Friday, 2 March 2012

The Panopticon Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow

Members of the writing group I attend had the privilege of visiting a unique building in Glasgow with one of the most interesting hidden histories of the city. Most of us didn’t know it existed and that afternoon was a fascinating journey into the past.


Hidden amongst the old buildings of the Trongate in Glasgow is a remarkable old Victorian music hall known as the Panopticon. The Britannia Panopticon is hard to find, for it’s situated above a very modern amusement arcade, although observant passers-by might look up and notice the beautiful façade of an older building. Like much of Glasgow, the architecture is often most impressive above eye-level. Having located the building, it is a matter of going through the amusement arcade to find the stairs up to the hidden world of the old music hall.


Beginning life as a warehouse, the original Britannia Music Hall went through several changes of use from its opening in 1857. The first renovation was to the outer façade when the architects Thomas Gildard and Robert H.M. MacFarlane redesigned the front of the old warehouse. Their elegant classical design with cherubs celebrated Glasgow’s reputation as the second city of the Empire. The date, MDCCCLVII, was carved in Roman numerals into the stone beneath the apex.

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.

Romy

14 comments:

Anne Gallagher said...

What a fascinating story. Thanks so much for telling it. Places like this in the US just get torn down.

Joan Fleming said...

Thank you for posting this, Rosemary. I was there too with the group, and share your enthusiasm.

Bill Kirton said...

Fascinating's definitely the word for this. Great post, Rosemary, and one of particular interest for me because in the sequel to The Figurehead, I'll be introducing a troupe of actors who'll perform at the Theatre Royal in Marischal Street, Aberdeen (which I think is now a bank). That'll be in 1842 but theatrical traditions are remarkably similar from decade to decade.

Maggie Craig said...

Fascinating article, Rosemary. You really bring the old theatre to life. I'd love to go to a show there, the atmosphere must be brilliant.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Anne!

It was a great day out, wasn't it, Joan!

You would love the inside of this, Bill - it's so full of atmosphere.

Thanks, Maggie - I'd like to go to one myself. Now that's where we should visit with WS!

Ute Carbone said...

What a beautiful old building, Romy. How wonderful that it's been resurrected!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks for visiting, Ute - it's an amazing building and so full of the past.

Gill Stewart said...

Love it. There is so much more to Glasgow than I used to think, and every time I feel I'm getting an overview of what there is something else like this pops up.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks, Gill! It's an amazing city and I don't know half of it.

Jane Richardson said...

Thanks so much for sharing this, Romy! What a wonderful building. It's great to see it's being preserved, along with all its history. It's fascinating to imagine all the souls that 'trod the boards' there throughout time! I'm a great fan of variety theatre - what's left of it! Thank goodness for our panto tradition in the UK - so this was doubly fascinating for me. :)

Jane x

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Jane - thanks for your lovely comment! It's that atmosphere of the past that makes it so special.

Gwen Kirkwood said...

It's taken me a while to get here but I am so glad I didn't miss this Rosemary. I could almost see the people on the stage and feel the atmosphere. What setting for a story and long may it go on being preserved for posterity.

Vikki said...

Really interesting post and thanks for reminding me that this is top of my list of places to visit this year (can't believe I've never been!)

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Thanks, Gwen - I was just thinking it's a great setting for a story!

You're welcome, Vikki - I want to go again sometime, to see a show.