26 May

Golders Green Hippodrome – 100 Not Out!

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Anthony Wills Has Fond Memories Of A Distinguished Venue For Many BBC Broadcasts

The dear old Hippodrome – which we all miss so much – has a very special birthday this year. Designed by Bertie Crewe it opened on Boxing Day 1913 as a music hall. Its arrival on the scene was a direct result of the extension of the Northern line to Golders Green earlier that year. The Hip held more than 3,000 people at its inception but, thanks to local pressure, had no bar! Variety bills were the order of the day and it was not until much later that it was fitted out with proper stage facilities reducing the audience capacity to 2,485. In due course it became a West End "try-out" venue as part of a circuit that included the Streatham Hill Empire and the Wimbledon Theatre. Many famous stars such as Marlene Dietrich played one-night stands on its boards. It was also home to the Carl Rosa Opera Company and Ralph Reader’s celebrated Gang Shows. Audiences however began to decline after the war (apart from the lavish pantomime productions, the last of which starred Danny La Rue) and eventually the lease passed into the hands of the Mecca organisation which turned it into a Bingo Hall.

In 1969 the BBC were looking for a temporary London television studio while those at Television Centre were being adapted for colour transmissions. Many rock bands were recorded in concert there in the early ‘70s and the majority of these tapes survive and are frequently shown on BBC4.

From its beginnings in 1952 the BBC Concert Orchestra had been based at the Camden Theatre (now Koko’s nightclub and still worth looking inside if you can persuade the management to let you in when there’s no show on) and it was there that the BBC Concert Orchestra (formed in 1952) began broadcasting Friday Night Is Music Night under the batons of Gilbert Vinter and Sidney Torch. In due course it was decided to move the orchestra’s base to Golders Green and the Hippodrome became the home of FNIMN apart from many outside broadcasts all over Britain.

When I joined the BBC in 1979 I took many roles including being part of a small coterie within Radio 2 known as the "Light Music Unit" whose members included Robert Bowman, Monica Cockburn, Charles Clark Maxwell and Alan Owen. Apart from auditioning hopeful singers we also produced Matinee Musicale for Radio 3 which included a lot of Light Music, including the compositions of various composers who were unheard elsewhere on the BBC. The Concert Orchestra for Mat Mus (as we called it) was normally conducted by their Principal Conductor of the time, the softly spoken Ashley Lawrence. The first specialist programme of which I took charge was Listen ToThe Band introduced by Charlie Chester, whose scripts were written by Brian Matthew (a well kept secret!). Apart from commissioning brass band recordings from the regions for this series I personally recorded London area bands such as the Hendon Band in session at the Hip Every so often (when the budget allowed) I would book a full military band, which was always an exhilarating occasion. I trailed Friday Night Is Music Night under the tutelage of John Bussell and David Rayvern Allen but never actually took charge of it. As readers will know there was a small group of stalwarts appearing on the show including Cynthia Glover, John Lawrenson, Vernon & Maryetta Midgley and the then recently discovered Marilyn Hill Smith. The Ambrosian Singers were usually present and took a prominent part in the closing medleys brilliantly arranged by Sidney Torch, Robert (Bob) Docker and Gordon Langford.

It’s important to note that there was plenty of other activity going on in the Hip, even if it was the Concert Orchestra’s base. Apart from the brass and military band sessions mentioned above I also produced specially assembled ensembles, often conducted by Stanley Black, for the waltzing part of Marching & Waltzing, presented on Sunday evenings by the eccentric Paddy O’Byrne. And the BBC Radio Orchestra often decamped there, as the Maida Vale studios were too small for its largest configuration (the ‘A’ Orchestra), especially for invited audience events. Among the most memorable of these were the brilliant concert performances of major musicals for which producer John Langridge flew in leading stars from the USA. Undoubtedly the most fulfilling part of my live music work (I was simultaneously co-producing sequences such as The John Dunn Show and Round Midnight as well as many documentary series) were the monthly concerts for the David Jacobs lunchtime programme, usually tributes to one particular composer such as Cole Porter or Frank Loesser. These featured the full Radio Orchestra under its Principal Conductor Iain Sutherland plus the Stephen Hill Singers, sixteen extremely versatile session singers who could read anything on sight and whose members took on solo passages as well. The singers would rehearse upstairs in the former ballet room and then join the orchestra for a quick run-through while David Jacobs practised the script I had written for him. I loved working in the Hippodrome as unlike the Maida Vale studios you had the run of the whole building and it was a proper theatre rather than a converted roller skating rink! On one occasion for a Christmas show I had Father Christmas welcome the audience in the foyer while on another I hired some Can Can costumes and persuaded four Radio 2 production secretaries to pose in them! I still have all of those concerts on tape and perhaps the Club would like to listen one on a future occasion.

In the early 1990s the live music scene began to change, as the BBC now had unrestricted needle time and did not require so many studio sessions. The Radio Orchestra was axed in 1991 though its Big Band section was retained. The Midland and Scottish Radio Orchestras also got the chop. The Concert Orchestra under its energetic manage Ian Maclay realized it had to supplement its income outside of its BBC duties and began to undercut the freelance London orchestras, for example playing Coppelia for a ballet company at the Royal Albert Hall. This caused great resentment at the time. At the same time series such as Melodies For You became all-record programmes resulting in a considerable loss of work. The last Concert Orchestra programme I produced was a 1994 New Year’s Gala which also featured a military band and was introduced from one of the Hippodrome’s boxes by Ian Wallace.

The story of the Hippodrome’s demise is well known and we can only be thankful that no-one was killed or injured by either of the ceiling collapses which caused the Concert Orchestra to refuse to continue playing there. For many years the orchestra became in effect homeless while there was grandiose talk of a new Music Centre at White City to house both it and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Mermaid Theatre, which has been the home of FNIMN, has for some time been under threat and presumably LSO St Lukes and the Watford Colosseum will succeed it. Certainly the Finchley Arts Depot was most unsuitable.

After the BBC left the Hippodrome the building deteriorated rapidly until, despite strong objections from local residents, it was sold in 2007 for a paltry £5 million to the El Shaddai International Christian Centre, which already had premises in Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Cardiff. El Shaddai have done a magnificent restoration job, removing the clutter of the recording cubicle and painting the various tiers and ceilings in a beautiful blue colour whilst picking out the cherubs and other details in white. The original raked red seats remain underneath the flat floored stalls area where the bands and orchestras once performed and there is still a BBC Trades Union notice board in one of the corridors. The former star dressing room is now a children’s crèche! Ask very nicely and they may let you have a peep inside. Great times, great memories.

This article first appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’, issue 195 dated April 2013.

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.