Today (October 25) in London History – Top Moment in English Theatrical History

The National Theatre opened on October 25, 1976. Without a doubt the second-greatest occasion in the history of the English Theatre. 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.

Good for you, October 25th. You come trailing clouds of glory. You won it – you own it. It was a birth of Venus moment and you were the seashell that bore her. Ok, let’s cut to the chase. What happened on October 25th, 1976 is widely regarded as the second-greatest occasion in the history of the English theatre. The greatest occasion of course – this goes without saying – was the birth of a baby boy in Stratford on April 23rd, 1564. That’s right, the birth of Shakespeare.

So Stratford takes the honours there. 

But London gets the silver medal. The second greatest occasion in the history of the English theatre was the opening, on this day in 1976 of the National Theatre.

And, gosh, it was a long time a-coming. But well worth the wait. The National Theatre – today it’s of course The Royal National Theatre – was first suggested in 1848. The project finally got some legs in the early 20th century when the first serious attempts were made to raise the money for what the French had had since 1680. The Comedie-Francais – the French National Theatre – is the oldest active theatre company in the world.

Anyway, those early efforts were spearheaded by an organisation called the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Company. Said committee was amalgamated with the Old Vic in 1944. That was another step. Another big step was the 1949 bill to allocate a million pounds to fund a scheme to build a National Theatre on the South bank. The foundation stone was laid in 1951. And then 25 years later the building was completed.

It’s three theatres under one roof. The Lyttleton, which is the National’s traditional proscenium arch theatre, was the first to open. It was ready to go – and it did go – in March of that eventful year. The very first production was the farce Plunder by Ben Travers. 

The Olivier – that’s the big one, it’s a twentieth-century version of a Greek amphitheatre was next. But not just a Greek amphitheatre. The Olivier is an open-stage theatre designed to be flexible enough to serve dramatists of every period. And, finally, bringing up the rear, the little one, the experimental theatre. Initially it was called the Cottesloe. Today it’s the Dorfman. The official names are one thing – neither here nor there. Much better – much more colourful, much more graphic – is the working name, the name the theatre people – the actors and directors – gave it. They called it the National’s cockpit. 

Like the Queen – and now the King – the National had two birthdays. 

And make no mistake, just as the gestation period was practically an eternity, the birth itself was, well, a long and difficult labour. 

There were months of delay, labour disputes, three postponements. No end of problems. Finally, though, on October 4th, the Olivier, the largest and most radical of the three auditoriums opened. Opened with a production of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, directed by Peter Hall – his knighthood was still in the future – and starring Albert Finney. And what an inspired choice Tamburlaine the Great was. The last production of Marlowe’s great tragedy had been by the National Theatre company at the Old Vic in 1951. It had starred Sir Donald Wolfit. But even better than that – the sense of tradition, the richness of the tradition here – makes one swell with pride, carries one along on transports of joy – even better than that 1951 production, we can and should go all the way back to 1587, to the Rose Theatre, the first of the Bankside Theatres. And its mounting the first-ever production of Tamburlaine the Great. That production at the Rose starred Edward Alleyn, the first great English actor. Indeed, Christopher Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine the Great for Alleyn. Now hear this, that summer day in 1587 when Edward Alleyn, the first great English actor, strode onto the boards of the Rose and began to declaim Marlowe’s mighty line – that was the moment the modern English drama was born. So that October 4th, 1976 opening night of Tamburlaine the Great – the Olivier’s baptism – that’s a fine way station for our tale.

A way station from which the next step is to the official opening of the National, the gala opening, the October 25th opening. 

And needless to say, they pulled out all the stops. Including those three trump cards – dare I put it that way – the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Margaret. 

As the Court Circular put it from on high, put it inimitably, the Queen declared the new building open, unveiled a commemorative plaque, and, with the Duke of Edinburgh, subsequently honoured with Her presence, a performance of Il Campiello at the Olivier Theatre.

Her Majesty afterwards visited the Cottesloe Theatre Workshops and the Lyttleton Theatre, and were later present at a reception in the Lyttleton Foyer. Her Majesty was addressed in the Olivier by Lord Olivier, the National company’s first director and at the time Consultant to the National Theatre Board. And then in the Lyttleton – did Her Majesty feel like she was back at school – she was addressed by Peter Hall, the National’s current director. Like getting a talking to from the Headmaster and then the Deputy Headmaster. But their remarks will certainly have been gracious, witty and I daresay, sufficiently oleaginous. And no, we haven’t forgotten Princess Margaret. Her theatre-going on this night of nights was at the Lyttleton. She saw a production of Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers. I think if I had my druthers, I would have cast my lot with Princess Margaret – Goldoni or Stoppard, I’ll take Stoppard thanks very much.

And on that note, a Today in London recommendation. This one’s another obvious one. No qualms whatsoever about seconding the way they put it: Take a guided tour of the National Theatre and discover the secrets of one of the most iconic buildings on the South Bank.

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 *