Past Imperfect

The history of live professional theatre in Watford can be traced back a mere 200 years. A recent Theatre Royal, Covent Garden success, "Folly as It Flies" by one Frederick Reynolds, was performed in a temporary structure at the back of the Wheatsheaf Inn on 16 July 1803. The cast included Miss Draper and Mr Barry in the leading roles, supported by Mr and Mrs Jerrold. Their son, born in the same year, grew up to be the Punch contributor and dramatist Douglas Jerrold.

Various touring productions, though never with the best-known actors, continued to visit Watford. By the mid-century, performances were being held in Holloways Portable Theatre, also behind the Wheatsheaf. It was here, during the 1856-57 season, that a young actor, still learning his craft and sporting the stage name Henry Irving, played small roles and gained scarcely a mention in the local newspapers.

Fast-forward to 14 December 1908. That's when the Palace Theatre in Clarendon Road had its grand opening, not without some opposition from the townsfolk who resented the loss of a piece of ground which had been used for summer charity events. The architect seems to have been that well-known professional designer, Anonymous, though the overall style of the building resembles those surviving theatres by Frank Matcham. At that time, the Palace seating capacity was around 800: 250 stuffed into the gallery, 174 disposed decorously in the circle, 12 showing off in the boxes and the remaining 372 sitting comfortably in the stalls.

The first manager was a Mr Mason. He and his successors ran the Watford Palace of Varieties (as it was then formally described) with an eclectic mix of plays, concerts, music-hall bills (including Harry Lauder, Marie Lloyd and Stanley Holloway) and, of course, the ubiquitous film shows. Each year there was a pantomime. The first Aladdin was staged within a fortnight of the theatre's actual opening. Comic leads included Harry Relph (better known as Little Tich) and George Robey.

But tastes were changing. Permanent regional ensemble companies, which could present both modern and classic texts in fresh productions to which local audiences could relate, were springing up across the country. Andrew and Winifred Melville took over the Palace Theatre in 1939 – not the ideal time to launch a new venture! - with just this type of repertory company in mind. They soldiered on through the Second World War and then, in 1950, Winifred died suddenly. Her husband, supported by general manager Frank Godfrey, continued to run the theatre until 1956.

That year another husband-and-wife team took charge. James and Gilda Perry had mixed fortunes, which included having to close the theatre for six weeks in 1963 when the deficit had assumed alarming proportions. In 1965, they cut their losses and handed the theatre over to a Civic Trust, created for this specific purpose. Jimmy Perry went on to a different sort of fortune, drawing on his own experiences as a co-author of the television series Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot, Mum and Hi-De-Hi.

Making the Headlines

We're all used to trusts and similar bodies running theatres nowadays, and with government funding - both national and regional - for the arts. In the 1960s, it was seen as a step into the unknown. The first artistic director (1966) was an inspired choice in the person of Giles Havergal, who staged new plays as well as the standard repertoire and tempted some of the country's leading actors and directors to Watford.

Havergal repeated this formula with just as much success when he transferred to the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre in 1969. Kay Gardner ran the Palace as theatre director until 1972 when Stephen Hollis was appointed artistic director. He introduced the three-week show runs performed by the repertory company, which allowed audiences to build through word-of-mouth and the casts to mature their performances.

The theatrical growth industry of the 1970s was lunchtime theatre. These 40-minute stagings did more than just encourage new audiences. They gave actors new and different roles and brought into prominence a whole new breed of playwrights who had something to say but didn't really need three hours and two intervals to put it over.

Original pantomime scripts were written specifically for the theatre by Peter John between 1977 and 1981; his own Dame developed into a seasonal audience favourite. Michael Attenborough took over in 1980, attracting stars of the calibre of Sir John Mills and Dorothy Tutin, and developing a theatre-in-education team that performed in the Palace itself as well as in schools and colleges, though there was another cash crisis in 1984.

Lou Stein built on Attenborough’s foundations to some effect between 1986 and 1995 with an adventurous repertoire that included fresh translations of both classic and contemporary drama as well as new British and American work. Giles Croft was artistic director from 1995 until 1999, during which time the 1996 pantomime Puss in Boots was written by Roy Hudd.

Another Closure, Another Opening

In 1999 when Lawrence Till came to Watford from the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, he may not have realised immediately what the new century would bring. In 2002, the doors closed, but this time only so that a major refurbishment could take place. The total cost is around £8.7 million, of which £5.5 million comes from a Lottery heritage grant, another £1 million through the generosity of a single, anonymous donor and the rest through fund-raising and grant-aid sources.

What has all this bought? At first glance, the facade looks unchanged though the street doors now open onto a bright foyer with the box office at one end and a bar at the other. On the long wall is a neon light installation by Bill Culbert; commissioned from the percentage which heritage and lottery funding stipulates must be spent on public art. As neon light was invented in 1908, the choice seems appropriate.

The revamped and redecorated auditorium is a symphony in "thunder" grey and gilt detailing with comfortable new crimson seats. The seating capacity is now 608, distributed between the stalls, dress circle and upper circle with easy wheelchair access. The upper circle has some of the best sightlines in the house, and is a far cry from its previous cramped benches. At the back is the new state-of-the-art computer lighting and sound control system.

There's another bar at circle level, and a third for the upper circle, in the same airy style. Interior walls in this part of the house have been left as natural brick, with the different colours showing where changes have been made. Lifts and ramps as well as stairs take the public to all seating levels and the administrative offices are open-plan on the very top floor.

Backstage everything has changed. Wardrobe and stage management have spacious areas, and the back wall has been rebuilt much further back. There’s greatly increased wing space and a proper fly tower to aid scene changes. The six, well-equipped dressing rooms can accommodate four or five actors each, and the days when exiting left to re-enter right meant a dash around the foyers in costume and make-up have gone forever. (If you're curious to see all this for yourself, the Palace is holding regular backstage tours on Saturday mornings, though these are already fully booked up to January 2005.)

”Back with a Bang”

The Arts Council has designated Watford Palace as a flagship theatre for new writing in the east of England. In fact, if you drew a circle around London, you have to go south-west to the Theatre Royal Windsor before you find a similar producing playhouse. Going east, there's only the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

Fittingly then, the reopening season, which kicks off on 8 October 2004, is entitled “Back with a Bang” and features three in-house productions with an emphasis on new work that will “make a difference” (See News, 1 Jul 2004): Tanika Gupta’s new version of William Wycherley’s 1675 Restoration comedy, The Country Wife; Till’s own take on Christmas classic Mother Goose, subtitled “3 weddings and a golden egg”; and in the new year, Amy Rosenthal’s Sitting Pretty.

The pantomime alone usually attracts 30,000 patrons, while Gupta and Rosenthal’s new plays are assured wider audiences as they’ll embark on national tours next year, as will Watford’s planned new musical version of Alfie.

Add in a varied programme of concerts, modern dance, amateur productions and the extremely popular touring, community and young people's theatre group Active, and you can see why the Watford Palace faces its second century with confidence. It's there for people's leisure and pleasure, so enjoy the experience. I always have done so.