London Palladium: Guided Tour

London Palladium exterior

 

London Palladium exterior

Where: London Palladium, 30 Argyll Street, London, W1F 7TE

When: Tours usually run at 11:30am on selected dates. Check the website for details of upcoming tours.

How: You can book online on the Really Useful Theatres website

Cost: £12

Duration? About two hours

You never forget your first time at the London Palladium. Whether performer, backstage or audience member, this is a really special place. My own first memory dates from my 7th birthday where I was surprised with tickets for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat! I’ve been back several times over the years so I was very excited to explore this theatre further…

The London Palladium opened on Boxing Day 1910 as a Palace of Varieties, and fittingly it has hosted more Royal Variety Performances than any other theatre.

Back when the theatre was designed there were several different entrances and exits for the variety of different audiences from working people to the wealthier crowd. We began by hearing about the history of the theatre and looking at some of the exquisitely decorated foyer and front-of-house areas as well as discovering how everything fits together.

Lovely stained glass doors in the London Palladium foyer.
Lovely stained glass doors in the foyer. This area was for the smart front stalls set!
Beautful decor of The Cinderella Bar, London Palladium
Just a taste of some of the gorgeous decor. This is called the Cinderella Bar for a very particular reason but you’ll have to take the tour to find out why!

The London Palladium is a beautiful Grade II listed building designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham. As well as looking wonderful, it features a cleverly cantilevered auditorium which ensures pretty much every seat from the top to the bottom has an unimpeded view of the stage as no pillars are required to keep it up.

London Palladium auditorium
The beautiful auditorium

The exception is the boxes, which, as in all theatres, boast the most luxurious surroundings but offer a better view of the audience than the stage! This is particularly true of the Royal Box, which we had a chance to visit. As you can see below, it’s more important for the occupants to be seen by the audience than to see the show! The actual stage view is a bit side on and if a member of the Royal Family wants to watch a particular show rather than attending a special event or gala as an honoured guest, they’ll generally take seats elsewhere in the theatre which offer a better view.

View from the Royal Box, London Palladium.
View from the Royal Box. It’s more important for the occupants to be seen by the audience than to see the show!
View of the London Palladium stage from the Royal Box.
View of the stage from the Royal Box. A bit side on!

The London Palladium is a busy working building so you never quite know what you’re going to see – but that is what makes this tour so exciting! There’s a rich, fascinating history here, but you never forget that it’s created first and foremost as a venue for live performance. In 2016, the Palladium is returning to its variety roots and running a programme of concerts so there was plenty of activity in the building.

The London Palladium stage.
The London Palladium stage.

One of the highlights of the tour was a chance to stand on the famous Palladium stage ourselves, and walk in the footsteps of all those famous performers who have graced the theatre in the past, such as Bing Crosby, Ivor Novello, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Danny Kaye, Max Bygraves, Julie Andrews, Cilla Black, Tommy Steele (who holds the record for the most appearances), Ronnie Corbett, Shirley Bassey, Bruce Forsyth, Yul Brynner, Liza Minnelli, Jonathan Pryce, Kerry Ellis, Robbie Williams…and many, many more!

The view of the auditorium from the stage, London Palladium.
The view of the auditorium from the stage.

 

Looking up, we discovered that the London Palladium has a relatively small space above the stage (for example, in comparison, the National Theatre has a whopping 30m fly tower in its Oliver Theatre). Equally, although the stage is very wide, it’s not very deep, and has little wing space, so designers have to bear all of this in mind when designing sets for the theatre. It certainly hasn’t prevented the Palladium housing some very large and elaborate sets however!

Above the London Palladium stage
Looking up above the stage.

Fly ropes at the side of the stage are used to raise and lower the scenery. They are on a double purchase pulley system so you need twice as much cable as the distance moved but they take less effort.

London Palladium fly ropes
Fly ropes

It’s amazing when you think of all the big musicals and huge-scale sets that have been in the London Palladium in the past as everything gets in and out through a modestly sized shutter at the rear of the stage. The sets are constructed off-site, taken apart like a jigsaw, brought in through this door, then re-assembled on the stage.

Door doors of the London Palladium
This is where all the set gets in and out of the theatre.
Under the London Palladium stage
We even got to see under the stage!

Fortunately for us, the dressing rooms were currently unoccupied so we also had a peek into the former and current Number One spaces which are rather less glamorous than you might imagine. It was lovely to think of the many performers who had passed through these rooms over the years.

The two hour tour can give you just the tip of the iceberg of the rich London Palladium story, so it was great to have the opportunity to ask questions throughout the tour as well.

Verdict: This tour is an especially magical experience for anyone who has memories of seeing a show at the London Palladium, but anyone who is keen on theatre history, architecture or just has a general theatre interest will have a great time too. As well as getting a closer look at the beauty and cleverness of Frank Matcham’s design, you get to explore some very exciting spaces and hear all those little stories and anecdotes that you can’t find out anywhere else. And the London Palladium has many great stories to tell!

If you want to make a day of it, why not stay in the mood by looking at some other Edwardian buildings in London such as Admiralty Arch or  Central Hall Westminster and team it with afternoon tea or an elegant cocktail. Or you’re interested in comparing the London Palladium to an older theatre, a tour of the Restoration-era Theatre Royal Drury Lane makes an interesting contrast.

And I definitely want to return for a concert in this beautiful space! Check out the RUT Live website for further details.

For more about backstage theatre tours visit backstagetheatretours.com

London Coliseum Guided Tour

London Coliseum

London Coliseum

Where: London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4ES

When: Currently running Saturday mornings

What’s on: The London Coliseum is home to the English National Opera (ENO) and runs a varied repertoire, all sung in English. You can also see ballet and now musicals too.

How: You can book online or by calling the box office on 020 7845 9300

Cost: Full price £10, concessions £8, school tours £5

Duration? About an hour

London Coliseum facade
London Coliseum facade

The London Coliseum is home to English National Opera but was actually built as a Palace for the People, a Hall of Varieties.

It came up in 1904, the brainchild of Sir Oswald Stoll who can actually be seen in the foyer, but not as a simple statue or bust – oh no, Sir Oswald’s face is incorporated in a much more interesting and unusual way! To find out where, take the tour, or when you go to see an opera, see if you can spot him in the throngs of people!

The building was designed by the exceptional theatre designer Frank Matcham, and there is a nod to Classical, Baroque and even early Art Nouveau in the amazing architecture.

We learnt all about the fascinating history and characters behind the London Coliseum and what is was like for audiences in the past, where sedate and elegant tea-rooms sat where the bars are now!

We went into the beautiful auditorium, where you can get a surprisingly good view from the very reasonably priced Balcony seats – something I have much experience of enjoying!

London Coliseum stage during a changeover between two shows
London Coliseum stage

The theatre was a hubbub of activity as a new show was being built into the theatre. There’s relatively little space behind the stage, and sets are stored off-site, so every change in the repertoire requires huge lorries to take the sets in and out.

ENO lorry transporting all the sets
ENO lorry

We could actually see daylight sparkling onto the stage where the huge dock doors were open at the back of the building…and when I had a look from the outside at the end of the tour, I could just make out the red velvet seats from the road!

The dock door at the rear of the London Coliseum
The dock door at the rear of the theatre

We then made our way through the offices and backstage areas of the building. In the staff canteen you can see a few remaining parts of the original stage machinery that allowed effects such as a show of the Epsom Derby – complete with racing horses!

We finished off with a visit to the sizeable orchestra pit, which gave a good feel of what the auditorium looks like from the stage, and had a sit in the fancy stalls seats.

London Coliseum stage during a changeover
The stage

Verdict: The London Coliseum is a beautiful building that I really knew very little about before this tour, in spite of having attended many operas and ballets here. It was great to learn more about the history and we really left with a feel for how this building has changed over the years.

For more about backstage tours, visit my website backstagethearetours.com