Today (December 2) in London History – RADA

It was the first completely new theatre to be built in London since the war. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

December 2nd. Two ways of introducing this one. The obvious way is to say, let’s do one that’s not in the books. One that’s not a headline act, doesn’t have its name up on the marquee. One you haven’t heard of. But is awfully likeable all the same. Put this in floral show terms there’s no way this one is a proud, overbearing, look-at-me, prize-winning orchid. Or some great, louring giant beast of a plant. No, it’s a humble little daisy. Daisy, I like that word a lot. Originally, it was the day’s eye. Great name. Day’s eye. By one of those drawn-out, evolutionary processes of linguistic transformation it got shortened to daisy. So today’s – December 2nd’s – offering is a pretty much overlooked, humble but very sweet little daisy.

But I said there were two ways of introducing this one. Here’s the second way.

I’ve now done a whole lot of these Today in London History podcasts. 341 days to be exact. Almost the whole year. And you know something, I’m beginning to see the days of the year the way the principal of a small country school – a school with 365 pupils – sees his students. Ok, 366 pupils, but one of them is absent so often he’s only in school about 25 per cent of the time.

But yes, the school principal, at morning assembly, looking out across his student body. 365 days that are 365 pupils. And each of those days, each of those pupils – they’ve all got their own character. But groups of them also have things in common. Some of them are bright and well-scrubbed and eager to please and fun to teach. You know, they’re Honour Students. Others are sullen and reprobate and frankly not very nice. They’re trouble. The September 2nd kid for example – he likes to set trees on fire. When he grows up he’s going to have a career as an arsonist. 

But his December 2nd classmate, lovely kid. Nicest kid you’ll ever meet.

So let’s meet her. Bright, shiny face. No side to her at all. Always willing to help out. So likeable. She’s nothing but good news. If it were planting time and she was sowing a field she’d be sowing it with feel good. 

It’s catching. You get to December 2nd you feel good. 

And no wonder, December 2nd, 1697 was the day of the first service in Wren’s new cathedral. In our St Paul’s in other words. We can go back further. On December 2nd 1431 the monks at Charterhouse got permission to draw water by pipes from a spring up in Islington. 

Fast forward to December 2nd, 1889. How about this diary entry from Arthur Sullivan. 

“1st band rehearsal (all the music) of the new opera at the Prince’s Hall. Very few errors. Beautiful effect. Home to dine. After dinner, wrote, arranged and scored the overture, finishing at 3 am. Gilbert came down after rehearsal at Savoy at 11:15. Finally settled title The Gondoliers or The King of Barataria. Good title I think.”

And speaking of music, the principal concert hall in London for many years – the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place – got going just four years later, on December 2nd, 1893. What’s not to like about the Queen’s Hall’s debut? They put on a children’s party in the afternoon and then their first-ever concert that night. And December 2nd was strewing its daisies in 1918. December 2nd, 1918 was a general election. Some general election. It was the first time women got to vote. The women had to be over 30 but hey it was a start. 

Yes, good things happen on December 2nd. And all of that is our overture. We’re going to December 2nd, 1954. To Malet Street in Bloomsbury. Know it well, I did my PhD there at University College London. 

Anyway, on December 2nd, 1954 the Queen Mother opened the new private theatre of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. 

The Vanbrugh Theatre. The first completely new theatre to be built in London since the war. It replaced the one destroyed by bombing 13 years previously. So it was a perfect instance of London coming back, renewing itself – a Phoenix moment – the kind of thing London does so well. 

And does again and again. I’m thinking now of the Vanbrugh’s being rebuilt – and renamed – in 2007. Today it’s the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre. And for anyone who hasn’t heard of RADA – the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – it’s Britain’s pre-eminent drama school. Its alumnae list reads like a roll call of the famous: Sir John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough, Glenda Jackson, Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, and primus inter pares, London Walks guide Shaughan Seymour, the list goes on and on. 

Anyway, opening the Vanbrugh, the Queen Mother said, “It gives me great pleasure to see the conclusion of an enterprise in which I have taken a deep interest since I laid the foundation stone two years ago. Its purpose is to train students for the stage and I can imagine no greater stimulus for their careers than this charming theatre. It will serve both as a symbol of the dignity of their profession and as a challenge to those who use it to strive for the highest standards of dramatic art.”

And then it was time to watch the show. 

Her Majesty, naturally, sat front and centre in the front row of the circle.

She and her fellow audience members were treated to a programme of excerpts from plays by dramatists ranging from Euripides to Christopher Fry. Performed of course by the students of the academy, it had the two-fold aim of tracing drama through the ages and exhibiting to the full the resources of the theatre.

Again, what’s not to like about this daisy?

And for a finale, 160 of the guests were invited to a stage party. Glass of champagne in hand – you may be sure – the Queen Mother talked animatedly to the stars of a dozen West End shows who had hurried in after their performances. Nearly all of them had been R.A.D.A. students. It was a London theatrical event through and through. The party didn’t break up until after midnight. Waiting outside, the students gave her Majesty a hearty send-off. 

And no question but you know what’s coming for the Today in London Recommendation. That’s right, become a member at the Jerwood Vanbrugh and go to some shows there. You’ll love the intimacy of the theatre, you’ll love the blazing talent on display. To say nothing of the ticket prices and the theatre’s central location.

I have fond memories of going to the Vanbrugh to see Kenneth Branagh before he became Kenneth Branagh. So to speak. In other words, a year out of drama school he was a major West End star and going to see him in a West End show seriously dented the pocketbook. At the Vanbrugh – well, it was a star is born moment. We were seeing the next great star of the English theatre put the finishing touches on his skill set – for pin money. The tickets were that cheap. And they still are. Along with a London Walk, a performance at the Jerwood Vanbrugh is one of the great London bargains. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *