News Features

A Theatre Ghost Story
by Mike Wood


There is one of Frank Matcham’s theatre creations that haunts us, and one for which the future is bleak. It is the shadow of his very first theatre building, that of the Elephant & Castle Theatre in the London Borough of Southwark. Some may be wondering, what theatre? It is what lies behind and beyond the blue tin box of the Coronet.

The Coronet at London’s Elephant & Castle is running out of time. Not content with perpetrating the gruesome pink elephant shopping centre surrounded by blocks of flats in the 1960’s, the London Borough of Southwark are now promoting a £3bn ‘new exciting destination’ on an even bigger scale and already at an advanced stage! But why would anyone want to go or live there if it had no heart; they want to demolish the Coronet for a university office block.

Photo: London Metropolitan Archive

The Coronet is located on a site associated with entertainment for nearly 140 years. The very first theatre on this plot was built in 1872 by Dean & Mathews. Following its destruction by fire in 1878, the Elephant & Castle Theatre was built. It was designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham – his very first theatre design, and now only twenty something left in the country of over a hundred that he built.

It closed in 1928 and was then reconstructed for cinema use by Associated British Cinemas (ABC), re-opening in 1932. The architect was ABC’s W R Glen, who designed many outstanding cinemas. It gained a new façade and new auditorium seating 2,315, and to compete with the large Trocadero opposite, it had a fully-equipped stage and orchestra pit, while retaining the original dressing rooms from Matcham’s theatre and some of the exterior structure.

In 2003 the Coronet was refurbished, with an investment of £2m, as a multi-purpose music venue. A screen and sound system was installed so that films could be shown occasionally. The Theatres Trust and the Cinema Theatre Association have raised objections to the loss of this amazing community asset and it is currently number four on the Theatres Trust Theatre Buildings at Risk (TBAR) register out of thirty-seven.

The Coronet has been a spectacular success as a mixed use venue, but information on a suggested smaller replacement hall has been sketchy. Town hall egos and developer’s big money seems about to bulldoze the community spirit once again. However, they should know that burying the place under ten storeys of concrete will not stop the theatre ghost from haunting them!


See the fascinating detailed illustrated history on the Arthur Lloyd website here and read the Theatres Trust database entry here. The Theatre Buildings at Risk list is here and the
Save the Coronet page is here.

Adapted from the Cinema Theatre Association Facebook post.



A German Thunder Run
by Adam Harrison



Thunder Run at Prinzregententheater Munich photo: Adam Harrison


Back in the olden days there were sheets of iron and drums of canvas and wood to shake and turn for lightening and wind FXs. Bigger theatres might have a Thunder Run constructed and it might still be there for you to find with the traps and old wooden equipment. In London’s West End, Her Majesty’s still has an impressive large Thunder Run beside the Fly Floor stage left and although it has not been used in decades it has featured in some posters for “Phantom”. Few others remain, but there is a small one up in the roof of the Bristol Old Vic which has been restored and they intend to use for a future “King Lear”. There is video footage available online showing wooden cannon balls rolling down the shute to create the rumble noise. This was a big special effect back in the 1750’s.

These British Thunder Runs are a long shute, boxed in on all sides and built sideways so that the balls roll down a ramp by gravity. But over on the Continent they are often vertical. I saw one in Amsterdam some years ago and wondered how it might work and how it might sound. There were three control lines and three pegs so it presumably could be loaded up three times and go three times?

The Frank Matcham Society has just returned from our international trip and this year we have been in Germany. Starting in Munich and going up to Dresden with Bayreuth, Weimar and Leipzig also visited. On the way we found a private theatre in the grounds of Schloss Kochberg. Liebhabertheater was built in 1800 and now seats 75. Well the Finborough above that pub in Earl’s Court it is not! This German gem is on the Perspectiv heritage trail and is all fake marble and as delightful as it could be. Sadly Bayreuth was the disappointment as both World Heritage sites were closed for renovation at the same time, so neither opera house was seen inside, let alone their stages walked upon.

However, and it is a great big however, before we left Munich we were taken all over the Prinzregententheater. The people of Munich were not pleased that they could only see and hear Wagner by going all the way to his Festspielhaus at Bayreuth and so they opened a copy within twenty-five years. It is identical, apart from interior decoration on the walls and the orchestra pit. But the same mechanist equipped the identical sized stage. Wonder of wonders, here was a vertical Thunder Run that was all loaded and ready to be demonstrated. The Technical Director showing us round the Fly Floor, and then the under stage metal work of sliders and bridges, was a “pro” and saved the best to last. “Would we like to hear this Thunder Run?” Well, YES we would!

This one is loaded with three inch metal balls in trays at the grid and when you pull a cord the balls roll out and down the shute which has wooden bits inside for the balls to fall against. What I had not reckoned on was this could be played like a drum. First a slow rumble, then a sudden jerk caused an big bang, and then the noise could crescendo up from piano to forte to..! Such a good loud thunder sound FX. This was great! Sadly it takes time to reload all those balls from the basement up in a lift to the grid so that I could not have a go myself, but oh I did want to. Clutching my Theatre Words I did want to say – and Thunder Q1- GO! Still a big thrill to say and always a special fun to fire some big pyro bangs and flashes.


(A full write-up of the Frank Matcham Society visit to Germany appeared in the member’s Newsletter)



Remember Brighton Hippodrome? .. REMEMBER?
President Emeritus John Earl’s Article in the September 2013 Members Newsletter

B Hippo as a MH 1902

Brighton Hippodrome as a Music Hall in 1902 after conversion from circus.

The news about Brighton Hippodrome at the beginning of September (2013) was extremely depressing. There appears to be no consent application or other public papers at present on which to comment, but the broad pattern of events is fairly well known.

The once promising proposal for a popular music venue died the death, due to opposition by the police and the licensing authority, this following six years of discussion and heavy investment by the owners in skilled professional services.
The proposal that came forward to replace it was for conversion to a multiscreen complex with no fewer than eight (yes, eight) screens packed into that superb Grade II* Matcham interior. You don’t need much imagination to see that, however the feat was achieved, the great tent-like (former circus} volume would be hopelessly compromised.

The scheme will, of course, be represented as “reversible” and,
indeed, anything is theoretically reversible if you have loads of money and an improbable willingness to abandon a highly profitable use that need never have invaded the site.
In fact, once the interior has been subjected to such massive interference, the rare qualities that marked it out for Grade II* status will soon be forgotten. The likelihood of a huge investment being made to return it to theatrical, or any other amenable non-destructive use, will be vanishingly remote.

I have heard it argued that the building is now in such deteriorated condition that the choice is between an architecturally damaging project or total loss.
What I say to this is that the Hippodrome was not in serious disrepair when I examined it in 2007. Since then the City Council, if it had been worried at subsequent deterioration, had statutory power to intervene and stop the rot. It did not.

The Hippodrome’s grading puts it in the top six percent of all listed buildings in England. During its idle years no effort seems to have been made to market it or to find alternative uses other than the present multiscreen proposal. English Heritage must surely now insist on the building receiving the urgent care and attention that are no more than its due.

A last dismal thought. In the 1960s, when conservation was not a great matter of public concern, hardly any theatres (and certainly not the Hippodrome) were listed buildings and there was no powerful body like English Heritage to give a lead, Brighton corporation gave serious consideration to acquiring the Hippodrome in order to prevent its demolition.
The procedure was aborted only when Mecca stepped in and purchased the building for bingo, a use which, incidentally, caused hardly any architectural damage.
This was a remarkably early time for any authority to be considering preserving a theatre by acquisition. How times have changed!