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!


Celebrating the great theatres of master architect W G R Sprague

A very poor reproduction of W G R Sprague (the only one available), with thanks to arthurlloyd.co.uk

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.”

Novello Theatre

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.

Noel Coward Theatre

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).

Camden Theatre, now KOKO

His most significant design outside London was the Sheffield Lyceum (1897), thankfully restored and now a Number One touring house.

SHEFFIELD LYCEUM By Harry Mitchell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28105563

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).

Streatham Hill Theatre

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.


Explore a wealth of architecture as London Open House carries on online and in person

This weekend, September 19 and 20, many interesting and usually private buildings will once again open their doors to those of us who take pleasure in exploring their design and construction.

This year, a high proportion of “visits” will be virtual ones as the explorations happen online, but it hasn’t stopped the organisers from gathering an impressive array of different types of building.

Once again theatres will take part, and you can find theatre listings by clicking here

You can visit the Open House website by clicking here


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