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History Deleting

'Facts about the past of British theatre are ever more difficult to find,' Writes David Cheshire

The Stage Newspaper 15 August 2003

History DeletingToo many people seem to be taking Henry Ford's off-hand quip, "All history is more or less bunk", increasingly to heart - even in theatreland.

It is apparent that occasionally new administrators criticise or rubbish the work and attitude of their predecessors, especially if they have been extraordinarily successful and implement immediate changes, some good, some bad.

It is also increasingly apparent that theatre history in most areas of education, even in some university departments devoted to study in that area, starts in 1990 with occasional looks back to 1956 and a squint or two at Shakespeare with much of the information dispersed being very superficial or downright wrong.

Unfortunately this somewhat cavalier attitude to theatrical history has spread recently to books and articles on theatre buildings, - not, of course, to mention the internet.

Whether these mistakes have been the result of accident or design is occasionally a matter of conjecture but material dispersed by developers, producers, theatre-owners, planning authorities and even 'expert' reports on theatre history on the London Hippodrome, Mermaid, Westminster Arts Centre, the Old Vic, Wilton's, The Rose and the new Hampstead Theatre has, for example, for one reason or another, been especially error-ridden.

There is probably more of the interior of Frank Matcham's London Hippodrome left than reports - even by the Matcham Society - suggest and certainly far more of it survives than remained of WGR Sprague's Lyceum, Sheffield, so sensationally restored by the Renton Howard Wood Levin Partnership in 1990.

The decision to allow the demolition of the Westminster Arts Centre will one day be a brilliant study of how to get rid of a well built and appointed building hindering the development of yet another residential block in an area sorely in need of arts provision for the thousands of residents in the already existing public and private flats surrounding it.

The Westminster was mysteriously given a certificate of immunity from listing in the late nineties even though the history of the site itself suggests that it should have been a virtually automatic candidate for listing, the 18th-century chapel was incorporated in 1923 by J. Stanley Beard into a cinema, adapted by Arnold Dunbar Smith in 1911 into a theatre, altered by John and Sylvia Reid when they surrounded it in 1966 by a marvelously well equipped Arts Centre and extended by the same architects in 1972 when even more facilities were added.

Both the Old Vic and Wilton's have slightly misrepresented their past history for publicity purposes. Even a recent article on The Rose in The Times had an error in its opening paragraph: "The Rose, the first of the Bankside Tudor theatres and the only one of which any remains have been found." Clearly wrong as immediately after the remains of the Rose were re-discovered in 1989, the remains of the original Globe were also rediscovered during building works over the road. But apart from a cursory look at some of them they also had to be covered over again as most of them were either under the approach to Southwark Bridge or under a row of routine, specbuilt Georgian houses - listed and, therefore, untouchable.

All this information about these theatres is retrievable but as with a lot of recent theatre history often only after a certain amount of research. As the history of theatre buildings is often confusing, especially where alterations and use are involved, those concerned may he excused the occasional error if it does not affect the future of the building. But where pure facts are concerned it is a less easy to excuse the perpetrators, especially if the 'facts' are used to get rid of a building for one reason or another

Finally, it would seem that the new Hampstead Theatre has included in the information distributed to the press that 'it is the first new [stand-alone] theatre [built] in London since Denys Lasdun's National in 1976' - a fact that has been regularly reproduced over recent months even in articles by distinguished experts and major trade associations as well as reviewers.

This 'fact' is easily disproved by a quick reference to any guide to London theatres as in addition to the obvious Barbican Centre (1982) and Shakespeare's Globe (1997) other new theatres include Sadler's Wells (1998) - yes a fragment of the old was retained but not enough to detract from the 'all new' caveat - Teatri Polski (1975), Churchill Theatre, Bromley (1977), Waterman's, Brentford (1984), The Millfield Theatre, Enfield (1988), The Paul Robeson Theatre, Hounslow (1988), The Players Theatre (1989) and the Chicken Shed Theatre, Southgate (1994).

Possibly with "the exception of the first three, the argument is that they are not in London but Greater London and, therefore, they do not really count - compare the arguments that the Queen's, Homchurch have with the listing magazines as it tries to get into the London sections.

However, as Ray Mander and Joe Mitchenson found when they tried to correct the 'This is where Henry Irving and Ellen Terry appeared' statement - a hardy perennial when the Lyceum, London was out of use, except for non-popular music and social dancing purposes, trying to correct false theatre history is often a lost cause. To slightly adapt the newspaper editor's observation on the preceding events in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. "This is the theatre, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

David Cheshire - The Stage Newspaper 15 August 2003.

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