The mecca for entertainers: The London Palladium
The London Palladium is one of the most well-known theatres in the world. It is situated in London’s West End, Argyll street, just off Oxford Circus. its proud columns pay tribute to the kings of comedy and entertainment who have worked this now famous grade two listed building which was first built in 1910 by Walter Gibbons. The 2,286 seater theatre was erected to compete against The London Hippodrome owned by Moss and The London Coliseum run by Stoll, all similar in size and stator. In 1960 these two competing giants merged to become Stoll-Moss Empires who then took over the Palladium. Just four years later famous impresario Lew Grades Associated Television bought a controlling interest in the company (Stoll-Moss) and with it the Palladium theatre.
It’s reputation for Variety shows grew from the start, although it went through some tough financial times in the 1920’s, but these were reversed by George Black who successfully managed the theatre up to his death in 1945. After the war the Palladium really took off under the guidance of new manager Val Parnell, who took a gamble by bringing over high priced, American stars to top the bill. Artistes such as Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and many others made a major impact on English audiences. Tickets were hard to come by. This booking policy was not always appreciated by British top acts who had to be satisfied with second billing but its success firmly put the Palladium on the world map.
When Lew Grades company took over the Palladium, Val Parnell retired to France, so he installed Louis Benjamin as Managing Director who kept up the tradition of international stars with Shirley MacLaine, Tony Bennett, Julie Andrews, Charles Aznavour, The Carpenters among the artistes appearing. Although Variety was changing the theatre reflected the changes in peoples tastes with top line acts.
The Palladium has hosted the Royal Variety show forty times most recently in 2014 and although variety is not what it was, it remains the venue light entertainment artistes want to work at least once in their career. During an audition in the 1970’s at the Palladium for the famous talent show ‘New Faces’ a fore runner to programmes like ‘Britain’s Got talent’. One middle aged hopeful walked on stage and did absolutely nothing. After a long pause, he glanced down at the Producer of the show Les Cocks in the stalls and said: ‘Thank you. I know my act isn’t good enough for your show, so I won’t bother you. I just wanted to tell my grandchildren that I had been on stage at the London Palladium’.
Modern comedians are only too aware of the grand theatres reputation and want to play it at some stage of their career. When yours truly was asked to produce a top rated comedy show at The Palladium as part of the London Comedy festival (2000), I had no problem in finding talented comedians to be part of the bill. Tim Clark, Ed Byrne, Paul Tonkinson, Gina Yashere, Marcus Brigstocke, Reginald D Hunter, Dominic Holland Jim Tavare and Paul Zerdin were among a list of comedians who played to a packed house. Leading up to the night my phone was ringing with acts and agents pushing comics trying to get on the show, such was the opportunity to work the famous variety theatre. The history, hits you especially when looking out from the stage, with its three tiers of audience, stalls, circle and upper circle which curve around to create a wall of laughter, that hits the artiste like no other theatre.
The Palladium also came to be known for its Christmas pantomimes as much as it variety shows with lavish costumes, scenery, dancers and starred studied bills made up of the stars of the time Peter Sellers (Mother Goose 1954), Tommy Cooper (Robinson Crusoe 1957), Jimmy Tarbuck (Jack & The Beanstalk 1968), Frankie Howerd (Puss in Boots 1973), Jim Davidson (Dick Whittington 1980), Des O’Connor (Cinderella 1985) and Cannon & Ball (Babes in the Wood 1987) a full list of Palladium cast & pantomimes click the link.
Yet it was a TV programme that helped to further create The London Palladium legend as a holy grail of entertainers with the coming in 1955 of the new ITV channel. This show brightened up Sunday nights and bought the charm of London Palladium theatre to the masses in what has become a classic TV series – Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955-67).
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.