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NEW! Second part of the first detailed Victorian history of the Alexandra Palace Theatre

Drama at the Palace

Lost and Found: The Alexandra Palace Theatre 1901-2019


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by Nigel Willmott and Patricia Brearey

Softback; 270 pages, inc 35 illustrations

ISBN: 978 0993 0727 10

Publication date: 18 November 2019

Grand Victorian theatre, London's largest cinema, refugee reception centre, alien internment camp, chapel, government offices, venue for variety 'concert parties', production house for West End revues, prospective site for the first modern TV studios, BBC scenery workshop and store, dark, derelict and forgotten, until reopening after 85 years as a modern, multipurpose performance space.

The Alexandra Palace and its theatre chart the changes in popular entertainment over a century and a half like few other places. It's also a history that reflects wider cultural and social changes, and political movements.

Drama at the Palace: Victorian Heyday, The Alexandra Palace Theatre 1873-1901, published in 2014, told the story of the theatre in the Victorian period, when it boasted a state of the art stage and innovative theatrical machinery, and was home to all forms of drama, from farce to Shakespeare, musical theatre, opera, variety and, its speciality, pantomime and spectacle.

Lost and Found takes up the story from the death of Queen Victoria and the transfer of Alexandra Palace to a consortium of local authorities, following a series of failed commercial ventures.

Theatre and pantomime returned, only to fight a losing battle with a building badly in need of renovation and the new entertainment of moving pictures. It went with the flow, becoming a 'cinematograph' claimed to be the biggest in London, spiced up with a series of political meetings, including the Suffragettes.

War brought an end to a period of commercial success. The Palace became a reception centre for Belgian refugees fleeing the German advance, then an internment camp for so-called enemy aliens, people of German heritage in Britain, with the theatre serving variously as a dormitory, chapel, cinema and concert hall for the internment camp orchestra.

The Palace was left in a poor state and was not returned to the trust until 1922. Inadequate reparations were put into the theatre, but professional drama proved unviable. Variety 'concert parties', packages of entertainers which grew out of the troop entertainments of the first world war, became the staple.

In 1924 impresario Archie Pitt set up a scenery-making operation in part of the theatre building and in 1928 took out a lease on the theatre to produce and try out revues destined for the West End, including The Show's the Thing in which his then wife, Gracie Fields, appeared.

When the BBC took over the east end of the Palace in 1935 for its new television service it drew up a hugely ambitious project to turn the theatre into what would have been the first multi-stage, multi-camera TV studio complex in the world. But war intervened again.

After the war, the BBC used the theatre for scenery building and as a scenery store. But as TV production moved to west London, the theatre fell into disuse and slow dereliction.

After two-thirds of the Palace was destroyed by fire in 1980, a small concert hall and recording studio was planned for the theatre in the redevelopment plan. But the money ran out and the decay of the theatre continued. Only after the building was listed in 1996, partly because of the importance of the theatre stage, did a slow process of recovery begin, which culminated in a regeneration project backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Since its reopening in December 2018 the theatre has hosted Shakespearean drama, opera, pantomime, talks, stand-up comedy, jazz, classical, rock and pop concerts, and community events. In summer 2019, a short season by English National Opera was followed by appearances from Liam Gallagher and Madonna. London's oldest new theatre had truly made its mark, carrying on the traditions of entertainment of its first 60 years into the modern era.

The book is based on new and detailed archive research and reveals the performers and other influential figures who shaped the theatre in the 20th century, and in its regeneration and reopening.

Nigel Willmott is a writer and journalist, and chair of Friends of the Alexandra Palace Theatre.

Patricia Brearey is a researcher and former teacher, and is secretary of Friends of the Alexandra Palace Theatre.

Drama and the Palace 2: Lost and Found is available at local bookshops and on Amazon, along with Drama at the Palace: Victorian Heyday.

Further information: nwillmott(*)blueyonder.co.uk or patricia.brearey01(*)gmail.com (replace (*) by @).

RRP: £11.99 (£10 for members)

Online purchase will be here in next couple of days (hopefully by 23/2/2020).

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