World Theatre Day: The decorated history of Alexandra Palace plays, ghosts and Gracie Fields

PUBLISHED: 10:07 27 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:36 27 March 2020

A performance from 1925. Picture: Alexandra Palace

A performance from 1925. Picture: Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace

The uniquely layered, sprawling space of Alexandra Palace Theatre provides performers and directors plenty to play with.

Alexandra Palace Theatre. Picture: Alexandra PalaceAlexandra Palace Theatre. Picture: Alexandra Palace

A marvel of Victorian engineering when it opened in 1875, the old infrastructure and special effects were lovingly preserved in its 2018 reopening.

For World Theatre Day (Friday, March 27) , theatre manager Lou Glover said: “Something I really love about Ally Pally at large is that we’re the people’s palace – we don’t just do one kind of thing but opera, ice-skating, exhibitions and gigs in the great hall.”

The theatre has enjoyed many uses including as a chapel during the First World War internment of German, Austrian and Hungarian men living in the UK.

It was the site of the first BBC broadcast in 1936, and later used by the corporation to store props.

The proscenium arch. Picture: Alexandra PalaceThe proscenium arch. Picture: Alexandra Palace

All the while an extraordinary maze of pulleys, levers, traps and lifts gathered dust under the theatre.

Although health and safety measures guard against its continued use, a ‘toaster hand’ sits beneath the stage, which would flick performers up towards the proscenium arch.

“I’m sure if you were a stagehand back in Victorian times it would have been mildly horrific,” Lou remarked.

Indeed one acrobatic star, George Conquest, was flung too high while preparing for his role in the pantomime The Yellow Dwarf and twisted his spine.

Various props. Picture: Alexandra PalaceVarious props. Picture: Alexandra Palace

The panto was an all-year event: “I guess it was the historical soap opera,” Lou remarked.

A fully functioning fountain showed the value of spectacle in Victorian theatre.

For the first ballet, 150 dancers appeared on stage.

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With such dramatic company, and after being left derelict for 80 years, is it any surprise that the theatre gained a ghost?

That’s the word among staff who observe the theatre late at night.

“There are six hanging lights and one quite often swings of its own accord,” Lou said.

“Before we opened there were reports of what sounded like radio noise, but with no speakers in that area there was no rational explanation for the sound.”

A performance of Richard III. Picture: Alexandra PalaceA performance of Richard III. Picture: Alexandra Palace

Spooky stuff, but what is more apparent is that creating a space where modern theatre is possible within the bones of historical space has been greatly exciting for the Ally Pally team.

“It’s amazing how many people come into the space and are somehow connected with the theatre,” Lou said - either through campaigning for the theatre’s restoration, or having great (great) relatives from the Muswell Hill area who were original performers.

One of the most famous characters in the theatre’s history was Gracie Fields, the 20th century icon of stage and screen.

She would trial her productions in the auditorium before transferring to the West End.Despite her big screen success, Fields found film-making boring and preferred the thrill of the stage.

Alexandra Palace Theatre. Picture: Richard Battye/Alexandra PalaceAlexandra Palace Theatre. Picture: Richard Battye/Alexandra Palace

A wonderful ambassador for the magic of theatre, then, and for Ally Pally in particular because, like the many-sided venue, Fields was “really a bit of a polymath herself,” Lou said.

“A lot of our older audiences really love that side of our history and remember her as a guiding light of musical hall entertainment.”

Due to coronavirus theatre events are postponed until at least May, but Lou says she’s looking forward to the return of The 13-Storey Tree House, based on the bestselling children’s book.

While Ally Pally’s theatre lies temporarily dormant - a sleeping giant – World Theatre Day acts as an important reminder of the immense value of arts and entertainment in our everyday lives.

When the time comes, we will be more grateful than ever for its return.

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