Open access: Documenting London’s theatres

Father and son team Donald and Marc Sinden emabrk on a historical journey around the great West End theatres in a series of DVDs. Nick Smurthwaite gets a taster of what promises to be the most definitive guide to Theatreland

The tender, loving care that has been lavished upon so many West End theatres in recent years is celebrated in a new DVD series, Great West End Theatres, masterminded by producer Marc Sinden and fronted by his father, Sir Donald, whose fruity cadences are well-suited to the 19th century splendour of our cherished playhouses.

Beerbohm Tree’s casting couch at Her Majesty’s, the ghost at the Haymarket who only appears when a production is a hit, and a grisly murder at the Adelphi will be among the topics discussed in this epic series covering the 40-odd London venues covered by the monthly Society of London Theatre list.

I met up with father and son at an editing suite in Soho to view a rough cut of one of these soon to be released DVDs. It concerned the history and architecture of Wyndham’s Theatre, described by its owner and restorer, Cameron Mackintosh, as “the prettiest theatre in London”.

As well as opening one’s eyes to the stunning decorative details of the Wyndham’s, with the help of actors Samuel West, Charles Dance and Martin Shaw, the film also gives Sir Donald an opportunity to unleash one of his classic anecdotes, involving Laurence Olivier, giving his Richard III at the time at the neighbouring New Theatre, and a histrionic busker who recited Shakespearean speeches to the queue waiting for gallery seats.

Olivier became intrigued by this wannabe thespian, goes the story, and eventually asked him how much money he made. The busker replied that he averaged 50 quid a week. At the time, the country’s greatest actor was on the princely sum of £25 a week.

As anyone who has ever crossed his path or seen his one-man show knows, Sir Donald is a walking repository of stories from England’s theatrical past and, even at 87, he can still reel them off with virtuosic precision (if you don’t believe me, have a listen to our podcast).

Sir Donald’s association with the West End started more than 65 years ago at His Majesty’s – later Her Majesty’s – just after the war. “I knew nothing about the theatre when I first started acting,” he says. “Luckily I was given my first job by the theatre manager, Charles F Smith, who knew everybody. When I started to get work in the West End, I joined the Green Room Club where I met a lot of actors who had been famous in the 19th century – people like Allan Aynesworth, Irene Vanbrugh and John Martin Harvey, who had worked with Henry Irving.”

In his one-man show, Sinden tells the delicious story of a young actor who was so badly treated by Donald Wolfit that he plotted his revenge during a production of Macbeth. On the last night, instead of announcing “The Queen, my Lord, is dead”, he confounded Wolfit with the news the Queen was in fact “very much better”.

As well as his anecdotage, Sir Donald has an impressive collection of theatrical memorabilia, including his own disembodied head, complete with dangling entrails, a reminder of his performance in the RSC’s Wars of the Roses in 1963 in which he played the Duke of York, who was decapitated. “For some reason my wife didn’t want it in the dining room so it was consigned to the garden shed, where it still resides,” he says.

So which is Sir Donald’s favourite West End theatre? “It would have to be the Haymarket, which is every actor’s dream theatre. If you were to draw the archetypal theatre, it would end up as the Haymarket.”

And what have the Sindens learnt about the West End from filming the series? Marc replies: “Even in the theatres we knew, what impressed us most was how much the crews care about their respective theatres. You’d be amazed how often they have come up to us and said, ‘You’re going to make my theatre look beautiful, aren’t you?’ There is that protectiveness and pride of ownership among the people who work in them.”

The Sindens are most admiring of Mackintosh’s restoration work: “Not just paint jobs but he has virtually rebuilt them with such care and love – it is the greatest legacy bestowed by a modern impresario I can think of,” says Marc. And as for theatres in urgent need of TLC, he says there are many: “In most of the theatres we’ve seen, backstage is abysmal. We were forbidden to film backstage in one particular theatre because the conditions were considered to be so poor. You feel like saying, ‘Well do something about it then’.”

The first DVDs will be available from June. Visit www.greatwestendtheatres.co.uk for details

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