Bryant & May Location No. 4
The Savoy theatre and hotel both feature heavily in ‘Seventy Seven Clocks’, the theatre especially because of its unique place in world history.
Sir Richard D’Oyly Carte was ahead of his time (we honour him now in rhyming slang, the ultimate accolade, although I’m not sure he’d agree). His theatre was the home of Gilbert & Sullivan, and designed for all-round visibility, no matter what you’d paid for your ticket. He abolished tipping the attendants and gave them decent wages instead (a lesson that could be learned by US restaurant owners).
Best of all, he ditched all the dingy dark walls and heavy velvets favoured by the Victorians. The place was a blaze of yellow satin, white and gold paintwork. The seats were bright blue, the boxes were red and the vestibule floor was paved in black and white marble. It was a monument to a new light and cool style. The medieval palace of the Princes of Savoy used to stand on the site, and it was said that D’Oyly Carte was trying to recapture that spirit.
On the night of 28th December 1881, there came an extraordinary symbolic moment. For the first time ever, a public building was completely lit with the new electric light. Darkness was thrown from the corners of the night. In this case, by over twelve hundred electric lamps. They’d tried to do it once before, on the 10th of October the same year. On that occasion, the entire company came on stage and sang three choruses of‘ God Save The Queen in a dramatic new arrangement by Arthur Sullivan, but then – fiasco. The steam engine next door which was driving the generator in a vacant lot near the theatre couldn’t provide enough electricity, and the stage remained gas-lit.
But at the matinée on December the 28th, they finally got it right. D’Oyly Carte, ever the grand showman, walked onto the stage and ordered the gas-lighting to be turned off. He followed with a lecture on the safety of electricity. This was news to the audience; many of them had thought it was fatal. Then he took a piece of muslin and wrapped it around a lit lamp, which he proceeded to smash with a hammer. When he held up the unburnt muslin, proving that there was no danger to the public, the audience went wild.
Gas light had been unclear, yellowish, smelly and hot. The new electric illumination was here to stay.