Time Travel Theatre: Lost Theatres Rediscovered

1. The Grand Theatre, Fulham

Photo copyright Corry Bevington

This is the first in a series of articles exploring and celebrating the UK’s many lost theatres and music halls. Although all that is left after the wrecker’s ball is a few fuzzy photos, some posters and a lot of joyous yet fragile memories, just sometimes we are given a precious window back in time. Through film, occasionally these lovely old venues are captured as part of another story, which uses their (usually faded) glories as an inexpensive backdrop for the story being told. I wanted to share with you some of our “lost” theatres through photos and films. This, the first in the series, salutes the Fulham Grand Theatre (1897-1958)

Undated Image from famloc.co.uk website, no attribution available

The Fulham Theatre opened on 23rd August 1897, built for Alexander F Henderson as a live theatre. Designed by celebrated theatre architect W.G.R. Sprague (who designed so many beautiful West End theatres), it was commandingly located at the intersection of Putney Bridge Approach and Fulham High Street, in SW6. High atop its façade with portico entrance and Ionic columns, sat a statue of Britannia and two hand-maidens.

Main foyer, Undated Image from famloc.co.uk website. No attribution available

Designed internally in the Beaux Arts style, with decorations by a Mr De Jong, the auditorium was on four levels and originally accommodated 2239 (this capacity appears to include a large number of standing places as well as seated), which was later reduced to a seating capacity of 1132. The theatre changed its name to The Shilling Theatre after a few years’ operation, and from 1912 onwards was mostly used as a cinema.

Auditorium boxes. Undated photo. No attribution available.

By 1937 it had been renamed The Grand Theatre, reverting to live performance, and closed in 1950. A little while after closure it began an undignified use as a storage facility and, in 1953, briefly as a film location (about which, more details below). After this momentary flicker of interest the theatre fell into further neglect and was demolished in 1958 to be replaced by an undistinguished office block.

Photo from 1952 when used for storage. Photo by Colin Sorensen from cinematreasures.org site with thanks.

You can read a detailed review of the 1897 opening of the theatre on the excellent arthurlloyd.com website here

During a period of closure. Undated photo. From arthurlloyd.co.uk site with thanks.

ESCAPE BY NIGHT poster. Image Used with permission. Copyright By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

Our window into the past is provided by a film called ESCAPE BY NIGHT (1953) which was filmed in part at the empty Fulham Grand Theatre. The story of a hard-drinking reporter who hides out with an Italian gangster in order to get his life story, the pair take refuge in a deserted theatre, aided only by a naïve young boy who stumbles across their hideout. The film is a low-budget affair, shot at the tiny Southall Studios and on location at the Fulham Grand. The film stars UK-based American actor Bonar Colleano as the reporter, and, as Leslie Halliwell puts it in his excellent Movie Guide, “the world’s most unlikely villain – Sid James”, as the Italian gangster. It’s hardly a great movie, however such a generous amount of screen time is spent in the theatre itself, it is worth a watch. For those less forgiving, or with less time to spare, the theatre footage starts at about 20 minutes in.

Here are some screenshots from the film showing various parts of the building:

Facade with advertising board attached
Side elevation/Stage Door
Dress Circle level
Upper Circle looking down into Dress Circle
Upper Circle level
Exit doors

I am delighted to say that I have located a copy of the film on YouTube for you to watch in the link below. Please bear in mind that links may expire – but where they do I will try to find you an alternative source.

With thanks to You Tube Poster Vintage Films, LLC. (Link checked as live at 18/03/2021 – NB links may be withdrawn at any time)

FOOTNOTE: In my research for this article I stumbled across a superb set of photos taken just before the theatre’s demolition by photographer Corry Bevington. There is a link to the photos on her website here. Find The Fulham Grand in the index under “Other projects”. *****UPDATE- Unfortunately, this link is no longer working*****

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