A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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51 - Memories of the Saville and Players Theatres and of Flitcroft Architectus

A few yards north, on the same side of Shaftesbury Avenue, stands a large Odeon Cinema, sporting the same 'Fanatical about Film' frontage to be found on Odeons all over the country. Yet this is, in fact, one of London's most modern theatres - The Saville Theatre. It opened in 1931 and closed in 1970. The building is attractively Art Deco, with its long frontage on Shaftesbury Avenue dominated by detailed bas-reliefs, by the British sculptor Gilbert Bayes, telling the story of 'Drama through the ages'. Despite its short history, the Saville Theatre has seen its fair share of hits, many of them musicals: 'Jill Darling!' with Frances Day in 1934, 'Express Bongo' with Paul Scofield in 1958, 'Pickwick Papers' with Harry Secombe in 1963. Alan Bates played here in 1965 with Diane Cilento in Arnold Wesker's 'The Four Seasons', as did Leonard Rossiter, in 1969, to critical acclaim in the title role of Bertol Brecht's 'The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui'. Fans of the Beatles know that the British Information Service (responsible for promoting British culture in foreign countries) recorded an interview with the famous band here in 1965. The interview was combined with songs, put on a disc, and sent to New York for dispatch to specified US radio stations for local broadcast. Pink Floyd played the Saville Theatre in 1967; and, in 1969 just before it closed, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band did a gig with Cream.

I turn left down St Giles Passage, once called Church Passage, and right into New Compton Street. A hundred years ago, when this road was still connected to what is now the more lively Old Compton Street further west, a row of pretty bay-fronted shops stood here, on the site of the cinema, one of which was a 'paper bag maker'. Although now also lost to developers, number 6 New Compton Street is worth mentioning. It was the original home of the Player's Theatre, established in 1927, where, on the first floor, Peggy Ashcroft made her debut. And, in the 1940s, it housed the Fullado Club, where a young Ronnie Scott played be-bop with other cool jazz musicians, before setting up his famous club 300 yards away in Gerrard Street.

My route takes me along the side of the Phoenix Garden which is managed by Covent Garden Open Spaces Association (CGOSA). It's a pleasant haven with benches, rock gardens, and trees (although a tall eucalyptus looks scruffy and out of place). Snowdrops, daffodils, other narcissi, primula, bergenias are all in flower, but there's no one here this morning to enjoy them. The garden was opened in 1984, under license from the London Borough of Camden (on land that was previously used as a car park). A notice says: 'Volunteer Days. Come along and get involved as we begin work on a new wildlife reserve area. Many hands make light work.' CGOSA claims it is the 'greenest space in the heart of the West End'. Although not precisely accurate with respect to the 'West End', the metaphor of the 'heart' has a pictorial truth about it, since the garden is placed at the very centre of a heart-shaped triangle of roads (Charing Cross Road, St Giles High Street and Shaftesbury Avenue).

Passing by the backs of some flats, and two patches of soil (that hope to be lawns), I reach the east side of St Giles Church, the companion to St Martin. St Giles was originally founded in the open fields as a leper hospital, nearly a millennium ago, by Henry I's wife, Queen Matilda. Thereafter its chapel evolved into a parish church. Henry Flitcroft designed the present building in the 1730s, partly modelling it on St Martin. Above the west door, and below the pediment, his name 'H Flitcroft Architectus' is writ large in the stone. Once Flitcroft's 150ft steeple would have been visible for miles around from every direction, now it can only be spied occasionally through gaps in the surrounding buildings, and, even then it is dwarfed by an ugly and attention-seeking 1960s tower, Centre Point, 200 yards away. Two of Britain's greatest poets, Byron and Shelley, are thought to have had their children baptised in this church, the latter just days before he left England for the last time. Holy Communion takes place twice on Sundays at 8am and 12 noon. Morning and evening prayer, both with sermon, are at 11am and 6:30pm respectively. There are also services on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and, during Friday lunchtimes, free music recitals.

The brick-built 'Elms Lesters Painting Rooms', dating from 1904, in the shadow of St Giles, has a very tall narrow door serving both the ground floor and first storey levels. Since this was originally a scene painting studio, the unusual doorway would have allowed large sets to be transported in and out. Today, the building houses contemporary art exhibitions and contains 'a permanent display of Tribal Arts from Africa and Oceania' which is 'available to view by appointment'.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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