London Buildings: The Talk Of The Town
On the corner of Charing Cross Road and Leicester Square (actually Cranbourn St) an overbearing and rather ugly venue was built at the turn of the 19th century to be used for circus performers and variety acts. In the very first variety show Little Tich and Charlie Chaplin appeared – it was always to feature the famous – yet the great hall never entirely worked.
Like the Palace Theatre it was built at the end of Victorian Empire, and was desperately over-elaborate. Entry to the venue was through a bar like a ship’s saloon. The performance space featured both a proscenium stage and an arena that sank into a 230 ft, 100,000 gallon water tank (400 ton, when full) for aquatic spectacles. The tank featured eight central fountains, and a circle of fountains around the side. Entrances at the side of the auditorium could also be flooded, and used for the entry of boats.
Equestrian acts, elephants and polar bears were dutifully used in spectacles, and acrobats would dive from a Minstrel Gallery above a sliding roof. Cantilevered galleries removed the need for columns that obstructed views, and the whole was covered by a painted glass retractable roof which could be illuminated at night.
Later a lift was added that could lift a car, and indeed it was used when the venue became The Talk of the Town in 1958 and Eartha Kitt appeared from a Rolls Royce. I later got to use the stage lift when I wrote a superhero parody show for a one-off event there and needed to materialise a car onstage. It was then that I discovered the lift was noisy and took around seven minutes to rise, so we had to stage a rowdy musical number to cover it.
Although I was thrilled to be staging something in such a venerable building, the place was gloomy, smelled of damp and was run-down, and the space was overcrowded and awkward. As theatrical buildings go, it was not a pleasant or welcoming venue in any way.
For all its star names (Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder all performed there, along with hundreds of other stars) the Talk of the Town always felt like a B-list Vegas, possibly because the awful food was supplied by Trust House Forte, possibly because of its slightly seedy location. After Peter Stringfellow took it over in 1983 it became festooned with thugs and gangsters. There was talk of gutting the place and starting again.
After extensive renovation that gave the building’s basement direct access into Chinatown it reopened, catering to the kind of sleazy-looking gamblers who rock up in tracksuits with young girls. The Hippodrome Casino was opened in 2012 by Boris Johnson, who described it as ‘yet another ringing endorsement of London as a great place to invest’ before beating a hasty retreat.
I’m sure psychogeographist Iain Sinclair would regard the building’s many lives as a prime example of a site’s natural atavism – far from going up in the world, it remains somewhere near the base of society, just as it began.