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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
48 - From Godspell to Giddy Ostend by way of a control centre and a £5 scam
I continue north along Charing Cross Road, laid out in the 19th century as a result of Nash's (less-than-successful) plan to connect Trafalgar Square with the British Museum. On my left, I pass several restaurants (Italian, Indian and American), the back of the huge Leicester Square Odeon, and a Barclays Bank in Alhambra House. Opposite is Cecil Court, a pedestrian walkway full of specialist book, print, map, stamp and coin sellers. One claims to be the oldest stamp shop in London, and another the oldest surviving bookshop in the world specifically specialising in the occult and the mystical. The latter also notes that its past customers included Aleister Crowley (that practical joker from a Streatham primary school) and W. B. Yeats.
Further north is Wyndhams Theatre, currently showing 'Dinner' by Moira Buffiney with Harriet Walter and Nicholas Farrel. This theatre opened a decade after the Garrick, and, like the Garrick, is a Grade II listed building. The architect was W. G. R. Sprague. In the 1950s, a play called 'The Boyfriend', by Sandy Wilson, ran at Wyndhams for nearly six years; and it was here that David Essex made his mark in the musical 'Godspell'. Wyndhams now forms part of the growing Ambassador Theatre Group. The company says it is the second biggest theatre group in the West End and the second biggest in the UK regions, with a total of 22 venues. Outside London it owns, for example, the Ambassadors complex in Woking (theatres and cinemas) and the Theatre Royal in Brighton.
Wyndhams stands near a busy junction. Both Bear Street and Cranbourn Street connect to Leicester Square from here; and Leicester Square Underground Station seems to have exits everywhere. The British Transport Police archives reveal a little story about this station, which I only mention because it occurred in May 1952, the month I was born. On passing through the gate at Leicester Square Station, a young woman claimed to have been blackmailed out of £5 by two ticket inspectors. On investigation, however, it transpired, that she had used the blackmail story as a device to borrow £5 from her landlady, only filing the formal complaint to back up her excuse for the loan!
Bill Tucker has written in some detail - for the independent The London Underground Railway Society - about this station. The building, with its characteristic wine-red glazed blocks, was constructed in 1905 to a design by Leslie Green. It included offices for Cranbourn Chambers and Wisdens, with a bas-relief design of cricket stumps, bats and a ball, to indicate the latter. By the 1920s, all the Underground lines were being managed from here; but, in the post-war period, new control centres were built in different parts of London; and, in 1969, that for the Northern Line moved to Coburg Street. Since then, the building's street level has been taken up almost entirely by various establishments, not least an Angus Steak Houses restaurant. After decades of successful trading, Angus Steak Houses were seriously hit by the BSE crisis, and the company went into a period of receivership.
Also at this junction, on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Cranbourn
Road, is the famous Hippodrome. This is where Patricia Burke, the daughter
of the singer Tom Burke (buried in Blandon Cemetery) caught the public eye
as the Parisian ballerina Gabrielle Girard in The Lisbon Story. The Victorian
music hall and theatre architect, Frank Matcham, designed the massive and
ornate terracotta and red brick building for Sir Edward Moss. Its roof carries
a skeleton iron dome supporting a chariot and rearing horse, but the giant
Roman soldiers that once stood on the balustrade have departed. It opened
in January 1900 with 'a circus show second to none in the world'. One part
of this show was a water spectacle called 'Giddy Ostend' performed in a
tank which could be created by lowering the stage and filling the area with
10,000 gallons of water. Trained cormorants from China, twenty elephants,
seventy polar bears, and a man being shot from a canon were all on stage
at one time or another during the theatre's early years. Between the wars,
the Hippodrome was adapted for variety shows, and, by the 1950s, had changed
its name to 'The Talk of the Town'. Today, the building's Victorian grandeur
is all but lost amidst the tourist morass of snack bars, bureaus de change
and ticket offices at street level.
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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