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Restoring Ally Pally’s theatre and ending a ‘history of dereliction’

PUBLISHED: 11:45 04 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:40 04 October 2018

The view from the Ally Pally theatre stage back in around 1920. Picture: Alexandra Park and Palace Trust

The view from the Ally Pally theatre stage back in around 1920. Picture: Alexandra Park and Palace Trust

Archant

Alexandra Palace’s theatre has a long history. Unfortunately for lovers of the stage, though, this history is mostly one of dereliction.

The dramatic Victorian balcony in the Alexandra Palace theatre. Picture: Keith ArmstrongThe dramatic Victorian balcony in the Alexandra Palace theatre. Picture: Keith Armstrong

That said, its slow decay has been punctuated by war, fire and the making of television folklore.

Built in 1875, it was last a working theatre in the 1930s, before it played host to the first ever BBC broadcast and became a hub of the fledgling corporation’s television operations.

The Second World War caused that to cease, though. And when the fighting was over the BBC moved much of its work to Lime Grove studios, although it kept the theatre in use as a prop store and carpentry workshop. An inauspicious turn for an ornate Victorian theatre.

When the BBC moved out, the Open University made films in the space, until an 1980 fire devastated Ally Pally. Luckily, the theatre was spared the worst of the flames, but it has lain empty ever since.

Alexandra Palace's restored east wing. Picture: Keith ArmstrongAlexandra Palace's restored east wing. Picture: Keith Armstrong

Over the past three years, the Alexandra Park and Palace Trust have been painstakingly reconstructing the stage and auditorium so visitors will experience the space as it would have been in the 1930s, when its short life as a working theatre came to an end.

Chief executive Louise Stewart quipped: “In truth, we have spent an awful lot of money for it to look almost exactly the same.”

During the renovation, historians discovered a mound of plasterwork from the remains of a collapsed, previously undocumented second balcony from 1875, along with astonishingly preserved evidence of Alexandra Palace’s use during the First World War.

Meanwhile, embedded in the walls of the theatre were early vials of tetanus vaccine, complete with 1915 “Wellcome” branding, This was more than a decade before the vaccines were widespread.

Alexandra Palace theatre during the restoration. Picture: Keith ArmstrongAlexandra Palace theatre during the restoration. Picture: Keith Armstrong

These 100 year-old specimens suggest that not only was the theatre used as a chapel when Ally Pally played host to three batallions of Germans, Austrians and Hungarians during the First World War, but it was moonlighting as a hospital, too.

Louise explained why the trust was keen to revitalise the astonishing theatre.

She said: “It’s a cultural landmark. It’s where the BBC first broadcasted television from and we wanted to allow theatre-lovers back into the space. Its history is interesting, but in truth its history is one of dereliction. It’s been unused as a theatre for far longer than it was used as one, actually.”

Keith Armstrong initially asked to take pictures of the restoration in order to enter an amateur photography competition. However, his images documenting the project will now be published in a book celebrating the re-opening this December.

Keith told the Ham&High: “When they first let me in, I don’t know what I expected but it’s a wholly incredible building. The theatre itself, the incredible BBC prop store, and the studios... It’s hugely interesting to see these bits of history up close.”

With performers soon set to routinely tread the boards, Keith was even allowed to jump up on stage and see the theatre from an actor’s perspective – both now and in 1930.

He said: “It’s an amazing atmospheric space. I’ve been able to stand on the stage and see what it would have been like.

“All the way through, the trust were lighting up the place in the most astonishing way.

“Going there for the first time, I got on stage and it just was a really incredible sight. I was looking at it thinking: this is really special.”

The restoration has taken care to preserve the theatre’s character.

The project’s buzzword has been “arrested decay” and the idea – as far as possible – is that the theatre is to look like it has almost 150 years of history.

Keith added: “As the project progressed I was finding out more and more about the ‘arrested decay’ process.

“They’ve carefully reinforced the balcony in a way you can’t see from below. It’s staggering engineering.

“With a few months to go, it’s getting to a stage where it now looks like it will have looked almost a century ago.”

Ally Pally is still fundraising for the theatre’s restoration ahead of its opening. For more details see theatre.alexandrapalace.com. Meanwhile, Keith Armstrong’s book will be available on December 3.

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