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!

Time to Remember: the legendary Sir John Gielgud

Sir John Gielgud. Photo uncredited.

While our live theatre scene is interrupted, here is another in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of interesting people and memorable events.

SIR JOHN GIELGUD (1904 – 2000) was one of the trinity of theatre knights who dominated the London stage for half a century. In this appreciation from 2010, ANTHONY FIELD recalls seeing many of his performances, and even auditioning for the man himself. Enjoy the read!

By the time I became a theatregoer in the 1930s John Gielgud had already been acting every year from 1921; by the time I became a regular theatregoer in the 1940s John Gielgud had already established himself as one of Britain’s leading actors, and admired as a director and a producer.

“Who’s Who in the Theatre” records his first appearance on November 7th 1921 as a Herald in HENRY IV, although his autobiography EARLY STAGES lists his first “walk-on” parts were in PEER GYNT and KING LEAR at the Old Vic in 1922. His schedule of appearances were then endless each month throughout every year in the 1920s and 1930s, repeatedly as actor, director and producer of classics and new drama.

In 1935 a unique production of ROMEO AND JULIET had Laurence Olivier playing Romeo to Gielgud’s Mercutio alternatively with Gielgud’s Romeo to Olivier’s Mercutio. This was a chance to make the difficult comparison of two great actors. Gielgud’s Mercutio was spoken with rare virtuosity, the greatly moving delivery of the Queen’s Mob’s lines becomes a scherzo; whereas Olivier looked a handsome young Italian as Romeo.

During these seasons John played Romeo 186 times, and played Hamlet over 500 times, both the longest runs on record.

My first chance to admire his acting was in the repertory season at the Haymarket in 1944 when he opened in THE CIRCLE on 11 October, LOVE FOR LOVE on 12 October and HAMLET on 13 October. He then took HAMLET and BLITHE SPIRIT on and extensive E.N.S.A. tour to the troops in Malta and Gibraltar, and then on to the Far East, appearing in Bombay, Madras, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Delhi, Karachi and Cairo.

He returned to tour all the UK’s regional theatres as Raskolnikoff in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (with Peter Ustinov) ending with a six-month season in London. His love for THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST led him to produce it and play John Worthing in a long tour of Canada and the U.S. in repertoire with LOVE FOR LOVE.

Gielgud was by then so established that he could develop his interest in new drama which included directing plays such as Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE. I, myself, auditioned for the part of the Gentleman Caller in September 1948 and perhaps it was as well that I failed as Gielgud was a notoriously demanding director, quick to sack any actor not up to it with ruthless and peremptory candour, although no-one seemed to be hurt as he was so full of heart for the theatre.

It is really impossible to assess who is the greatest actor of all time. Gielgud defeated Olivier as Hamlet and Romeo while Olivier knocked out Gielgud as Othello and Antony. Each contributed his own colour to the scene. Gielgud’s tremulous voice was such an exquisite instrument, illuminating the test of KING LEAR with passion and clarity. It measured evenly with Olivier’s triumphant exposition of this role. Alan Dent wrote that “John is claret and Larry is burgundy”.

The first performance (26th November 1953) of N C Hunter’s A DAY BY THE SEA at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket was unforgettable. Directed by Gielgud, the cast included Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Irene Worth, Megs Jenkins and Gielgud himself. Gielgud cast himself as a failed diplomat who proposed twenty years too late to a woman who wasn’t too keen to take on a third husband after two disastrous marriages.

However, not long before the first night, Gielgud was subject to a police entrapment for a homosexual crime and it was of concern that his first entrance on the first night would cause a demonstration. I was sitting at the front of the Upper Circle and could see police officers at each side of the Stalls and Dress Circle. Sir John was, in the event, pushed onto the stage by Sybil Thorndike and was met by a thunderous ovation. This greeting was almost as unsettling to him than if he had been heckled. However, he soon regained his equilibrium and the ensemble acting was admired more than the play.

He reopened the Queen’s Theatre in July 1958 with his one-man show AGES OF MAN. He proved incomparable as Henry IV, Clarence, John of Gaunt and particularly Richard II when both he and the audience wept buckets. The anthology of Shakespeare would become a regular stand-by for him over the next decade, winning him worldwide acclaim.

In his later years John endorsed new playwrights in a way no classical actor had ever done, either appearing in or directing plays including Peter Shaffer’s BATTLE OF THE SHRIVINGS, David Storey’s HOME, Charles Wood’s VETERANS, Edward de Bono’s BINGO, Harold Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND and Julian Mitchell’s HALF-LIFE. My office wall is adorned with a painting of the front of the Apollo Theatre announcing John with Ralph Richardson in HOME which was a key moment in both actors’ careers, doing for them what John Osborne’s THE ENTERTAINER did for Olivier. It brought them firmly into the modern mainstream and John said “we were like the Broker’s Men in Cinderella”.

Again with Ralph Richardson in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND he reported “what does it matter what it means so long as the audience is held” and Peter Hall’s direction led him to consider that “these two great actors are the best double act since Laurel and Hardy”.

Like every great actor, John Gielgud was endowed with faults. He could not walk across a stage without suggesting that his knees were tied together with a silk scarf. But then, Kemble was cold and Macready was pompous. However, John’s speaking voice was supreme in its lyrical flexibility and made him incomparable with its sheer exquisiteness. He brought his vocal beauty when playing Shakespeare to modern plays which benefitted from his nuances of humanity.

Olivier was better suited to the heroic parts, the extroverts, which Gielgud shrewdly left alone, preferring to play the comedies of manners with style and elegance. His Jack Worthing in IMPORTANCE was perfection while his Valentine in LOVE FOR LOVE was warm,tender, glowing and expressive of a heart full of human devotion. His taste and artistry was of the highest integrity and he did more to sustain the artistic standard of British theatre in the 20th century than any other actor.

Gielgud’s last stage appearance, after eleven years absence from the West End, was for Michael Redington at the Apollo in Hugh Whitemore’s THE BEST OF FRIENDS when his charm and wit were undiminished. During the 16-week season he celebrated his 84th birthday.

AFTERWORD: Some of Sir John Gielgud’s performances have been captured for television. You can see him in David Storey’s HOME here

and in Pinter’s NO MAN’S LAND here

Views: Confidence is the key in theatres’ brave new world

RSC Stratford lit red for part of the #wemakeevents national event in August

A personal view by Unrestricted Theatre founder, Gary Donaldson

Eight months into the Covid-19 era and here we are in lockdown once again. Public entertainment and hospitality venues are shuttered once again, as the country tries to drive down the spiralling growth of cases of this invisible threat which appears to attack so mercilessly.

The incompetent UK government, having totally mishandled every aspect of public information from Day One, has reduced the UK to a global laughing-stock, especially for its “one rule for us and one rule for you” mentality – remember Dominic Scummings’ (not a misprint, a review) Barnard Castle jaunt that drove the public past the point of return to any sort of government credibility.

And all the time these clowns were creating chaos, risking the lives of our loved ones and driving our beloved NHS to breaking point, our still globally-respected entertainment sector was on its knees, ignored by a Culture Secretary who said he was on our side, but aside from hot air, we got nothing. We’d have been better off having a dead parrot on our side.

Whereas large swathes of industry (all the government’s old chums network barging to the front of the line) got financial largesse within a few weeks of the crisis hitting, the arts and culture sector had to wait more than six full months to see a penny of any financial assistance. Thousands of arts staff across the country were made redundant with no light appearing at the end of the tunnel. But even they fared better than the freelancers – hundreds of thousands of dedicated and talented creatives who found themselves falling through a safety net that almost appears specifically designed to exclude them.

#WeMakeEvents in August highlighted the plight of freelancers who make our industry work by lighting arts and entertainment buildings all in red. To a passionate and supportive public – and an utterly deaf government.

And then, and then. Government decided that it would be a real morale booster to all those they were already ignoring and starving of lifelines to be told that their jobs were “unviable”. You try telling that to a classical musician who has spent decades in their career! Did the Chancellor (Fishy Rishi) and the Business Secretary (Alok him up Sharma) think that their gift of creativity would be more viably expressed by driving a Tesco delivery van instead? Perhaps Sir Ian McKellen might be more “viable” running a fruit and veg stall in Brick Lane market?And if so, what does that tell us about this government’s conscious incompetence? As well as their utter disregard for ambition, talent and aspiration.

In yet another unbelievably tone-deaf move, the government decided that all applicant organisations for funds (the process for which they had farmed out to the Arts Council for them to take any flak) would have to compete against each other, thus providing an undignified pushing and shoving as they fought for the means to keep much-loved and age-old venues and companies alive. One National does not equal ten Southwark Playhouses. But you can’t explain this to people who understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Then, we find out, the almost one-third of all the applicants- the ones who failed to receive any funding at all – were simply cast adrift. Thankfully, creative folk being who they are, started creating a whole raft of public Crowdfunder campaigns which rallied to try to assist the majority of beloved local and national organisations who had been given the governmental cold shoulder. Also thankfully, audiences responded with their usual warmth of appreciation for their local and national organisations. I sincerely wish them all well, and have myself contributed to as many as I have felt financially able to.

Those organisations who did finally receive some of the financial help they had requested many months ago were given full and complete instructions on just one aspect of the transaction – how they were to publicly trumpet their gratitude. They were instructed to do this by genuflecting sycophantically at length about how grateful they were all over their social media feeds to try and put lipstick on this pig of a government. It didn’t work. And you could smell the embarrassment on media feeds everywhere.

Then the BBC’ s Parliament channel gave us the worst show of all, the farce of the Select Committee demonstrating that they had very little idea about real life or the arts, let alone any idea of how the arts and entertainment industries actually work, and worse still, demonstrating no interest or inclination to listen or learn. What a demeaning spectacle. It was like taking a pre-school playgroup to see the Hadron Collider.

Meanwhile, producers worked tirelessly this way and that to try to put work on, continually frustrated by endless variables including the local disparities in viral status across the country, so that planned drive-in tours and outdoor performances had to be postponed or cancelled. Some diversified creatively, showing movies as an alternative entertainment, others like ENO created Drive In Opera at Alexandra Palace and other venues. Others managed to get shows on in open-air and traditional venues, like Kenny Wax, Katy Lipson and David Pugh, and one must applaud the drive and determination of every producer who set out to make shows during this period. It must have been like skiing downhill in a blizzard. Many other groups got work together and aired it online, which was a great help to creatives as well as their superfans, and helped to build audiences for shows which perhaps some might not have traditionally considered, as well as those with pre-existing conditions who feared leaving their homes.

And then, with all these green shoots coming through – venues which had worked tirelessly to creatively adapt with reduced seating, perspex screen dividers and all manner of creative interventions – were summarily told they would have to shut again, placing yet more strain and insecurity on an already buckling sector.

Now we await December 2nd. Theatres are poised, their schedules all in place, actors rehearsing behind closed doors. They, and the audiences who so long for theatre’s return, are counting down the days.

Christmas is traditionally theatres’ best bet for making profits. Regionally, it is crucial to generate the income which propels the rest of the year. West End-wise, theatres’ big capacities bring the big money rolling in, with rarely a seat to be found between Christmas and New Year’s. Normally.

To lose Christmas for the arts and culture would be something akin to being run over by a truck for a second time. Who knows how many would get up.

Personally, I believe that the hope of a reasonable Christmas is a good enough incentive to get people to abide by the rules over this next couple of weeks, in the hope that restrictions can then ease.

As I see it, the biggest problem isn’t just about restrictions lifting, it’s the rebuilding of confidence that will need to happen before people feel comfortable enough to firstly go out of their houses, then take whatever travel options they have available, and finally to feel able to relax in a building with a lot of others in the same place at relatively close quarters. We have already seen anxiety and all sorts of pyschologically-related disorders rise exponentially. How, I wonder, will this play out with theatregoers? Although I would relish seeing a live show greatly, am I in any rush to return to a busy auditorium? No. It’s a bit like driving. You can be the most responsible driver in the world – all it takes is one idiot to do something wrong and you could be in trouble.

I worry about how much this will filter through to audiences. I think that theatres are doing all they can to assuage people’s fears- SOLT and UKTheatre’s SEE IT SAFELY campaign is providing customers with a reliable standard and very important visual reinforcement that venues are doing everything reasonably possible to adhere to wise safety processes. But its when you put the volatile commodity of people into the equation, that’s when the real litmus test will be.

I wish it success with all my heart.

As to what the government will do to control and diminish Covid-19’s threat both to human life and to the future of our industry, heaven alone knows. They have already proved themselves utterly incapable of running anything, let alone a co-ordinated virus response. And for anyone who disagrees, I have just three words – Test and Trace.

But, frankly, what can you expect of a government that actually voted to let children starve during the Christmas holidays?

Winners of the Black Theatre Awards 2020 announced

On a busy night for British Theatre, the Black British Theatre Awards were awarded in a ceremony broadcast by Sky Arts channel (Freeview ch 11) on Sunday 25th October.

Personally, I was delighted to see that Nadia Fall really deservedly won Best Director of a Play or Musical for her brilliant production of FAIRVIEW at the Young Vic (see my review here)

I was also very happy to see two rising stars who are in my personal favourite list being honoured – Cherrelle Skeete was awarded Best Supporting Female Actor for her nuanced performance in THE HIGH TABLE (see my review here) and Rachel Nwokoro (who I enjoyed hugely in LITTLE BABY JESUS for which which she recently won The Stage’s Debut Award (see my review here) at the Orange Tree in Richmond) was presented with the Disability Champion Award.

Best Male Actor in A Play was Valentine Olukoga for THE FISHERMEN at Trafalgar Studios, and Best Female Actor in a Play was Rakie Ayola for ON BEAR RIDGE at the Royal Court (see my review here).

DEATH OF A SALESMAN was awarded Best Production Play, whilst the award for Best Male Actor in a Musical went to Noah Thomas for his performance in EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE and Best Female Actor in a Musical was won by Miriam Teak-Lee for her work in & JULIET, scooping a double win on the same evening she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the same show.

Congratulations to all the nominees and winners!


Remembering the great Tommy Rall

Tommy Rall with Ann Miller in MGM’s KISS ME, KATE (1953)

“The best all-round dancer we had at MGM was Tommy Rall. He could do anything and do it better than any other dancer.”

Gene Kelly

“above Astaire and Kelly”

Donald O’Connor

It is terribly sad to hear that one of the greatest twentieth century dancers, the sublime Tommy Rall, passed away aged 90 on October 6th.

Ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatics, Rall could do it all. He was also a highly accomplished singer (an operatic tenor), actor, and his good looks were hardly a drawback.

Born in 1929 and growing up in Seattle, he took dance classes from an early age and was soon performing in Seattle theatres. When his family moved to Los Angeles in the early forties, Rall was hired to be a member of the jitterbugging Jivin’ Jacks and Jills, a group created for Universal Studios musicals unit to lighten several of the unit’s movies. Aged just thirteen, you can see him bringing his acrobatics and grace to bear in this excerpt from one of those early musicals.(below). The clip heats up at about 0’40” in.

Rall was very in-demand through the forties , fifties and sixties. His stage work through into the fifties lead to more film work, and he spent many years shuttling between Broadway and Hollywood. Film-wise Rall was most often at MGM, where he was featured in KISS ME,KATE and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS as well as Gene Kelly’s INVITATION TO THE DANCE. Other film work included Columbia’s MY SISTER EILEEN where he worked alongside co-star/choreographer Bob Fosse.

In his retirement he became a celebrated painter and continued to receive letters from fans right up until his passing.

Why didn’t he become a more recognised star? Perhaps because there was more work we saw on film of him in combination with others rather than solo, therefore perhaps people underrated his abilities and appeal? Personally I have always considered him one of the all-time greats. Elegance combined with confidence and sheer ability fuse to make him a magnetic force on-screen.

On 6th October there came this message from the Tommy Rall Facebook page – From the post by Cynthia Wands: “I’m very sorry to share the news that our dear Tommy Rall, died tonight of congestive heart failure around 5:00pm Pacific Time, in Santa Monica, California. But I want to share with folks here a rather magical story of Tommy’s passing. A hospice nurse was by Tommy’s bedside and found a box that held the cards and letters that had been sent to him in the last few weeks. She spent the afternoon reading each one to him, and when she finished reading the last one – he peacefully stopped breathing and passed away. She was very moved by the experience and wanted to share that story with the family. A private service will be held in the future. In the meantime, we have Tommy’s dancing and singing and beautiful spirit to remember. Thank you for helping to honor that spirit in these memories.”

Thanks to film, we can enjoy and lovingly remember Tommy in his prime. Watch him here “duel-dance” with Bob Fosse – and win! (Notice also the long continuous takes for each sequence of the routine.)

And here’s another Rall triumph from Paramount’s 1955 THE SECOND GREATEST SEX

Tommy Rall – there’ll never be another.