Sir Donald Sinden’s Enchanted Tour of the Great West End Theatres: the First Installment
Of all the places frequented by humankind, the theater must surely be the one where we are most vital. Forget playing fields, museums, churches, mountain tops, bedrooms, and all that. One might say the proof is that they are so often inhabited by ghosts, as Sir Donald Sinden is always careful to note in the delightful series of documentaries about the theatres of London’s West End he and his son Marc are in the process of creating, The Great West End Theatres. (Ten have been finished so far. There will be forty in all.) The thing is that, if there is a haunting, one should take due note and make some attempt to identify the personage—usually an actor or manager, or both in one. Or perhaps all we need to do is be aware of how we feel, body and soul, after a truly excellent performance on stage. Never have I felt more alive than after a great evening or afternoon in the theatre. There words, gestures, and humanity become one’s lifeblood.
In these films, each devoted to a single theatre and ranging from 42 to 80 minutes in length, Sir Donald is both our host and a player, as he relates anecdotes and history, making his own contribution to the meticulous research which has gone into the creation of the films. In spite of his considerable charm and talent to amuse, they are substantial documents in the history of London theatre, the world capital of theatre in English, the most universal theatrical language in the world. If one were to take notes, they would look very much like what one would take away from a university lecture…but let’s not get into that here. Let us enjoy our hours with Sir Donald, his gifts as a raconteur and his universal curiosity about the buildings which have been his workplace for more than seventy years. We must not forget that he has acted on many of these stages and occupied many of the dressing rooms, both the grand Number Ones and the humble closets under the rafters—early in his career, of course. No one could be more suited for the task of guiding us through the public and private—in some cases very private—spaces of the great theatres of the West End. Truly, very few of us are in a position to make this tour in person.
Sir Donald’s interests encompass architecture, topography, the business of theatre, audiences, stage machinery, bars, playwrights, and, of course, actors. Historical lore is nicely balanced with personal anecdote. Beyond that, he is not afraid to bring up the most serious issues facing the future of the London stage—its economics, i.e. prohibitively high ticket prices, which exclude younger audiences, really all but well-heeled tourists, and the unfortunate trend of producers to favor mindless spectacles, many of which are Broadway imports, which run on for years, catering to the tourist market.
All his working life, it seems, he has sought out the company of older colleagues, formed friendships, and listened keenly. I haven’t enjoyed any of these serial documentaries since Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and a passion for and knowledge of their subject is what they share. Lord Clark did have his doctrines, whereas Sir Donald doesn’t need them. Perhaps it’s better to think of Sir Donald as a theatrical Betjeman. Since the arrival of the likes of Simon Schama and Ken Burns, documentary series have become more about style than substance—regrettably so—and we can only be too grateful to the Sindens for bringing substance back. I must confess my resentment over sitting down to watch Ken Burns’ Prohibition over a good red, falling asleep, and being soundly scolded for it. It was not the alcohol!
The Sindens don’t do it all alone, however. Expert opinions and variant points of view appear through interviews with distinguished theatre people, mostly actors, who have appeared on the same stages with him or hobnobbed at the Garrick. We meet Anthony Andrewes, Steven Berkoff, Simon Callow (an especially authoritative voice, since he has written so extensively about acting, the theatre, and cinema), Sir Ian McKellen (sporting a well-worn beige cardigan that seems something of a tribute to John Barton), and numerous other distinguished actors. Directors are notably absent, as one might expect from an actor, but there is some objectivity in that, since the London stage was actually driven by actors and actor-managers over most of its history. One theatrical entrepreneur looms large, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who, for better or worse, took a particular genre, the blockbuster musical and made it the dominant economic force of the past generation, and there is no sign of that changing. That means that certain of these theatres are tied up for a years with shows like Miss Saigon or Oliver!—which explains why I myself have never seen the inside of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. But this is as much theatre as Shaw or Shakespeare, and Dickens would certainly have approved of the commercial success his Oliver Twist has brought Sir Cameron’s way. In recent years, he has used his profits to acquire West End theatres and to refurbish them cost-efficiently, tastefully, and respectfully. We learn a great deal about these restorations and what has been discovered in the process from him, but he also addresses the problems attendant on the blockbuster, rising ticket prices and the engagement of audiences. These issues are developed further and more sharply by Gillian Lynne, the classical ballerina, choreographer, and director, who has had huge success in her work for Mackintosh productions like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. You will notice that many of these interviews seem to be repeated in different films. Of course there’s no reason to alter a statement that is already perfectly adequate, but some of the interviews carry subtly different meanings in different contexts, and they are often edited differently. One should keep on one’s toes for this, as one watches them.
This first series of ten films covers the gamut of London theatres, from the oldest survivor, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (1663, rebuilt in 1674, 1794, and 1812), to enterprises of the twentieth century, like the Prince of Wales, which was a 1937 rebuild of a smaller theatre on the site, the Prince’s (1884). The Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Her Majesty’s Theatre (1705, rebuilt in 1793, 1868, and 1897), the Theatre Royal Haymarket (1720, rebuilt in 1820), the Palace Theatre (1891), Wyndham’s (1898), Noël Coward (1903), St. Martin’s (1913), Ambassadors (1913), and the Piccadilly (1928). The selection, which spans the great periods of theatre and theatre building in London, encompasses a full range of the theatrical, architectural, and entrepreneurial aspects of the West End. Of these the Prince of Wales, Wyndham’s, and the Noël Coward belong to Sir Cameron’s Delfont Mackintosh Group and have been extensively restored in recent years. Their Prince Edward, Novello, Queen’s, and Gielgud are to come. While some theatres are part of large businesses, others are possessed by quite different owners. The St. Martin’s was built by (and in memory of, after his demise) Richard Greville Verney, the 19th Baron Willoughby de Broke, who passionately loved the theatre, and remains in the family today. One of the most beautiful of the theatres, with an alabaster-lined lobby and mahogany paneling in the auditorium, the St. Martin’s, has been home to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap since 1974, the longest-running play in history, when it moved there from the Ambassadors, where it had played from 1952 through 1973.
Each theatre has its own personality—as different as the men who founded and maintained the physical structures and strove to make their establishments artistic and monetary successes. Almost every one lived through difficult times, to be picked up by a new owner, lessee, or manager, who found success in a new direction. Of course the actors left their mark on them as well. Certain theatres were stages for the great Shakespearean actors of their time; others specialized in music hall entertainments, dancers and comedians, and censor-baiting revues; others, like the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, had elaborate machinery which enabled them to produce grand spectacles, battle scenes, and even the sinking of the Titanic. This is the West End. Most commercially viable form of entertainment flourished here—as far as the censor permitted. The classics are only a small part of it, but the Macreadys, Keanes, Irvings, Gielguds, Richardsons, and Redgraves are the figures who are most proudly remembered.
As we follow Sir Donald from theatre to theatre, we repeatedly hear actors, including Sir Donald himself, praise the architects for their natural sense of the relationship between the stage and seats in the auditorium, and the warmth, intimacy, and excellent acoustics of their creations. They continually emphasize that there was no science in this, only a sense of how theatre works and the relationship of the people on the stage with the people in the seats. That is clearly the most important thing about an excellent theatre. After that comes the architecture itself, the power of the spaces and design to uplift the patrons and to give them a sense of occasion—that a very special event is about to happen. This begins with foyer and carries the audience through into the auditorium. It continues in the various bars of the theatre during the interval, and Sir Donald is a fine connoisseur of their ornament and atmosphere, often consisting of fascinating memorabilia of the establishment’s history. The royal boxes have their own amenities—retiring rooms, where royalty and the nobility can refresh themselves without coming into contact with the general public. Similar to these behind the stage are the dressing rooms reserved for the leading actors and actresses. Less grand than the royal retiring rooms, these offer their own elegance and comfort, as well as the aura left by the succession of great actors who have used them. The offices can also be veritable museums and archives. These private spaces, even some corridors which have been used for trysts, never fail to elicit from Sir Donald a wealth of anecdote. A classic movie palace overwhelms with its grandeur, but a legitimate theatre welcomes and elevates. The audience may only see the theatre with the lights on for a mere half-hour to forty minutes of their evening, but, for the evening, it is their club, where they share a unique experience with their fellow theatre-goers.
Also behind stage, we see imposing stage machinery, flies above stage to house the flats. Her Majesty’s sports an enormous door large enough to admit elephants, which actually did participate in some productions. It was also recently discovered to house a nineteenth century thunder machine, which relies on rolling cannon balls for the effect. Another device which fascinates Sir Donald is limelight, with its unique aesthetic quality—and he can tell us a personal story about it.
Charles II, after the Restoration of the monarchy, lost no time in reopening the theatres. He granted only two patents, allowing the recipients to present “spoken,’ or “serious” drama. (This was the ruling principle of London theatre until 1832, when the Theatre Regulation Act abolished the exclusivity of the grantees.) The first of these (1662) went to Thomas Killigrew, who designed his Theatre Royal Drury Lane himself, likewise its replacement after a fire in 1674. (The second patent, which went to William Davenant and passed on eventually to Covent Garden, will be discussed in a future episode.) Richard Brinsley Sheridan, as manager, replaced the Killigrew theatre in 1794, then 119 years old, with an enormous structure, seating over 3600 people, designed by Henry Holland, one of the most distinguished architects of his time, who made his living providing the nobility and royal family with grand houses in town and country. The 1812 theatre we know today was the work of Benjamin Wyatt, whose clientele and practice were virtually the same as Holland. (Like Holland, he designed London clubs as well—somewhat similar in function to the theatrical front of house.) The second oldest theatre in the Sinden’s first group is Her Majesty’s, built as a the Queen’s Theatre in 1705. (Since it did not have an patent it functioned as an opera house: most of Handel’s operas premiered there.) Its architect, John Vanbrugh, like the others specialized in grand country houses, most notably Castle Howard and Blenheim. It, too, was rebuilt several times, before the present theatre was constructed in the 1890s. The Theater Royal Haymarket, just opposite Her Majesty’s, was first built by its owner, a carpenter, John Potter, in 1720, on the site of a tavern, and it was known as the Little Theatre, because of its diminutive size. Lacking a patent, Potter had to subsist on popular musical entertainments and operas. Potter’s successor, Theophilus Cibber, obtained a royal license to show spoken plays in 1758, and, after expanding the building considerably, the third patent royal in 1767, as well as its present name. The Theatre Royal Haymarket acquired its present form as part of John Nash’s design for that part of the city.
All the other theatres treated in Sindens’ first lot of ten were built in Victorian and Edwardian times, by architects who specialized in theatre design and worked on little else. Unlike the earlier generations of architects, who adapted methods they had developed designing grand domestic edifices for the nobility and royalty, these architects worked by a practical knowledge they had acquired in their specialized trade. They built for entrepreneurs, like their predecessors, who themselves catered to the highest levels of society as well as the lower end, who were eventually—and most reluctantly—transported from standing room in the stalls, following the Elizabethan model, to the balcony. These architects developed a natural sense for the immediate and intimate communication the actors needed, as well as the comfort of the patrons.
Among our ten present theatres, C. J. Phipps designed the final state of Her Majesty’s Theatre (1897) and the 1884 building of the Prince of Wales. W. G. R. Sprague designed Wyndham’s in 1891, the Noël Coward as the New Theatre in 1903, later known as the Albery, until the last retitling in 2006, and both St. Martin’s and the Ambassadors in 1913. A new generation, Bertie Crew and Edward A. Stone (the Piccadilly, 1928) and Robert Cromie (the final Prince of Wales, 1937) continued on into the twentieth century. Cromie extended his practice into cinemas, including the renowned art deco treasure, the Gaumont Palace (1932), now called the Apollo Hammersmith. Only Thomas Edward Colcutt, who designed the Palace (1891) at Cambridge Circle as an opera house, worked more generally, with Imperial House, Lloyd’s Registry of Shipping, Wigmore Hall, and the original Savoy Hotel to his credit.
The Sindens and their interviewees speak of the old theatres with reverence and the Victorian and Edwardians with affection—and of all with gratitude. Some of the favorites, like St. Martin’s and the Ambassadors, I should add, seat fewer than 600 people.
I wish I could conjure up the history and life of these much loved and venerated buildings with half the vitality and and color that are second nature to Sir. Donald. For that you’ll have to see the films. The theatres are the seats of treasured memories for me, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Londoners and foreign travellers who have been entertained and transported in their seats—not to mention the Bettertons, Garricks, Beerbohm Trees, Gielguds, Richardsons, McKellens, and Sindens who have played there. I have not viewed a series of documentaries with such sheer enjoyment since the days of Sir John Betjeman (which I actually started on just within the past year), and Sir Donald Sinden, the perfect cicerone to the West End, is without doubt the Betjeman of theatres.
A word of advice: you should buy the discs, rather than stream them, when that becomes available. You’ll most definitely want to watch them again and again.