Stepping Back In Time 2
If you’re of a certain age, you may associate certain roads in London with things that have long vanished from it. I can’t help thinking of printing presses whenever I’m in Tooley Street or photo libraries in Newman Street, and I still think of dropping trousers in Whitehall.
The past is beguiling. We enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories because they transport us to a lost world. One of the problems in modern London is that it’s hard to find vistas that at least have the atmosphere of remaining unchanged, because few buildings stay unaltered for longer than ten years – sills and steps, roofs, chimneys, doors and windows come and go until we forget quite how our buildings looked until recently. It’s surprising (but logical) to see how unadorned the East End could be in old photos, or just how chintzy and OTT Leicester Square looked in 1900.
In the 17th century there used to be an inn called Ye Old Ship Tavern in Whitehall, near the top of the road. It was replaced by an Art Deco theatre in 1930, opening with ‘The Way to Treat a Woman’ by Walter Hackett, a rubbish play by the theatre’s licensee. The theatre became famous for ‘modern’ comedies. During World War II the building housed revues, which had become common entertainment throughout the West End; there was no place for drama when too much of it was going on around the city. In 1942, The Whitehall Follies, featuring Phyllis Dixey, the first stripper to perform in the theatre district, became an immediate success. Dixey leased the theatre and remained in it for the next five years.
A series of Feydeau-style farces known as the Whitehall Farces were produced by Brian Rix and staged over the next 22 years, many of them televised or made into films. Rix, with his distinctive husky voice and knockabout skills, starred in a great many of them and usually ended up without trousers at some point.
The Whitehall Theatre became permanently associated with farce until in 1969 a nude comedy called Pyjama Tops took over the venue and remained for five years, after which the building was closed down. But unlike many other venues (like the late, great Astoria in nearby Charing Cross Road) it didn’t die. After refurbishment that retained most of its Art Deco features and reopened in 1986 with a hit revival of J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married.
Between 1997 and 1999, the theatre was used as a studio for BBC Radio 4’s Live from London, and then returned to theatrical use, but after a few quality productions it slid back into the world of tat like ‘Puppetry of the Penis’ and ‘Sing-a-Long-a-ABBA’. It’s slightly off the main route of theatres, and Londoners, being a notoriously territorial lot, rarely walked past it.
Now it’s become the Trafalgar Studios, two more intimate venues for high-end productions, which makes a lot more sense, even if it does mean that a blue baffle has covered the attractive ceiling, presumably for acoustic reasons. And unlike the Donmar Warehouse it’s not elitist; the Warehouse, with just 250 seats, has 5 levels of priority booking for those who can write tickets off on expenses. Perhaps the Whitehall’s roots as an old inn keep it for the people.
As the centre of government Whitehall is one of London’s grandest but most frequently overlooked thoroughfares. It has eight monuments and memorials dotted along its length, including the Cenotaph, the memorial to the war dead and the centre of Remembrance Sunday. The name is taken from the immense Palace of Whitehall that once occupied the area. It was destroyed by fire in 1698. Whitehall was originally the road that led to the front of the palace. The street is entered by Admiralty Arch, passing near to Downing Street (which was still open to the public until 1989), Buckingham Palace and the Thames. So it comes as a surprise to find that quite so many old taverns have survived along it and in the side roads which we normally identify with government departments and venerable members’ clubs. If old public buildings have survived (like pubs) it’s because powerful people still use them.
The area slopes to the water and most of its departmental buildings are empty at night, so it has a cooler, darker imprint than the neighbourhoods around it. As a consequence it’s one of the few central London areas where you’ll still see early morning mists and late night fogs.