Hipp hipp hooray for the London Hippodrome
Gambling has long been the curse of the acting profession, with so many cinemas and playhouses having been taken over by bingo halls and more recently casinos.
But, although there’s no way back from that, the incursion of the gamblers has not always necessarily been a complete philistine takeover. As often as possible, and because the architecture lent itself to the new purpose, the theatres and picture houses kept their basic structures and appearances, and some have even gone back to their original uses.
One of the bingo kings of the 70s and 80s was Jimmy Thomas, but he saw the writing on the wall as public enthusiasm for housey-housey, as it was once called, waned. He got into casinos.
At that point they were dingy affairs, nearly always windowless basement dives kept underground by some of the strictest gaming laws in the Western world. Often, they were little more than drinking dens.
Then a couple of years ago he and his son Simon, now the chief executive of the organisation, went for the big time. They bought what for some is one of the glories of West End theatre, for others a white elephant: the Hippodrome.
This is the fabulous-looking piece of Matcham magic on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Leicester Square, built at the beginning of the last century for the Moss theatre group. It was Frank Matcham’s masterpiece with all the opulent wood, brass, and intricate plaster moulding you would expect from a Matcham theatre, and was used as the Moss HQ for many years. It was never a theatre, though, designed as it was for circus entertainment. It was also a music hall where Charlie Chaplin made his West End debut, on the same bill as Little Titch. Later it was stripped out by Bernard Delfont to be a night club, the Talk of the Town, where Sinatra played. Then it was Stringfellows nightclub before completely losing its identity as a venue for specialist revue.
It is now the Hippodrome Casino, its original name revived, and in the liberation of the 2005 deregulation of gambling you can walk straight in (provided you’re sober – a famous pop star was ejected recently for over-dramatic demonstrations of emotion).
But instead of taking over the large black box it had become complete with the strobe lighting and shipping in the roulette wheels, blackjack tables and one-armed bandits, Simon Thomas has spent £50 million on restoring all the Matcham interior. Why? Simple. Because the punters like a bit of class, and you can’t get classier. It reopened last year and is now the busiest casino in the country with 160,000 visitors.
[pullquote]Gambling has entered show business[/pullquote]
Not all of them come to gamble. They use the bars, where prices are subsidised by the gamblers; they come for the cabaret in the Matcham Room, where the original stage once was (Dionne Warwick was a recent star turn). And they come to see the art. Sir Peter Blake was commissioned to create a 10-feet long collage of the stars that have graced this historic venue, and Thomas has just commissioned a digital artist, Thomas D Gray, to create a 30-panel video work that surrounds the main gaming floor, plus some light tricks that will make an effect of more Matcham design as well as trompe l’oeil pillars and windows. Gambling has entered show business.
I have to return to the skateboarding undercroft subject briefly. I wrote a polemical blog a couple of weeks ago about the probably torpedoing of plans for improving parts oif the Southbank Centre by objections by the skateboarders, much to the disapproval of their supporters. Polemic is supposed to attract criticism, and it’s gratifying to have it, but I’m forced to wonder who the complainers really are. The ordure that has poured unremittingly into my email box since then has now turned into phone calls – and if “Arthur” is still out there, calling twice to say that what I write is “bullshit” is not an argument – doesn’t sound like the work of the kind of people whose only joy is rattling round on wheeled plywood. The onslaught has been messianic, almost accusing me of blasphemy in not understanding that “the Undercroft is more famous than the Royal Festival Hall”.
It’s as if the undercroft is really the scene of the rites some quasi-religious sect. Or has skateboarding become a religion?