I thought I knew Theatreland pretty well… not so! As I found out when I downloaded the Official London Theatre Audio Tour with Ian McKellen.
Here are seven interesting titbits I learned en route around the West End with McKellen talking in my ear. There are many more fascinating facts, as well as personal anecdotes from McKellen’s years treading the boards. (He’s won the Olivier six times – the man has got some stories…)
1. Frank Matcham’s real lasting legacy
Architect Frank Matcham’s still-standing London theatre buildings include, in the West End, the Coliseum (1904), the Palladium (1910), the Victoria Palace (1911) and the Hippodrome (1900). But that’s not his real lasting legacy, according to McKellen:
“The great thing about Frank Matcham, the architect, wasn’t his skill as an engineer. For me, it was his role in spreading theatre beyond London, to the rest of the country. Indeed, most of his theatres were outside London, and many of them are still working – I’ve worked in them. The Theatre Royal in Newcastle Upon Tyne, the Lyceum theatre in Sheffield, the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford.
He built them all to roughly the same specifications. So a company touring its West End production, after a successful run in London, could perform without having to change their set too much each week. That was Frank Matcham’s lasting contribution to British theatre and it’s why he’s one of my heroes.”
2. The Seven Dials was a tax ruse
Neal Street in Covent Garden is named after Thomas Neal (1641-1699). We also have this 17th-century town planner and MP to thank for the Seven Dials, the roundabout off of which Neal Street and six other streets run like spokes on a wheel. Why? McKellen explains:
“In the 1600s, commercial rent was charged by the width of the shop front. Mr Neal realised that a triangular, criss-crossing layout would create many more shop fronts and so, bring in far more cash. So the maze-like geography of Seven Dials is in fact a money-making wheeze concocted by the most pioneering hustler of the 17th century. Thomas Neal is also the reason that the monument in Seven Dials is one sundial short. Seven Dials was supposed to be Six Dials. But Mr Neal snuck in an extra street to generate more rent.”
3. What happened to Henry Irving’s props
The Lyceum Theatre (now home to The Lion King) was once the fiefdom of actor-manager Sir Henry Irving, “one of the titans of Theatreland”. A plaque at the theatre, commemorating the centenary of Irving’s death in 2006, was unveiled by McKellen himself. But Irving wasn’t always so lucky, as Sir Ian explains:
“Over a lifetime of producing shows, Irving had invested everything in his collection of props used during the shows, costumes and scenery for 44 plays. They were his security, his greatest asset, what he hoped to retire on. And they were all stored away safely in a bone dry, oxygen-rich and completely wooden warehouse. Yes, you’ve guessed it. He lost the lot in an enormous fire, and he wasn’t insured.”
Another titbit about Irving (there are other gems in the audio): His business manager was the writer Bram Stoker, who is rumoured to have based the character of Count Dracula on his boss.
4. Richard Harris knew how to make an exit
While stopping outside the Savoy Theatre, adjacent to the renowned Savoy Hotel, McKellen shares this anecdote:
“Many rich actors have stayed in the Savoy. The late Richard Harris all but lived there for the last years of his life. And when he was taken to hospital for the last time, he was carried out through the busy foyer of the Savoy. Everyone stopped to see the great actor pass, and he obliged with his final performance. Harris sat up on his stretcher and shouted wildly: ‘It was the food! Don’t touch the food!’”
5. How the Strand got its name
The Strand is major thoroughfare running through London, starting at Trafalagar Square and heading east towards the City, taking in several theatres including the Adelphi and Vaudeville and several just off it on the Aldwych. The Strand means “beach”, Sir Ian explains:
“This used to be the limits of the River Thames before it was put behind its embankment, allowing the Savoy Theatre and Hotel to be built on the mud.”
6. Why St Paul’s is the Actors Church
St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden was designed by Inigo Jones in 1630 – as opposed to the much larger St Paul’s Cathedral further east, which was designed by Christopher Wren in 1675. To prevent (or add to?) confusion, St Paul’s Covent Garden is more commonly referred to as the Actors’ Church. Why?
“Inside the church there are memorials to a great many actors – Ellen Terry who was Henry Irving’s acting partner, Charlie Chaplin, Boris Karloff, Noel Coward, who lived at the Savoy. And on the far side of the church is a portico where Eliza Doolittle met Professor Higgins for the first time in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and film and musical made from it, My Fair Lady.”
7. The Garrick Theatre has the largest marquee in London
Currently the home of the year-long Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, now showing Romeo and Juliet, the Garrick Theatre was opened in 1889 and is named for David Garrick (1717-1779). And who was Garrick? He was, says McKellen:
“The man who introduced London audiences to a more naturalistic style of acting the classics. When Garrick was around in the 18th century, acting was considered a low profession – beneath the dignity of a true gentleman. And Garrick started the process of raising its profile. When he died, he was the first actor to be buried, ever, in Westminster Abbey.”
But back to Henry Irving: he was the first actor to be awarded a knighthood, by Queen Victoria, in 1895.
The new audio guide, released by the Society of London Theatre with technology partner VoiceMap, the immersive audio walking tour company, is completely free and can be downloaded in seconds (I managed it easily so I know you can). Click here for download instructions.