The Death And Life Of A London Institution


In the 1960s new British writing flourished, especially in the theatre. Rising labour costs eventually forced up seat prices, which meant that theatre chains now need certain houses to stage sure-fire hits that will pay for new plays. As a consequence, great theatrical authors are now more in danger of being lost than most novelists. Plays become ephemeral if they fail to enter repertoires. The shock of their experience fades, and only the scripts remain.

Samuel French was an American entrepreneur who founded a play publishing and theatrical licensing business with a British actor/manager in 1859. He soon became the most important theatrical publisher in England. At the time of his death in 1898 almost all renowned English playwrights of the present and recent past had been represented by his company.

French’s bookshop in Covent Garden was a treasure house of theatre, with original play scripts published in stage editions and books about every aspect of acting and production. To avoid exorbitant rents it left Covent Garden after being in the same shop for well over a century and moved to Fitzrovia, but that too closed (after 187 years in the capital) with management blaming an unsustainable rental increase. It had always been a great hangout for penniless writers and actors. The staff would let us sit on the floor reading all day and never chuck us out. Tiny Elena Salvoni (who worked in the restaurant business for more than seven decades) used to run a nearby restaurant called Bianchi’s, and encouraged writers to hang out there, knowing we would bring a certain louche argumentative charm to the place. We’d sit with our play scripts and bicker, and whenever it looked like we couldn’t afford to stay there any longer she would stroll past the table and surreptitiously stick a bottle of cheap plonk on it so that we wouldn’t leave.

I bought the script of every play I admired from the shop, and as many plays simply vanished forever, each scripts became a momento mori for its author. I still have many of their unique editions.

I rather think that French’s and Bianchi’s did more for the struggling author than any creative writing course. But this story has a happy ending; last year the shop found a new home, in the Balcony Bar of the Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea.


18 comments on “The Death And Life Of A London Institution”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    I used to love this shop and went there a lot. I liked it even more when it moved to Fitzrovia. It was larger and lighter, or so it seemed. I used to do amateur dramatics in Forest Hill/Catford and worked in the West End. When I was directing I used to go and look for ideas. It also became my job to go and pick up the sets of plays for each new production.

    Foyles also had a very good play section, on the top floor I think.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Is that the Covent Garden location or the Fitzrovia one? What is in this location now? It is a wonderful venue for walk-by traffic with all those windows.
    We all know Samuel French because that’s where our scripts came from for school productions and licensing was always through them but it must have gone through the mail because I don’t think we ever had a storefront here. It’s like Thomas Cook and now that icon is disastrously gone.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    This is the Fitzrovia one. It was more impressive, frontage wise, than the Covent Garden one. It was actually in Southampton Row which leads up to Covent Garden from the Strand, if you want to look at it on Google maps. If you look on the map coming from the Strand it was about halfway up on the left hand side.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    I got the address slightly wrong. I have just looked in an old French’s script (Blithe Spirit if you are interested) and the old address was 26 Southampton Street, Strand, London WC2. We did the play around 1973. This was about 2 or 3 years after the postcodes came in, but the script it is still using the none postcode address. I see also that they had offices in Toronto. Also New York, Sydney and Hollywood.

    They didn’t just sell their own scripts but those of other publishers as well. There used to be quite a few but French’s gobbled a lot up. I think the other company today is Warner’s, which took over the other companies.

  5. Bronwen Rowlands says:

    There’s something about the phrase “a certain louche argumentative charm” that I want to hold onto. It’s multi- onomatopoetic.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Brian. Yes, we sent to Toronto for sure. Blythe Spirit, and did the rhythm echo the “Coward” voice?

  7. Brian Evans says:

    Up to point Helen, that’s the best I can say. I was prompter so it was nerve-wracking as it is such a long play. I directed it more recently and was reasonably happy.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    That’s a little on the vague side, Brian. Reasonably happy because you shortened it, that you were directing and not prompting (a joyless task), that the cast managed to ditch the Coward voice?

  9. Brian Evans says:

    I was trying to be kind about the first. The production I didn’t think was that good, and the set was a bit uninspired.

    The second I enjoyed much more but it still wasn’t perfect. Elvira was not very good. I was in this group near Liverpool from 1969 to 1971 then move to the London suburb of Sydenham in South London. The group I joined there I loved and was in it till I moved back to near Liverpool 19 years ago and I returned to my former group and was in Neil Simon’s “Rumours” then directed BS then gave up as I finally decided I had had enough. I was finding learning the lines more difficult and also it was a bit of journey.

    In neither production were any cuts made nor did we try to ape the Coward voice.

    When I was in London I introduced by partner to the group which turned out to be a mixed blessing. He had never acted before and turned out to be better at it than me. However, it was great having that shared interest, so when we moved back up here he joined my old group and played Charles Condemeine. I was very pleasd with him and most of the rest of the cast. The woman who played Madame Arcarti was just perfect and needed virtually no direction.

    Hope that answers your question! I would be very interested to hear more about your involvement and whether you still do it.

  10. Brian Evans says:

    The group in London is the St Georges Players in Forest Hill if you want to look it up.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Nope, I’ve been around while my son was in the business and I’ve done little amateur things for specific purposes – skits, that sort of thing. We were regular attenders at the local rep company for years, until they disbanded.

  12. Brian Evans says:

    Interesting that your son was in the business. I whish I had had the confidence and ability to have given it a go.

    Same, here, quite a few groups have folded, though we still have a very good local amateur rep with their own theatre.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    No, you don’t, Brian. There are so many professionals appearing for no pay “thanks to the Actors’ Union” that I wonder if anyone is making a living other than a half dozen tv actors.
    By the way – teachers spend half their time acting. I got some of it out of my system that way.

  14. Brian Evans says:

    Don’t quite see what point you are making Helen. Surely the actor’s union fights for more pay and not less. If you are suggesting that all actors have to work for no pay, and therefore are not amateurs I repeat what I say. Whilst a lot have closed down there are still a lot of thriving groups in the UK full of actors that have never worked as a “pro” and wouldn’t want to. I have spent half my adult life acting as an “amateur” and also seeing various “amateur” productions and they are not full out of work actors. I can’t speak for Canada of course, but in UK out of work “professional” actors still have to pay the bills and if they can’t get benefits (It used to be easier but the appalling Tory government killed that off with just about every other public service-they just don’t get that acting is a special case and actors can’t help “resting” from time to time.)

    Granted, there are some actor’s that start off as an amateur but go on to do it for a living.

    The town where I live has a thriving group-full of full time amateurs, about 60 of them. They have an incredibly high standard-better than most pro reps in years gone by. They do 12 productions a year, for 8 days each, have there own theatre which they have spent years building up, and are virtually full for each house.

    I have had a friend for donkey’s years, we met through drama, who was a teacher till he retired and also a frustrated actor. He used to think of his teaching as 8 shows a day.

  15. Brian Evans says:

    “…and if they can’t get benefits” they have to do any paid work they can get-is what I meant to say.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Actors who are members of the union (and many aren’t for a number of reasons) can appear in “amateur” productions for no pay only with the union’s permission; hence the “by arrangement” notice in programs. There is only one professional company left in Vancouver, I believe, so paid work is really only available in tv or films. Given the number of filming notices I see on telephone poles we’re a busy location, but I know absolutely nothing about how that works for people. There is lots of unpaid work, which means having some other source of income.
    Amateur (unpaid) productions can certainly be really good and I have enjoyed a number of them. I am using “pro” and “amateur” in the classic sense of paid vs unpaid work and not in any sense as not valuing one over the other. I think it is unfortunate that skilled people have to work what amounts to two jobs in order to do the one they love.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks for the clarification. Whilst being a “Leftie” I am not altogether happy with a lot of trades unions and how they behave/operate. The actor’s union here-Equity-is a case in point. It used to operate a closed shop with the appalling condition that you couldn’t work as a pro unless you had an Equity card-and you couldn’t get an Equity card unless you had done 13 weeks (I think it was) paid pro work. It is no joke about the “casting couch”. It really was a way of become a pro.

    Interestingly the Docker’s union also had a closed shop-though not with the casting couch! The sons of dockers were always given first choice.

    With the UK being a class-ridden society it helps if you have been to public school. And also it helps to be a Freemason. A case in point of the latter was the now disbanded ABC chain of cinemas.

    Whilst championing amateur groups, I have sat through some productions that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I have been in one or two as well.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    It’s Equity here as well. Part of the problem is when do you decide you can opt for professional? Once you’re paying dues – and it’s not cheap – opting out is difficult, I believe.
    Government can even get involved. For quite a while any band, orchestra, or ensemble appearing in Canada had to have a standby Canadian whatever to ensure that Canadian musicians were not being done out of work. Just imagine back in the 50s finding enough Canadian steel drum players let alone competent ones in case there was an accident to one of the Caribbean players.

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