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From the theatre: Coliseum Night (BBC, 1939)

In the recent post From the theatre 1938-1939 I detailed the BBC’s outside broadcasts from London’s theatres in the year leading up to the outbreak of war. The first of these transmissions was a presentation of J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married from the St Martin’s Theatre in November 1938 (discussed in posts here and here); others included a series of variety shows from the London Coliseum. In strict terms, ‘variety’ falls outside the brief of Screen Plays as a research project, but I hope you will tolerate my stretching of that brief a little in this post. Relationships with theatre managements were immensely important to the fledgling television service (as I will explore in a further post) and the exchanges between the BBC and the Coliseum’s management for these variety presentations are a revealing strand of this story. The Coliseum and its owner Oswald Stoll also appear in other intriguing ways in the tale of television’s early days.

Poster for Baird's Coliseum demonstration of television, 1930

Poster for Baird's demonstration of television at the London Coliseum, July 1930In July 1930 the Coliseum presented one of the most spectacular of John Logie Baird’s demonstrations of his new television system. Three times a day for three weeks, ten-minute broadcasts from Baird’s studio in Covent Garden’s Long Acre featured on the theatre’s variety bill. Celebrities including Lord Baden-Powell and Herbert Morrison permitted their image to be transmitted to the Coliseum. The dancing duo known as the ‘Charming Belles in Harmony’ performed with one member on stage and the other on screen. Even more ambitiously George Robey started a turn live at the Coliseum and then left the stage to have his performance continued in a previously shot film. Meanwhile he went by taxi to Long Acre and finished his act via a television transmission.

The Coliseum had been opened in 1904 by Oswald Stoll (1866-1942), then managing director of the Moss Empires theatre chain. (Arthur Lloyd’s music hall and theatre history website features a detailed history of the building.) Stoll specialised in ‘variety’, a form of entertainment that sought to distance itself from the disreputable music hall and to appeal to a more middle-class audience. In his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on the impresario, Dave Russell describes the aspirations of the Coliseum:

[T]he theatre sought to attract respectable suburban London to high-quality variety performance in an ultra-modern building which boasted only the second revolving stage in the world. […] it became the flagship for a particularly refined style of variety show. (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Oswald Stoll, c. 1904; courtesy V&A

Oswald Stoll, c. 1904

As well as being notorious for paying his artistes as little as he could get away with, Stoll was impressively forward-looking in his understanding of contemporary entertainment. In 1918 he founded Stoll Picture Productions, a film producer and distributor that was a significant player in British cinema in the 1920s and into the 1930s. And in the late 1920s he pioneered arrangements for BBC radio transmissions of variety bills and music hall shows.

At the annual general meeting of Stoll Theatres Corporation in December 1934, Oswald Stoll spoke of the imminent arrival of television:

Television is no longer a possibility. It is an accomplished fact. It means that great advances in the entertainment world are imminent and that they are advances which, so far as we are concerned, will involve preservation of and cooperation with the stage. (‘Stoll Theatres Corporation’, The Times, 22 December 1934, p. 16)

Stoll’s pronouncements prompted an opinion column in The Manchester Guardian:

We may confidently expect the B. B. C. […] to enter well-armed the lists of theatrical production, and to present for transmission to eye as well as ear full-dressed drama from a fully-equipped stage. We may expect it also to range the theatres and music-halls of the land for material suitable to its programmes. […] Yet there will be plenty of critics who foresee in the coming of television not that fresh hope for the living theatre which Sir Oswald Stoll entertains but another nail in its coffin. With drama and variety ‘laid on’ in the parlour will the citizen trouble to present himself in any numbers at the box-office and, if he does not, how is the theatre to live?’ (Anon., ‘Television and the theatre’, 22 December 1934, p. 8)

That Stoll was concerned to explore the potential of television is indicated by a letter in the first of two files dedicated to pre-war outside broadcasts from the London Coliseum in the BBC Written Archives at Caversham (WAC T14/666/1 and T14/666/2). Just over two years after the regular BBC television service started at Alexandra Palace, and a fortnight after the successful outside broadcast of When We are Married, on 29 November 1938 director of television Gerald Cock wrote to Sir Oswald:

Some time ago you very kindly suggested co-operation between yourself and the Television Service in relaying a programme of variety from the Wood Green Empire. I have not forgotten this but the Wood Green Empire would involve a relay by airlink instead of one by special television cable.

Have you any objection in principle to our investigating the possibility of relaying for about an hour variety from the Coliseum, for which cable could be used?

Sir Oswald replied positively the very next day:

I should like you to go into the matter about which you write as we approve it in principle at the present state of television.

Following a technical recce, which indicated that a broadcast was feasible, on 13 December Cock wrote again to Stoll, with a first suggestion of a date and a concern about taste:

I know you have always to keep variety clean. We find it very difficult these days. May we ask you to take particular precautions on that evening, because television goes straight into people’s homes? Perhaps a specially suitable bill might be arranged for that week?

Coliseum at Night, 1920s; courtesy V&AThere were concerns about how much the orchestra expected to be paid and about whether an appropriate electricity supply could be organised. But the programme organiser at Alexandra Palace, Cecil Madden, had other worries after seeing the bill that was proposed for transmission:

It is a very poor rubbishy show, cheap throughout with only one good variety turn – Gold and Cordell, and a couple of Tap Dancers we know. […] It is in effect a small Brazilian Revue with eight or so artists, all very poor and unattractive […] The foreign scenes are interspersed with cheap variety acts, 24 terrible girls, and jugglers, a Chinese troupe, a whip act, some trapeze artists, a card manipulator, and 2 comics – Arthur Pond and another, neither of whom would be acceptable in our Studio for one moment. (Memo to Gerald Cock, 21 December 1938)

To which Cock scribbled a response: ‘I understand it is committed so it will be a matter of making the best of it.’ And so on 13 January 1939, the first act of Doorlay’s Christmas Rocket, ’24 terrible girls’ and all, was broadcast with three cameras live from the Coliseum. It was agreed that the BBC would pay the sum of £75 for permission to televise the performance and for the cost of power and the seats that had to be taken out of action. The theatre would be responsible for all talent payments.

Three days after the broadcast, Gerald Cock corresponded with Sir Oswald once again. ‘I think that from the television point of view we pulled it off,’ he wrote, and he proposed a series of six further relays, ideally with dates arranged now because of the difficulty of booking the BBC’s single outside broadcast scanner van. Sir Oswald had indeed watched the broadcast, and although he was concerned about one aspect of it, he was prepared to go ahead with further transmissions:

From the point of view of the Coliseum I missed the applause at the end. That omission by fading out too soon destroyed the value of the relay in so far as the desired advertisement for the Coliseum was concerned. (Letter Oswald Stoll to Gerald Cock, 17 January 1939)

Gerald Cock had to point out in his response the next day that in fact the broadcast had included the applause, but this was ‘exceptionally apathetic and unenthusiastic’ (suggesting that those in the house were no more engaged than Cecil Madden had been). Nonetheless, with the understanding that either party could cancel with one month’s notice, the new arrangement went ahead, albeit – as Sir Oswald now stipulated – at an increased fee of £100 per broadcast.

For the first broadcast, the BBC had with some difficulty arranged for the provision of an A. C. power supply to the theatre. Recognising that future broadcasts would also need this, it was left in place afterwards, and this allowed a BBC press announcement of the new series to claim that,

The theatre is now specially wired and is thus the first in the world to be permanently equipped for television. (‘BBC announcement: regular television from London Coliseum, 9 February 1939)

Further broadcasts went ahead on 21 February (with Lal Founs, Renee Houston and Donald Stewart, and the Australian Air Aces), on 14 March (including Stump and Stumpy, ‘American coloured singers’) and 18 April (with singer Bertha Wilmott and actress Yvonne Arnaud in a sketch with Jack Melford and Patricia McGrath). A planned date for 23 May was changed to 9 May because on the later date a broadcast was arranged of a boxing match from the Harringay Arena. This was not, however, the only problem with the May broadcast.

The outside broadcast director Philip Dorté received a stern internal memo, which he sent on to Sidney Harbour, manager of the Coliseum:

A number of complaints have reached me about the vulgarity, and also about the advertising, included in this programme.

In writing to Harbour, Dorté elaborated on the concerns:

The advertising related particularly to the mention of Littlewood’s Pools, but also included the mention of various makes of radio sets in the Murray & Mooney, Edgley & Dawe – ‘Daventry Calling’ sketch. (Letter to Sidney Harbour, 5 June 1939)

Coliseum Night went ahead as planned on 20 June, but the sixth transmission had to be cancelled because the Coliseum decided to change its programming, as it did from time to time, from variety bills to a short season of plays. In accordance with the terms agreed at the start of the run, Gerald Cock accepted the cancellation of the final broadcast but wrote that he hoped this might be arranged at a later date, and that a second series might be considered. ‘The shows so far broadcast have on the whole been popular with viewers,’ he added. (Letter to Oswald Stoll, 19 June)

Later that summer the Television Service secured the agreement for a further outside broadcast from the Coliseum, to show scenes on the opening night of the new Jessie Matthews show I Can Take It. This was scheduled for 12 September, but on 1 September, the day that Alexandra Palace closed down for the war, Philip Dorté wrote to the producers of the show, Hales Productions, to express his regrets at having to cancel ‘in view of the unforeseen circumstances that have arisen and now prevail.’ (Letter to T. J. Pigott) Sir Oswald Stoll died in January 1942 and the idea of the sixth Coliseum Night had long been forgotten by the time BBC Television resumed in June 1946.



2 thoughts on “From the theatre: Coliseum Night (BBC, 1939)

  1. Thank you so much for the informative articles!
    A question: the comments of Cecil Madden on the Doorlay show were rather dismal, yet statements on another webpage ( of this site indicate that the show was a success, so I’m somewhat puzzled. I’d be very interested to learn more. Thanks!

    “Doorlay’s Christmas Rocket, 13 January 1939

    By permission of Sir Oswald Stoll, the first act of [the variety programme] Doorlay’s Christmas Rocket, with Ruth Hasse, Gold and Cordell, Johnny Riscoe, Julita and her Spanish Dancers, Olding’s Crazy Gang, Carter, The Mazzoni’s Trio, The Five Olympic Rings, Arthur Pond and Company, The Lily Aven Trio, The Yu-Nan-Chen Company, Schamil’s Russian Company, Doorlay’s Eighteen Midget Ponies, Popows Cossack Choir, and the Twenty-four Betty Hobbs Girls, will be televised direct from the London Coliseum. (Billing, Radio Times, 6 January 1939, p. 16)

    • Coliseum Night, monthly live broadcasts from 21 February 1939.

    Such was the success, seemingly, of Doorlay’s Christmas Rocket that the BBC began to broadcast monthly the first half of the variety bill at London Coliseum. “

    Posted by Regina Schwarz | 9 November 2011, 11:59 pm
    • Thanks so much for such careful attention. My ‘such was the success’ comment was, I acknowledge, speculation (suggested by my ‘seemingly’) prompted by the fact that the BBC so quickly commissioned a further six programmes – and this despite the poor quality of the theatre offering, at least as far as Madden was concerned. TV executives today continue to fund programmes that they personally find of poor quality but which seem to work for their audiences – my guess is that was at least partly what was going on back in 1939. Oswald Stoll’s willingness to accommodate the cameras, when other theatre managers were much more cautious, was also probably a factor in the BBC’s decision to continue.

      Posted by John Wyver | 10 November 2011, 7:48 am

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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