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- I’d Do Anything Results: Sunday 11th May
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- Andrew’s speech to the House of Lords
- I’d Do Anything Results: Sunday 4th May
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7th, May, 2008
Andrew’s speech to the House of Lords
On Wednesday 7th May 2008 Andrew raised the following question for debate in The House of Lords: “What action will Her Majesty’s Government take to mitigate the constraints placed upon owners of listed places of entertainment seeking to provide modern facilities for customers and to satisfy contemporary artistic demands?”
This is Andrew’s speech:
“My Lords, first, I declare an interest as an owner of theatres in London and also as a composer who uses theatres.
In drawing attention to the problems facing the owners of places of entertainment, I totally admit that I do not know the answers to the questions that I am about to raise. My hope today is to draw attention to our ageing commercial theatre stock and, by doing so, to stimulate a serious discussion about the way forward for this country’s mainly Victorian and Edwardian commercial theatres. I must declare my other interest: I am passionate about architecture and I think that my love of Victorian art is quite well known. Therefore, some of the things that I am about to say sit extremely uneasily with me, especially as, when I was a boy, I was one of those who lay down in the street demonstrating against the shameful demolition of the St James’s Theatre. However, I must say these things.
First, I should like to quote from that tireless advocate of all things Victorian, Sir John Betjeman. In his First and Last Loves, he begins his chapter on the architecture of entertainment thus:
‘If there is one word which safely can be applied to the constructions for entertainment it is the adjective impermanent.’
He goes on a little mischievously to compare theatres and concert halls to churches, but concludes that, while churches are built to last, places of entertainment are not. Sir John’s point is that taste, fashion and style of production change and that buildings constructed for entertainment must, by definition, be replaced or altered as entertainment itself evolves, although the controversial old rogue does add that, as fashion changes, new and more hideous structures arrive on the sites of older buildings as we continue to slide into deeper depths of barbarism. However, today, some of those barbarisms are listed.
Sir John is right that the architecture of entertainment is impermanent, but he could not have seen other developments that call into question the suitability of some of our older buildings for present-day theatrical use or indeed any use. When the stock of theatre buildings was constructed times were very different from ours in a whole series of ways. People were physically smaller; there was less demand for bars and lavatories; it was assumed that the wealthy expected to be segregated from the hoi polloi in terms of auditorium ingress and egress; no one gave any thought to access for disabled people; and, for a significant number of patrons, being seen was far more important than being able to see what was on stage. We need only think about most 19th century opera houses. Backstage, dressing rooms for non-star names were cramped, poorly located and without showers. Technical capacities were severely limited by current standards in terms of lighting, sound and stage machinery. The modern audience, performer and artistic teams today all expect modern facilities. Decent sight lines are paramount today, nobody wants to sit behind a pillar all evening.
Ownership of a listed building imposes on the owner a kind of involuntary trusteeship of what is deemed to be part of our national heritage, but buildings that are in living contemporary use surely cannot be treated as if they are museum assets. English Heritage is reasonably flexible in its demands when listed buildings are refurbished, but the demands are there and meeting them can be very costly indeed. A substantial part of the cost of the recent refurbishment of buildings such as the Royal Festival Hall, the Coliseum and the Royal Opera House was the cost of maintaining the heritage aspects of the buildings. We are talking about many, many millions of pounds, not the odd hundred thousand. For example, to install the air conditioning that is badly needed in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane would cost in the region of £15 million. Were it not to be a grade 1 listed building, the figure would be about £1 million to £2 million. The reason is that the Theatre Royal Drury Lane has no cavities in its walls in which air conditioning can be installed. The listing requirement means that every internal wall of the building would have to be taken down, a cavity for air conditioning created, and the wall rebuilt exactly as it was originally constructed.
The difficulty for commercial theatre owners is that this expenditure yields no economic benefit in terms of the operational viability of their buildings. Not one more seat becomes available for sale as a result. Indeed, improving the audience experience while retaining the architectural qualities of the building normally means losing seats, which commercial theatres can ill afford to do.
May I introduce to the debate by way of example of one London theatre I intimately know and love, if not adore – the Palace Theatre. My company bought the theatre in the mid-1980s. It was in a shocking state. Its main terracotta facade was covered with a huge neon advertising sign that dominated Cambridge Circus. All its statues had been removed. Its glorious marble front of house and its extraordinary auditorium had been covered in surplus paint from one of the old railway companies at a time when appreciation of high Victorian art was at its lowest. I remembered what Sir John Betjeman had written in the same chapter of First and Last Loves that I quoted from, in which he opined that the architecture of entertainment was by definition impermanent. He wrote:
“The noblest surviving building in my opinion more impressive within and without than Covent Garden” is the Royal English Opera House … This is on an irregularly shaped island site. Its main facade on Cambridge Circus is concave and the awkwardness of the corners of such a facade is overcome by graceful octagonal turrets … The three tiers of galleries are cantilevered out, a revolution at the time, so that no columns obstruct the view of the audience. The decoration throughout is scholarly Flemish Renaissance. Nothing is skimped and the entrance hall and staircases are rich in those contrasting marbles Collcutt, that great architect – delighted to use … The Palace is the only theatre architecture of the last sixty years in London, or for that matter the provinces, which climbs into the regions of a work of art.
The theatre was constructed by Richard D’Oyley Carte as an opera house partly to thank his composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. It opened with Sullivans serious opera, _Ivanhoe_, which failed almost immediately. After a couple of short seasons, the whole project went belly-up and the Royal English Opera House became the Palace Theatre of Varieties. The Palace’s future is, I hope, completely secure as long as I am around but it is a good example of a building whose long-term situation I seriously worry about. For instance, the terracotta, which was totally restored only 20 years ago, now needs to be completely renovated again at a cost which will wipe out any profit that the theatre has made over the past few years.
The Palace has only 1,416 seats. If all those seats were great, it would be a wonderful medium-scale musical or opera house, but they are not. Three hundred and seventeen of them are in one of the most vertiginous balconies in theatreland today and very hard to see from or to sell. They are cramped and impossible to reseat due to the rake. Thirty-eight seats are in boxes which are great if you want to be looked at rather than watch the show, and 274 seats are considered to be restricted view.
Thus this wonderfully sited musical house has in practice only the number of seats of a large playhouse. Combined with the capital costs of, say, £3 million to £4 million for a production of a scale to fill the building, the running costs of such a production, let alone the cost of maintaining the building, will become extremely unviable as a theatre without public or private subsidy. The Palace is just a tip of the iceberg. Maybe it is an extreme example, but the fundamental problem of the theatres difficulty in keeping its head above water in todays market is replicated on a differing scale all around the country.
Some will say, “What about the Royal Court? Is that not an example of what can be done with an old building?”. Without in any way deprecating the splendid achievements in Sloane Square, I draw attention to the fact that the public funds given to refurbish the Royal Court exceeded the total profit made by the four Shaftesbury Avenue playhouses since the Second World War.
Finally, I share with the House some remarks made by a very important and one of our leading stage designers. He said:
“What the theatre needs today is the equivalent of a large warehouse attached to wonderful front of house and backstage facilities preferably in a location with great access by public transport. In that warehouse what you need are basic theatrical facilities like the ability to fly scenery but most of all you need comfortable, flexible seating so that a production can play in the round, in a proscenium shape or whatever a writer, director or artists require.”
I urge noble Lords to understand that I am not proposing the wholesale demolition of Londons West End, nor am I suggesting that the taxpayer is suddenly faced with a huge bill to refurbish our ageing commercial theatre stock. But as someone who has spent more than 40 years professionally involved with musical theatre, I felt that it was time to put my love of theatre architecture to one side and at least draw the attention of Her Majesty’s Government to some of the issues that confront theatre owners and artists as we head for the second decade of the 21st century.
For the whole debate visit Hansard.
_Image c. John Swannell_