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International Women’s Day: The historic and modern-day pioneers shaping Alexandra Palace

PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 March 2020 | UPDATED: 09:59 08 March 2020

Grace Wyndham Goldie, the BBC executive who pioneered TV coverage of general elections. Picture: BBC Photo Library

Grace Wyndham Goldie, the BBC executive who pioneered TV coverage of general elections. Picture: BBC Photo Library

BBC Photo Library

From daredevil parachutist Dolly Shepherd to darts trailblazer Fallon Sherrock, Alexandra Palace’s 157-year history has been shaped and defined by iconic women.

Fallon Sherrock became the first woman to defeat a man at the World Darts Championship in December. Picture: Lawrence LustigFallon Sherrock became the first woman to defeat a man at the World Darts Championship in December. Picture: Lawrence Lustig

In 2020, when women still face social, economic and institutional barriers across health, education, politics and everyday life in all corners of the world, Muswell Hill's Alexandra Palace is bucking the trend.

Its chief executive, deputy chief executive, finance director, commercial director, strategic programmes manager and regeneration manager are all women.

So, to mark International Women's Day on March 8, Ally Pally chief executive Louise Stewart sat down with the Ham&High to pinpoint how women have long defined one of the UK's most famous entertainment spaces.

Immediately, Dolly Shepherd - who worked at the palace as a 16-year-old waitress - is brought up.

Dolly Shepherd performing one of her incredible parachute stunts in the early 20th century. Picture: Hornsey Historical SocietyDolly Shepherd performing one of her incredible parachute stunts in the early 20th century. Picture: Hornsey Historical Society

While working the tables, she overheard two men bemoan their need of an assistant for a daring trick shot, so instantly she lent a helping hand. The rest is history.

Dolly went on to become one of the UK's most famous entertainers, risking life and limb to perform miraculous stunts in front of gawping, dumbfounded crowds.

She would soar thousands of feet high into the sky in a hot air balloon, then free fall downwards before deploying a parachute to defy death at the last moment.

Louise says Dolly set a precedent for Ally Pally which still lives on today.

Adele Dixon, who in 1936 became the first woman to perform on British television. Picture: BBC Photo LibraryAdele Dixon, who in 1936 became the first woman to perform on British television. Picture: BBC Photo Library

"She really captures a lot of what we ask of our staff - to multitask, to be really bold, to be innovative and creative.

"But there's also personality as well. She really resonated with a lot of us.

"When you come to work at the palace it's always more exciting than you think.

"You can't work here and be timid - it's a massive asset and these are big, bold spaces so you have to be a little bit like that yourself."

Louise Stewart, Alexandra Palace chief executive. Picture: Alexandra PalaceLouise Stewart, Alexandra Palace chief executive. Picture: Alexandra Palace

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Next up, winding forward more than 100 years, is Fallon Sherrock.

In December, stepping out in front of a male-heavy, booze-fuelled 3,000-strong crowd, the 25-year-old created a moment of darts history.

Facing Ted Evetts in the first round, Sherrock became the first woman to beat a man at the World Darts Championship with a 3-2 victory that will live long in the memory.

"That story went around the world and got Alexandra Place so much publicity," Louise recalls.

"Yes it was about the darts and it was about Fallon and it was about the growth of women's darts, but to be in the world's best tournament and to beat a man was quite incredible."

In between Dolly Shepherd and Fallon Sherrock, the first BBC broadcast was aired at Ally Pally in 1936.

Although Scottish engineer John Logie Baird is rightly remembered for helping invent the first TV, Louise reminds us that women of the palace also drove the landscape of British broadcast.

"When people think of TV they think of televison producers and engineers, and they'll automatically think of men," she said.

"But that's not the case. It was women at the palace as well, all working in really challenging circumstances."

Louise pointed to 1930s BBC presenters Elizabeth Cowell and Jasmine Bligh as inspiration, and also to BBC producer Grace Wyndham Goldie of the 40s and 50s, who pioneered television coverage of general elections which viewers nowadays have become so accustomed to.

"They were literally sticking stuff together with elastic bands," Louise said, "yet they were the calm voice of BBC televsion while chaos erupted around them.

"They had that ability to stay serenely calm."

Women's empowerment still underpins Ally Pally's work in 2020, with the venue launching 'Girl Talk' workshops which - through drama - seek to build the confidence and self-esteem of 11 to 16 year olds.

Louise sees International Women's Day - which began in 1911 - as an important, symbolic moment to recognise the value of diversity and equality in society, and markedly, the challenges women still face.

"It's a moment to really think about women and to celebrate them," she said, "whether that's celebrating the women from our past that created this amazing place, or whether its the women who are here today."


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