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Marlborough Theatre history – from cinema to communist hangout

PUBLISHED: 15:51 04 October 2018 | UPDATED: 09:42 05 October 2018

The Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road, in 1903. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.

The Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road, in 1903. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.

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A celebrated theatre architect unveiled his “cynosure of all eyes” in the Nag’s Head on October 5, 1903.

The Marlborough Theatre IN 1903. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.The Marlborough Theatre IN 1903. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.

It went on to be a cinema, a communist meeting point and it’s now part of City and Islington College.

Robert Matcham’s Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road, opened to a week of performances from The Carla Rosa Opera Company.

The venue, which was owned and managed by William Purrell, went on to showcase musical comedy, variety shows and pantomimes, before being converted into a cinema in 1918.

Julie Melrose, an archivist at Islington’s Local History Centre, told the Gazette: “There were two big theatres at the time, The Marlborough and The Finsbury Park Empire – and they were both designed by Frank Matcham.

The Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road,  has since been demolished. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.The Marlborough Theatre, in Holloway Road, has since been demolished. Picture: Islington Local History Centre.

“He was a world renowned theatre designer, so it was very lucky to have two of his works in the north of the borough.

“This was important because most of the existing entertainment options were around the Angel area.

“It made Nags head more significant and definitely helped it become a go-to area.”

In a report on the Marlborough opening in 1903, the Gazette noted: “The handsome new theatre Frank Matcham has erected was the cynosure of all eyes.

A programme from a variety show performance at The Marlborough Theatre. Picture: Islington Local History CentreA programme from a variety show performance at The Marlborough Theatre. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“A large crowd assembled outside and surveyed the brilliantly-lighted exterior with a great deal of pleasure.”

Mr Matcham was involved in the construction and design of 90 theatres, including the Hippodrome, Hackney Empire, London Palladium and the Victoria Palace.

He also redesigned Sadlers Wells theatre in 1931.

The Marlborough, which is estimated to have cost Mr Purrell between £30,000 to £40,000 to build, opened with a capacity of 2,612 people.

But this was reduced to 1,685 after the venue was purchased by Odeon Theatres Ltd in 1942.

Julie added: “It would have been popular with working class people because of its fun entertainment.

“But by the 40s and 50s cinema was beginning to take theatres place, which eventually led to both the Marlborough and Finsbury Park Empire closing down, which is a shame.”

Notable performers to appear at the theatre include Charles Wyndham, Martin Harvey, Florence Smithson, Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton.

But despite transforming into the Marlborough Picture House in 1918, the venue only played silent movies until 1929.

It’s first film with sound was Al Jolson’s Singing Fool.

A Mr S. Petty, of Biddlestone Road, Holloway, recounted his memories of working at the theatre in 1955.

Mr Petty told the North London Press, which has since gone out of print, that he started working at the theatre in 1916 as a 13-year-old boy.

Reflecting on the variety performances of the time, he said: “I well remember the act performed by a strong man from Australia who balanced a woman on a pole which rested on a chair. He knocked the pole away and caught the lady with both arms.”

In the same year, then manager Herbert Wicks said: “I have been greatly intrigued by stories about various old time actors who captivated audiences in this theatre.”

“I would like to hear from people who can help me through some light on the Marlborough’s historic past.”

The cinema shut-down in August 1957, and its last screenings were The Heart Within and Hells Drivers.

But, despite its closure, the old theatre continued to attract crowds and drama.

The dormant Marlborough featured in the film Gideons Day starring Jack Hawkins, in 1958.

Cops then dispersed an open-air meeting where a communist candidate was speaking about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1961, as reported by the Gazette the week it happened.

John Moss, who was running for MP in the former constituency of South West Islington gave a 10 minute address – but then officers from Cally Road Police Station arrived and moved him on, citing public safety concerns.

Mr Moss proceeded to come third in the 1964 election, taking 5.1 per cent of the vote.

But, by this point, the Marlborough had already been demolished in 1962.

It has been replaced with City and Islington College’s centre for health, social and child care, which is called Marlborough House in homage to the theatre.

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