London Palladium tours are pretty rare and only occur during the week in daytime, so I had to take a day off work to be able to attend one. I turned up in plenty of time and joined the group milling about the box office.
The tour started promptly at 11.30, and was led by Mark Fox, the Advertising Manager for Really Useful Theatres, the group which currently owns the Palladium as well as several other theatres in London. During the tour, we learned a lot about the history of the theatre and the site, as well as some of the stars who have graced the stage here.
The site used to belong to the Duke of Argyll, whose house and grounds occupied an area of London that at the time was practically countryside. By the time the site was sold, the area was much more built up, as London had expanded considerably in the intervening centuries. One of the reasons for the high concentration of Victorian and Edwardian-era theatres in the West End is the frequency with which land became available to buy owing to attempts to rebuild London as a healthier, more hygienic city, along the lines of Paris. This particular site was used as a circus before Walter Gibbons bought it with the intention of capitalising on the growing appetite for music hall: Argyll Street was a prime spot owing to the recent opening of Oxford Circus underground station very close by. The name Palladium comes from the classical world: these kinds of names were particularly fashionable at the time (e.g. the Hippodrome and the Coliseum). Gibbons hired Frank Matcham, the famous theatre architect, to build his new music hall. Like many others of the period, it was not particularly designed to be a lasting building, but like many others, it has lasted to this day.
Matcham ensured in his building that, in common with the mores of the day, the different classes of theatregoer were divided from one another, with the dress circle ticket holders entering via the beautiful central staircase, front stalls audience members being escorted to their seats and offered an at-seat service, those in the rear stalls being sent down a lower corridor, and those in the cheapest upper circle seats entering round the side of the building. The foyer still retains its grandeur, with stained glass windows, a marble staircase, and ashtrays by the doors to accommodate the smokers (there also used to be ashtrays on the back of the seats in the auditorium itself). Dress circle ticket holders still enter this way, but those in the stalls can enter through what was once the ticket hall and has now been transformed into an entrance area and bar. In the old days, theatregoers would queue up inside to buy tickets from a booth along the side, and there were ticket carousels to ensure the correct tickets were given out and accurate records could be kept. Just before a show, tickets could be taken down to small booths at each entrance of the theatre and sold to last-minute audience members.
These days, people tend to buy their tickets online (and there’s a different box office, anyway), so this area was converted for the theatre’s 100th anniversary in 2010. Through the skylight it’s possible to see the back of 8 Argyll Street, a Georgian house incorporated into the theatre and used as offices. It is still the official address for the theatre, and has its own interesting history, as US author Washington Irving stayed there during his sojourn in London.
The auditorium itself is really beautiful, a triumph of theatre engineering on the part of Frank Matcham. I don’t think I ever properly appreciated it until today. Though it seats over 2000, it does have a more intimate feel than many other large venues. The dress circle and upper circle balconies were constructed with single strips of steel, so that no view-restricting columns were needed. Standing on the stage, you realise what a good connection the performers have with their audience members, as you can see right to the back of the upper circle.
I was very surprised at how small the stage is. Yes, it is wide, but it is also fairly shallow, with very limited space in the wings, and only a small on-stage area for quick changes or prop storage. This is largely down to its history as a music hall: large storage areas were simply not needed. Moving large pieces of scenery in and out therefore becomes pretty tricky.
Over the years, the theatre has played host to music hall, variety performances (it was the first place in which slides from Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic exhibition were shown to the public), cinema, comedy and concerts. Sunday Night at the London Palladium is pretty famous, of course, and many Hollywood stars such as Judy Garland and Bing Crosby have played here. Pantomimes were a regular fixture for many years, and the tradition was revived last year. Musicals have also featured, including Oliver, My Fair Lady and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and most recently The Wizard of Oz and the revival of Cats.
Underneath the stage, it’s possible to see where the old wooden stage ends and the steel flooring begins: this can be removed and replaced with whatever a set designer wants. We also saw where the old revolving stage used to be, removed a few years ago.
Our tour ended in the Cinderella Bar, after taking a peek at the Royal Box. The tour lasted over two hours and its a testament to how good it was that I never once felt bored or fatigued. It was definitely worth taking a day off work for.