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Spotlighting Islington’s lost theatrical past

PUBLISHED: 15:32 27 July 2016 | UPDATED: 16:37 27 July 2016

Collins' Music Hall in Islington Green... now Waterstone's bookshop. Picture: Nick Charlesworth

Collins' Music Hall in Islington Green... now Waterstone's bookshop. Picture: Nick Charlesworth

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We all love Sadler’s Wells. But did you know Islington used to boast many others on the same scale? James Morris finds our borough has an extraordinary theatre heritage.

Empire Theatre in Islington High Street... now RBS. Picture: Nick CharlesworthEmpire Theatre in Islington High Street... now RBS. Picture: Nick Charlesworth

Waterstones bookshop in Islington Green. Vaudeville Court housing block in Finsbury Park. The Royal Bank of Scotland in Islington High Street.

As we rush through our daily lives, it’s easy to not realise these everyday buildings used to be home to historic variety theatres.

Waterstones used to be Collins’ Music Hall. Vaudeville Court was formerly Finsbury Park Empire. RBS used to be the Empire Theatre.

Another example is the Royal Agricultural Hall, off Upper Street: on the site of what is now the Business Design Centre.

Nick Charlesworth complied Variety at Night is Good for YouNick Charlesworth complied Variety at Night is Good for You

While small theatres around the borough – such as Park, Almeida and the King’s Head – continue to prosper, Islington’s heritage of big entertainment halls has almost completely been wiped out.

After 300 years, the ever-popular Sadler’s Wells in Rosebery Avenue is the only one to have survived. Even that nearly closed 30 years ago.

In fact, the majority of London’s variety theatres have disappeared. It’s why, in the 1990s, theatre enthusiast J.O. Blake started compiling a history of each venue in the capital.

Sadly, he died. It meant that in 1996 years ago, his good friend Nick Charlesworth was tasked with completing the book, Variety at Night is Good for You.

Sadler's Wells Theatre in its 20th century guise. Picture: Nick CharlesworthSadler's Wells Theatre in its 20th century guise. Picture: Nick Charlesworth

Nick, 76, lived in Canonbury North Park between 1963 and 1964. He was already involved with the project as illustrator, but suddenly had to finish the words.

After 20 years, Nick, of Wiltshire, succeeded. The whopping 500-page volume is now on sale.

“J.O. Blake attended all of the venues,” he says. “I was only able to enjoy a few of them, including the Finsbury Park Empire. But he died and it was left with me to complete his work. Some of his accounts were only a paragraph long, so I had to go back and do my own research and bulk it up a bit.

“I saw six shows at Finsbury Park Empire myself, including the last one, a rock ’n’ roll show by Emile Ford. It was pretty awful. The conductor stared at the audience in disbelief. It was almost hate in his eyes!

Sadler's Wells Theatre in its current guise. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PASadler's Wells Theatre in its current guise. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA

“Whenever I went to Finsbury Park, it was always packed, but there were quite a few shows where nobody went. The theatre started losing money and couldn’t go on. I think that symbolised the end of the variety show era, after its peak in the mid-’50s.

“It fell out of fashion. It was tired in the way it presented itself. There were many small factors: for example, strip tease. It forced families away.”

Recalling the Islington of the 1960s, he adds: “It was a little bit run down 50 years ago. It was hanging on. Businesses were coming towards the end of their life.

“It was nothing like now, with all the restaurants making it a destination. It got a real transformation and it really saved the facade of the area.”

Variety at Night is Good for You can be purchased from vaudeville-postcards.com


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