London Corners: Hackney Empire
Empires rise and fall, none mores than the music hall empires of old. The Hackney Empire was raised at the very start of the 20th century, a techno-marvel with central heating and electric lights. Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Marie Lloyd (a local girl) all appeared there, followed by Louis Armstrong, Tony Hancock, and Liberace.
But by the time the Second World War ended, the days of music hall – primarily a working class entertainment – were over. In 1956, the beautiful old theatre was bought by ATV, who produced many well-loved shows there, like ‘Emergency Ward Ten’ and ‘Take Your Pick’. But in 1963, Mecca bought it and converted it into a bingo hall. At least the Empire was spared the wrecking ball – most other such venues were destroyed, to be replaced by absolutely nothing of merit.
I remember seeing the bulldozers plough into the Putney Hippodrome, and read about many other baroque, graceful Victorian and Edwardian music halls which were smashed down by rapacious developers keen to build car parks. But in the 1980s the facade of the Hackney Empire was listed, and as Mecca didn’t want to spend any money on it they sold it on to a satirical touring theatre group.
It reopened on its 85th birthday in 1986, and took off once more, once again finding the kind of market it used to have – it’s still a hugely successful venue, and the jewel in Hackney’s crown, home of beloved Christmas pantos and many shows that involve local residents. It hasn’t become an exclusively upmarket venue like, say, the Donmar.
If only other councils had not been so short-sighted, they, too, would have wonderful attractions in their boroughs. Keeping the Hippodrome (and the music halls in the Old Kent Road and Camden) would have brought money into those areas. In Camden alone there were over fifty cinemas and music halls, nearly all of which have been pulled down to make way for shops. Hackney has kept something special, and it’s worth a trip to see, whatever’s on.