Given that I am currently at the family seat, and have just finished watching Brave, today’s Victorian Vendredi will out of necessity have a Scottish flavour. Queen Victoria herself, as any self-respecting fan of Dr Who, lycanthropy-themed episodes in particular, will know, greatly enjoyed her holidays at Balmoral Castle, describing it in her diaries as “my dear paradise in the Highlands”. But I don’t plan to speak of royal pursuits today, nor of the interference of time-travellers in said pursuits.Having been to the wonderful Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End, for the party celebrating the launch of Dan Hillier’s art collection Feather and Claw in 2010, I started wondering if there had been something similar in Glasgow. Behold the Britannia Panopticon, the oldest surviving music hall in the world! Like Wilton’s in London, the Britannia is in the East End of Glasgow, specifically in the Trongate, one of my favourite parts of the city. It was also in the Britannia that a sixteen year old boy made his stage debut; you may know him as Stan Laurel.
Confession time: I have never been to the Britannia, having only discovered its existence when it came to researching this post. As I said above, it was inspired by my memories of Wilton’s in London. But when I saw the photos of the Britannia’s exterior, I realised that I have walked past its location (unchanged since it opened in 1857), unknowingly, since I learned to walk; it is one of many beautiful Victorian buildings in Glasgow. It’s wonderful that there is so much work being done to restore it to its original condition, by Historic Scotland, the local Townscape Heritage Initiative, the Friends of the Britannia Panopticon, and the founder of the Britannia Music Hall Trust, author of the book Stan Laurel and other stars of the Panopticon: the story of the Britannia Music Hall, and music hall manager Judith Bowers. But I’m planning to visit as soon as I can, although it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to do so this weekend. There is a lot going on, including silent films, the Academy of Burlesque and Cabaret’s Showcase, and the free Music Hall Memories shows – although you should take heed of their warning that you will be charged should you wish to leave, as well as a lecture series.The Glasgow theatre tradition is very rich; it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there have been, and still are, music halls here. I’ve been to most of the big theatres – the Citizens (opened in 1876), the Kings, the Pavilion, the Theatre Royal (opened in 1867), and the Tron – mostly to see pantomimes and ballet round Christmas. Flamboyant and eccentric figures like Sir Harry Lauder were a household name, even though he died long before I was born. If you wish to find out more about life on (and, I hope, off) the Victorian Glasgow stage, I can think of no better place to start than in the Scottish Theatre Archive in Glasgow University Library’s Special Collections department. Perhaps I’ll see you there.