Time to Remember: London’s original TKTS

July sees the 40th anniversary of the Official London Discounted Ticket Booth – TKTS. In its time it has become a London landmark for theatregoers looking for a last-minute bargain. But did you know that there was a London TKTS before the one in Leicester Square?

Photo courtesy Society of London Theatre website.

In this look into the archives, my friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD writes about his time as the pioneering Finance Director of the Arts Council (1957-1984) – and his first experiment with reduced price tickets – in a caravan in Covent Garden! This article dates from June 2010

As long ago as 1976 the Arts Council of Great Britain was concerned to bring together the commercial and subsidised theatre [NOTE: Something that Anthony himself had been working on since 1956!]. This concern manifested itself in the launching of the Theatre Investment Fund which was funded by £100,000 from the Arts Council and £150,000 raised from private sources by Lord Goodman, then the Arts Council’s chair.

The 1976/77 Arts Council Annual Report records that I launched a trial run of TKTS in London modelled on the scheme which had been running successfully in New York since 1973. The Times Square model was based on unsold tickets on the day of performance being made available at one-half of the face value plus a nominal sales charge. In 1975/76 the Times Square booth made a profit of $160,000 which was ploughed back into commercial producing managements on Broadway.

TKTS Times Square, New York, 1973

I proposed a similar scheme at a meeting of the Society of West End Theatre (SWET) and it was thrown out. Undeterred, I then borrowed a caravan from the London Tourist Board and placed it on a bomb site in Covent Garden and persuaded the Arts Council to finance a trial run. As the Arts Council’s Finance Director, this was considered to be one of my “capers”.

However, led by Sir Peter Saunders, then the SWET Chairman, the West End theatre managements did not want to encourage the sale of cheap tickets and certainly did not want to admit that any shows were not selling out.

The TKTS scheme was devised so that theatregoers could queue each day for any available tickets without having to visit each of the many theatres throughout London. However, as only the few managements who were not SWET members sent us tickets, we were forced to close down the trial run after three months. The Arts Council’s 32nd Annual Report wrote “the expertise is now there should SWET ever choose to interest itself in the existence of such a scheme”.

Luckily, after several years SWET did come to realise how useful a TKTS scheme could be and launched it successfully in Leicester Square where it is the official channel for unsold tickets – unlike the many unofficial tickets agencies now cluttering the West End.

With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish this article.

AFTERWORD The recent news that the TKTS box office In Leicester Square is to close “for the foreseeable future” is a sad ending of a chapter in the life of a venue which has become a much-loved London landmark; it is horribly sad that this should occur on its 40th anniversary. It had been selling 400,000 theatre tickets a year – a very significant contribution to the West End. I sincerely hope that it will soon rise again to continue to serve London’s theatregoers for many years to come.

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