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How Alexandra Palace Theatre once enthralled London theatregoers

View from the circle of the Alexandra Palace Theatre. Photo: Miles Willis/Getty Images
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It seemed like a good idea at the time. A people’s palace of entertainments needed a properly designated theatre where opera, ballet, drama and variety could be staged in fine style for the residents of north London.

But Alexandra Palace Theatre went on to suffer more false dawns and setbacks in its 144-year history than almost any other playhouse in the country. Thanks to the combined patronage of the Heritage Lottery Fund and Haringey Council, is the derelict theatre finally to be restored to its original glory more than 65 years after it was last open to the public?

The £26.7 million restoration scheme – the most extensive in Ally Pally’s history – has been in progress since January 2016 and the East Wing, which includes the theatre, is expected to be open for business in spring 2018. However, the charitable trust that runs the estate still needs to raise £1 million through public funding to complete this phase of its rebirth.

To an older generation, Ally Pally is forever associated with BBC Television, which began broadcasting there in the 1930s. The Corporation drew up plans to use the theatre, already abandoned by this time, for programme production but for various reasons it was never implemented. The theatre ended up being used as a storage space for scenery and equipment until the BBC left in the 1950s.

Looking at its history, Alexandra Palace seems to have been doomed from the start. Only 16 days after the original building opened in 1873, it was destroyed by fire, killing three employees. Undaunted, the Alexandra Palace Company immediately resolved to rebuild it and, less than two years later, the new-look Ally Pally rose from the ashes.

Performer Rowland Rivron with one of the theatre seats for sale in support of the East Wing restoration project

In his 1975 book Alexandra Park and Palace: A History, RC Carrington describes the new building as “not so attractive as its predecessor, more solid, heavy and functional… obviously designed to be less susceptible to fire”.

The building comprised the 125 metre-long Great Hall, a concert hall seating 3,500, a theatre seating 3,000, a smaller theatre space, a banqueting suite, lecture rooms, a library, restaurants, club rooms, two picture galleries, an exhibition space and a small zoo. The grand opening – or reopening – took place on May 1, 1875, attended by the Lord Mayor of London and various civic dignitaries.

Days later, on Bank Holiday Monday, some 90,000 people flocked to the site to see balloonists, parachutists, re-enactments of great battles, circus acts, bands, fireworks, races, concerts and theatrical attractions of various kinds.

In her book The Lost Theatres of Haringey, Marlene McAndrew draws attention to the social and economic disparity between activities inside and outside the palace. She writes: “It would seem that the rowdy poor stayed mainly outside, while the refined middle classes patronised the inside, including the theatre.”

The shoebox-shaped theatre was 31.6 metres (104ft) long, similar in configuration to many music halls of the time, making it better suited to operatic, ballet or musical performances than to spoken drama. A report in The Era at the time, while finding the space “large and lofty”, praised its acoustic qualities: “Even at the extreme end of the building the singers in the operetta could be heard with the greatest distinctness.”

The first of a succession of pantomimes was produced at the theatre at the end of 1875. A combination of extravagant production values and music hall-style performances worked brilliantly in the cavernous space. The shows also cut across social barriers, as they do today. There were six Ally Pally pantomimes altogether: The Yellow Dwarf (1875), St George and the Dragon (1877), Dick Whittington and His Cat (1878), Little Jack Horner (1879), Puss in Boots (1880) and Hop o’ My Thumb (1881). And there were also three summer pantomimes – the form was not yet exclusively confined to Christmas.

Often four or five hours long, the pantos had 100 or more performers, and dozens of stagehands to facilitate changes of scenery and special effects. It was not uncommon for several members of the same family, including children, to work together on these shows, both on and off stage.

In his 1988 book Drama at the Palace, Nigel Willmott estimates there were 60 dramatic productions, of which half were straight plays and the rest farces. Many would have been programmed as part of a full day’s entertainment. Apparently, the most popular playwright with audiences was the Irish writer Dion Boucicault (author of London Assurance and The Shaughran). Melodramas such as East Lynne and Lady Audley’s Secret were also a reliable draw.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the people’s palace got into financial difficulties after less than two years. While it was able to pull in huge crowds for bank holidays, summer weekends and the festive season, it failed to find a business model that worked all year round to meet its running costs. In short, it did not pay its way.

As the growth of cinema continued apace in the early years of the 20th century, it was increasingly used as a picture house. Later, in the mid-1930s, it was leased to the BBC, which stayed there until the 1950s.

The theatre survived a damaging fire in 1980. Following its Grade II listing by English Heritage in 1996, some repairs were carried out, including a new roof for the theatre and re-flooring of the foyer.

For information about fundraising for the theatre, visit support.alexandrapalace.com

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