also consigned to history was the sort of phone call I got to my office one Saturday afternoon when the heat and humidity set off some sharp showers outside. “Can we close the dome please? It’s raining in the front stalls!”

Time Travel Theatre – The night I met Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp 1940s, Photo by Angus McBean and held at the National Portrait Gallery

In remembrance of a singular figure now, sadly, fading from memory, and in celebration of LGBTQI+ Pride, I thought that you might like to hear about an evening out I had almost forty years ago.

It was a chilly Friday evening in 1981 that a friend and I approached the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane, full of anticipation and curiosity. An Evening with Quentin Crisp, the displays announced tastefully. We swept through the outer doors – into a thoroughly empty foyer. Let us remember that this was the end of a long and successful run, and an early house at that (Fridays, 6 and 8.30).

Quentin Crisp had shot to fame after John Hurt portrayed him to great acclaim on TV in a dramatised biography, The Naked Civil Servant, in 1975 and now, in his latter years he was an unexpected international celebrity, holding forth about everything under the sun in his stage show which ran, almost unchanged, for many years, across the UK and America. And now, he was back here finishing off a run in London- quietly, it seemed.

A rather subdued atmosphere hung over the theatre as we shuffled in to the early house. Seven of us in the stalls, a similar number in the dress circle. The auditorium was as cold and silent as at a wake.

The house lights dimmed and Crisp made his entrance to a hearty round of applause from the tiny throng. “Good evening”, he said. “Now before we get started, I’d like to do a little housekeeping. There’s a first time for everything…..Would you“, he said in his leisurely voice, swivelling a somewhat gnarled – but beautifully manicured – finger to the handful of people in the dress circle “…like to come down here and join us?” It was more of a requirement than an invitation, and those upstairs eagerly came and joined the handful of us in the front stalls. Crisp directed the new arrivals to their new seats, and made us into a single cosy group, and then the show began. Crisp snapped into his delivery like a seasoned pro, effortlessly slipping into the well-worn groove of his material.

He began: “I’ve been forbidden to describe this evening as a straight talk from a bent speaker. So instead, let’s say it’s like a consultation with a psychiatrist who is madder than you are.”

He proceeded to run the gamut, with advice, amusing anecdotes and shameless plugs for his book, which he would be signing in the foyer at the end of the show. After an interval, he answered written questions from the audience with his trademark dry wit and fun. And that oft-impersonated voice! A hint of a nasal drawl, like gravel mixed with glitter, was special to hear “live”. With one of the smallest audiences I have ever been with, I can say it was one of the most memorable nights in the theatre that I have ever had.

At the show’s conclusion, after a small hiatus, the man himself appeared in the foyer, with an Annapurna of paperbacks by his side, surreally out of proportion to the size of the attending group. For a moment I didn’t know if we were supposed to buy them or climb them.

I counted the group. Every single person had stayed.

He signed my book. His new Fontana paperback, entitled ‘How to Become A Virgin’. He signed everyone’s book. He was most polite, respectful and very grateful, and took time to inscribe the books clearly for each of us. And then he was gone, ushered back through the auditorium by the front of house team, who as I remember, looked unsettlingly like the gang in the 1955 Ealing film The Ladykillers.

1981. Or was it 1955? So hard to recall….

We went out into the night, warmed by the experience of having spent a couple of hours in the company of a person who had spent a lifetime standing up for who he was – although it attracted the wrong kind of attention – and won. A little part of us had changed forever; we would never forget the night that we met Quentin Crisp.

Quentin Crisp died in 1999, aged 90, having humorously decided to live for a century “with a decade off for good behaviour”. He left behind a string of books, stage appearances and media interviews. Never conveniently categorised in life or death, he remains an interesting figure for his often controversial views and his ability to turn a good one-liner, as well as his bravery in standing out and being himself. In his final writings, he came to the realisation that he was more a trans woman than a gay man, which revealed one final fascinating facet of the person we knew as Quentin Crisp.

Of the stage show, there was a sound recording made in New York in February 1979 which became a best-selling double LP (cover above) released by DRG, and the video recording below was made a little later, I think 1983/4.

I am delighted to say that I have tracked down this show on YouTube (below), so that you can take a trip back in time. Enjoy a slice of LGBTQ history! And Happy Pride!

With thanks to YouTube poster Sam Tichinoff

Anyone wanting to delve further into Mr Crisp’s doings may enjoy a visit to CRISPERANTO – All Things Quentin Crisp – here