In its early days, the music hall attracted mostly male customers, not least for the titillation of watching dancing girls and female acrobats. The only women who entered were generally those soliciting a paying customer for the evening, in a dark corner of the theatre. By the 1860s, however, it was upgraded to attract a family audience, with wooden pews added to the balcony and a proscenium arch above the stage. A strict door policy was introduced and bills were printed with the words: ‘No ladies admitted unless accompanied by gentlemen’. Up to 1,500 people attended the daily shows which were regarded as a family treat.
Although it went through various uses, including a cinema and a zoo, the Panopticon saw some famous music hall stars make their debut on its stage. Harry Lauder went on to become a legend in London as well as Glasgow, with songs such as: ‘A Wee Doch and Doris’ and ‘Roamin in the Gloamin’. One half of the famous comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy, the young sixteen year old Stan Laurel (born Jefferson) made his debut on the stage in 1906 and went on to be a box-office hit. And one of the first matinee idols, Jack Buchanan, also made his comedy and singing debut at the Panopticon, which was less successful than his eventual film career.
The Panopticon finally closed its doors in 1938 and the building was sold. And the old music hall lay forgotten. Until the remarkable Judith Bowers discovered the hall, stage and balcony with their ghosts of the past, and began the long journey of bringing it back to life. The Panopticon Britannia Music Hall reopened to the public in 2003, and once more brings occasional evenings of music-hall entertainment, burlesque, and old films to the people of Glasgow. As we stood on the old stage and glanced up at the balcony, we could almost imagine the ‘boys in the balcony’ waving back.
The fascinating history of the Panopticon is told by Judith Bowers in The Story of the Brittania Music Hall, published by Birlinn.