Today (March 16) in London History – the Royal National Theatre

The Royal National Theatre opened on March 16, 1976. This podcast tells the story – together with lots of historical and architectural background.


That’s right. Less than a week to go now. Keats talked about the wings of poesy taking him someplace special. I’m going to revise that ever so slightly. For London Walks someplace special is those five guides winning that national award: the Tourism Superstar 2022 award. It’ll be you – your votes – that take us there. That laurel wreath – and being able to fly that banner – I’ll be frank with you – it’s much needed here. So if you haven’t voted, please do. Or if you have, well, maybe give the wheel another turn. Maybe copy the link – it’s the top of – and put it out on your Facebook page with a heads-up to your friends, “Hey guys, these people are London Walks – they do good work – they need a helping hand, need you to vote for them in the nationwide Tourism Superstar 2022 competition. If you can spare a few seconds please vote for them. Just click on the link and when the ballot comes up give ‘em your vote. Thanks a bunch.” Or words to that effect.

Ok, today in London. The recommendation out of London Walks GHQ today is: go and see Small Island at the National Theatre. If you can get a ticket.

And now, our main course, TODAY IN LONDON HISTORY.

128 years London had to wait. But it was worth waiting for.

The idea of a National Theatre – that was the seed. That seed was planted in 1848. 

It was 128 years in coming but on March 16th, 1976 that seed bore fruit. The National Theatre opened in its magnificent new building on the South Bank.

And if you guessed Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet was the bottle of champagne broken across the bow at the launching of the Good Ship National Theatre, you’d be right. Albert Finney was in the title role. Peter Hall – he wasn’t Sir Peter Hall then – directed. 

And why Hamlet – apart from the fact that it was Hamlet. Tradition. History. Look, the National Theatre Company’s first-ever performance was Hamlet. At the Old Vic, the company’s temporary home. That Hamlet – that first production of the National Theatre company – starred Peter O’Toole. That was in 1963. The Company’s first director was the great actor, Laurence Olivier. 

It was a long, rocky road for the National Theatre. Financial difficulties from the get-go, the wretched government pouring all kinds of cold water at every opportunity and repeatedly trying to kick the project into the tall grass – well, you can imagine. 

One shaming card the proponents of the National Theatre repeatedly played was that Stratford upon Avon had the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre teamed up with the forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company… Bearing that in mind, was it really acceptable that the capital did not have a National Theatre?

Anyway, that’s enough background. Let’s flit back to that March 16th, 1976 opening night. Flit back to that first National Theatre Company performance in its new home.

The Theatre was the Lyttleton. Explanatory note for anyone who doesn’t know the National Theatre – the building is an ensemble of three theatres. The Lyttleton is a traditional proscenium arch theatre. 

 Capacity-wise it’s a mid-range house. It seats nearly 900 people. 

For London Walks aficionados, the Lyttleton was the theatre the London Walks boss, little Mary, acted in during her three-year stint as a member of the National Theatre Company.

The big house – the Olivier Theatre – has an audience capacity of 1150 people. It’s modelled on a Greek amphitheatre. 

That said, cometh the hour, the Olivier met the Covid challenge head-on. They re-modelled the Olivier so they could do theatre in the round – it halved the capacity but 550 people in a theatre space that is simultaneously intimate and socially distanced, that’s no mean feat. The third theatre, the Dorfman – originally called the Cottesloe – is the small, experimental space. It’s seriously intimate and supremely flexible. Its maximum capacity is 450 people. Originally it was just a small room with a balcony running round it. The Dorfman – the Swiss knife of theatre spaces – lends itself to conventional theatre, to traverse theatre (that’s lengthwise or across the space) and to “in the round” productions. Everything in the Dorfman is open to change except the circle and gallery, which are reminiscent of the inn-yards that preceded Shakespeare’s stages as performance areas.

Now for the rest of this podcast, how about if I guide the National Theatre – and its location. 

What a location. Was ever a theatre better positioned? Indeed, was ever an arts complex better positioned? Arts complex because the National Theatre is near neighbour to – and so for all practical purposes – part of the Southbank Arts Complex – the greatest arts complex in the world.

A quick historical retro-view. Back to 1945 we go. War’s over. The Yanks go home. And when they go home, they turn off the tap. Stop the aid transfusion. The free-spending GIs go home. The Allies won the war and, guess what, economically things are worse here after the war than they were during the war. Belt tightening. Food rationing, clothing rationing – stricter in the late 1940s than they’d been when the shooting war was on.

Place was depressed. And depressing. To cheer up, they decided to give themselves a national party. The Festival of Britain in 1951. The date made a lot of sense. It was exactly a century after the 1851 Great Exhibition.

They wanted a keepsake from the 1951 Festival of Britain. They got it – the great concert hall, the Royal Festival Hall, located right there on the Southbank. And then over time that was added to: two more concert halls, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room. And an art gallery – the Hayward. And the National Poetry Library. And the next door neighbours – the National Film Theatre, now known as the BFI and the National Theatre, now known as The Royal National Theatre. Plus bars and restaurants and a food market and riverside shopping. It’s all there. 

All there on the south bank of the Thames. It’s an unbeatable location. 

An unbeatable location that invariably delights you – but at the same time can play tricks on you. The trickster is the old man river, the River Thames. The meandering River Thames. Right there it loops big time. So you come out of the National Theatre and walk along the Bankside to the magnificent Hungerford Bridge and walk across the bridge – there, on your left – is the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben, Cyclopsing you. You think you’re looking at the south face of the Big Fella. You’re not. You’re looking at the north face. It’s a pea and thimble game the river’s playing right in front of your eyes. You catch a train from Waterloo Station, Waterloo’s the closest station to the National Theatre – catch a train going towards Vauxhall – that train’s running parallel to the river – all four faces of Big Ben will come into view in sequence.

Another way of putting that – and, yes, I’ll get this back to that wonderful building that opened on this day in 1976 – another way of putting that is: thanks to the bend in the river  the promontory the South Bank Arts complex stands on is in some ways like the hub of a bicycle. And the three road bridges there are like spokes coming out of that hub. Crossing Blackfriars Bridge takes you into the City of London. Crossing Waterloo Bridge takes you into the West End, to the Strand, the Aldwych and Covent Garden. Cross Westminster Bridge and you’re in Westminster, you’re in Parliament Square. It’s an unbeatable location.

Now, to close, our theatre again. It’s nearly 50 years old now. Doesn’t look it. I don’t think there’s any other building built in London in the last half-century that’s been the venue, the crucible for more enjoyment – more enriching experience – than the National Theatre. The architect was Denys Lasdun. He was, yes, a modernist. He was our chief proponent of concrete as a fine building material. Like every great architect working on a great public commission, he designed a building that was right for its position, its site. The hem of the theatre’s position is that great bend in the river. What does Lasdun give us – he gives us those layers of concrete terraces, those great concrete rafts that are echoes of the bend in the river. Those terraces seem to fall in with, seem to bend with the river. The building’s in harmony with the space it occupies. And, happily, Denys Lasdun saw fit to soften the concrete with all those fine windows on its terraces. It’s a great London experience – you don’t even need to go to a show there to soak it up – it’s a great London experience to walk across one of the upper-level foyers, drink in hand, and go out on to one of the National Theatre’s riverside balcony terraces. Breathtaking views from up there out across the river to the West End, the beating heart of London. 

Final point: the National Theatre – I suppose I should call it by its official name – the Royal National Theatre – the National Theatre achieves the impossible. Or the nearly impossible. The Royal National Theatre is simultaneously glamorous and popular. Popular in the old sense of the word: a place of the people. Being simultaneously popular and glamorous – that’s squaring the circle. The Royal Opera House is glamorous. But it certainly ain’t popular. The King’s Head Theatre pub in Upper Street in Islington – where Mary also acted, incidentally – is popular but it sure isn’t glamorous. The National Theatre – the Royal National Theatre – is both popular and glamorous. No mean feat, that. And that’s why it got this Today in London History podcast. This date, March 16th, was – in 1872 – the very first F.A. Cup Final. Football Association Cup Final. But my call was for what happened on March 16th in 1976 – the opening of the Royal National Theatre.

Good night from London – good night from the home of the Royal National theatre. See ya tomorrow. 

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