London Buildings: The Talk Of The Town

London

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.

 

8 comments on “London Buildings: The Talk Of The Town”

  1. SimonB says:

    My parents got engaged after a night out there. Can’t recall who they had seen that night as they went a few times in the mid 60s. Big nights out for a couple of kids from Friern Barnet.

  2. Kevin O’Brien says:

    Have you created a Bryant and Mays tour of London? With all the quirky things that get discussed and visited, it may be a fan favorite. If you done so already I apologize, but please point me. Thank you.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    May I pass on a Canadian/British connection that may interest visitors here? Our parliamentary houses in Ottawa, the site of the Peace Tower with its carillon, are beginning what is likely to be a 10 year period of renovation. Everyone has packed up ready to be moved into alternate accommodations. We had a radio interview with the current Speaker of the Commons this morning in which he described the changes that have occurred in the chair he uses. London’s Speaker’s chair was destroyed during the War, but if you want to know what it looked like the chair we’ll be using for the next while is a copy of that London one. The real chair is too big to go through doorways so they’re using one copied from London’s and used by an earlier Commons Speaker. It went home with him and has been moved around a bit in the intervening years until it now returns to Ottawa if only temporarily.
    Regular programming may now resume.

  4. admin says:

    I haven’t created such a tour yet, Kevin, but I will do a book at some point recreating the guided tours that I used to do for visitors.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    The last time that I heard ‘The Talk Of The Town’ was years ago, on one of the last episodes of the BBC TV series ‘The Fast Show’, on a segment featuring the unpleasant 1930’s comedian, Arthur Atkinson (played by Paul Whitehouse), and his fall from grace, after actually saying something flat out rude:”Excuse me sir, is that a moustache on your top lip, or is it shit?” to an audience member, after years of relentless smutty innuendo. The presenter of this segment, the Denis Norden-like Tommy Cockles, (played by Simon Day), gleefully commented: “He went from the Talk Of The Town, to the whisper of the village. All his shows were cancelled, and he couldn’t get a gig anywere. Do I care? No.”

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    It’s odd how places get a bad name or reputation, The Ritz (now the 02 Ritz) has always had a bad reputation, built in 1927, my grandmother was warned about going there, (her older brother said, ‘I don’t want to see you there.’) before the war. A friend, Keith said it was still the same in the 50s. I remember Friday was unofficially called grab a granny night (it was noted for mother and daughter teams ‘on the pull’.) Saturday night it was generally referred to as a knocking shop. A lot of Manchester couples actually met there and had long and happy relationships.

    It now mainly puts gigs on now but it still carries the same reputation.

    Myth the only floor only is grade II listed (it is a sprung dance floor – fun when vinyl was played, especially ‘Jump Around’ ) , actually the whole building is listed.

    Wayne.

  7. Michael warden says:

    Any chance Christopher that you would do some more London tours , for locals

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Sprung dance floors. We have one left (the Commodore) but it is live shows so the “bounce” effect is only in the feet. There is a house in the West End of Vancouver which was rumoured to have its ballroom floor seated on seaweed to get that bounce.

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