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When the sun set on the Empire Theatre
Buy this photo » Roger Trayhurn and Mark Child with their new book, All For The Empire
“IT was winter, and as we were kids we played snowballs.”
As teenage memories of Swindon go, it wasn’t exactly detailed, but the man talking had done an awful lot during the intervening years.
He was speaking during a return visit to the town some 40 years later, toward the end of his showbusiness career, and this time he was with his comedy partner – one Oliver Hardy.
The 17-year-old pantomime performer Stanley Jefferson and the 57-year-old Stan Laurel of four decades later are both players in the story of the Empire Theatre, which stood on the corner of Groundwell Road and Clarence Street from 1898 until its demolition in 1959.
That story is told by local historians Mark Child and Roger Trayhurn in a new book called All for the Empire, beginning with its creation on the orders of a young entrepreneur called Ernest Carpenter.
Mr Trayhurn compiled a complete list of Empire shows from the first – the pantomime Dick Whittington on Febuary 7, 1898 – to the last, which was another pantomime, Robinson Crusoe.
The early pages of the book brim with names generally known only to students of old time music hall, but are no less fascinating for that.
During the first couple of decades of the theatre’s life, people queued to see a list of performers whose names sound like outtakes from The Beatles’ Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.
They included the likes of Werds the Grotesque Acrobat, the trick cyclists known as the Three Demons, Billy the Educated Horse, Maude and Gill the Acrobatic Dogs, Brinn the Strongman, Judge’s Marvellously Trained Cockatoos and Mlle Ampere, The Human Battery, whose feats included lighting gas jets with lumps of ice.
Then there was Unthan, born with no arms, who used his legs and feet to accomplish everything from shuffling a deck of cards to clipping and smoking a cigar. He rounded off the act with which he topped the bill for a week in 1908 by taking a rifle and shooting a cork from a bottle.
In 1908 and 1912 came world-famous Chinese illusionist Chung Ling Soo – actually an American called William Robinson – whose sleight of hand and carefully altered gun convinced people he could catch a bullet in his teeth. His luck would finally run out at the Wood Green Empire one night in 1918, when an improperly prepared weapon sent a fatal bullet into his chest.
The Empire saw countless appearances by far more familiar names, sometimes long before they became big stars.
In 1948, a show called Stars of Radio Times featured a singer called Betty Driver, who would later leave showbusiness to run a pub until being tempted out of retirement to play Betty Turpin in Coronation Street.
On March 21, 1949, there was a variety show called Ladies and Gentlemen, whose stars included future Carry on Legend and cult hero Frankie Howerd, future comedy institution Norman Wisdom and a 25-year-old Scottish actress and comic called Janet Brown.
There is no reason to believe she had even heard of an obscure young Tory parliamentary candidate called Margaret Thatcher, impersonations of whom would one day make Brown a household name.
Other future housegold names appearing in the post-Second World War period included Bill Waddington, who would find fame many years later as Percy Sugden in Coronation Street, and Reg Varney, who by the turn of the 1970s would be one of the most famous people in Britain thanks to On the Buses, a sitcom which regularly pulled in more than 20m viewers.
Bill Maynard appeared more than 20 years before finding 1970s sitcom immortality in Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt, and nearly 40 before taking on the role of Claude Greengrass in Heartbeat.
Appearing with him in a show called Piccadilly Hayride was Terry Scott, later to be half of an enduring sitcom duo with June Whitfield.
1949 saw Hughie Green arrive at the Empire with a travelling version of Opportunity Knocks, which would eventually make it to television and become an important precursor of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent.
A 19-year-old Bernie Winters appeared in 1951 in a show called Mesdamoiselles from Armentierres, and Leslie Phillips starred in a performance of classic comedy Charley’s Aunt.
Swindon starlet Diana Dors appeared in 1953.
Plenty of established stars also appeared, including Tommy Trinder, Max Wall, Beryl Reid and Vera Lynn.
There was also Freddie Frinton, a comedy star now largely forgotten, but whose sitcom, Meet the Wife, would be namechecked by John Lennon in Good Morning Good Morning on the Sgt Pepper album in 1967.
Frinton also devised a sketch called Dinner for One, about a drunken butler and his dotty employer, which for some unknowable reason has become an integral part of New Year TV programming in Germany, screened without fail for about 40 years.
Eventually the Empire, like many other provincial theatres, succumbed to changing tastes and, crucially, the unstoppable rise of television.
Not even the period sauciness of Phyllis Dixey’s Peek-a-Boo reviews, these days regarded as legendary in the history of striptease, were enough to bring in sufficient trade. The wrecking ball came and no trace remained by 1960.
The Empire’s 115ft by 90ft plot is now occupied by a restaurant, La Dolce Vita, and a couple of other food businesses. The space above, where audiences cheered their favourite performers, are offices.
All for the Empire is published by Hobnob Press, ISBN 978-1-905978-27-3, and priced at £14.95.
It is available from the central library, on order from bookshops and from Amazon.
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