Leeds City Varieties, the theatre with seats named in honour of The Queen and Russell Crowe

This week on his virtual tour of the region’s theatres, Nick Ahad arrives at the gem that is City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds.

The intimate interior of Leeds City Varieties, home to the Good Old Days.
The intimate interior of Leeds City Varieties, home to the Good Old Days.

Last week I was in Leeds at the Leeds Grand Theatre on this virtual tour of our venues. There was a thought that maybe I should combine the profile of Leeds Grand with Leeds City Varieties. After all, they are run by the same council-owned company.

That thought didn’t last very long as the City Varieties Music Hall, to give it its Sunday name, more than deserves its own lockdown feature.

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The oldest working theatre in the city and one of the oldest in the land, it is a place that comes up time and again when speaking to performers when you ask about their favourite venues.

Russell Crowe, who appeared at the venue in 2017

A number of comedians place Leeds City Varieties, as many call it, in the top five in the world. It’s not hyperbole – this is a very special place.

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The colourful history of the venue begins like all the best stories: in a pub. A room above a pub, in truth, the venue was established as a place for the working people of Leeds to be entertained in 1865. According to one historian the “affluent sister venue, Leeds Grand Theatre, was meant only for the higher classes”.

Well, it’s harder to get a ticket for shows at the Varieties these days than it is for the Leeds Grand, so now which is the more exclusive?

The names are one of the most extraordinary things about the Varieties, of course. Once you start listing them, it becomes a little surreal to think that down that cobbled street and on to that tiny, steep stage have walked Houdini, Laurel and Hardy, Eartha Kitt and Russell Crowe.

No, really: in October 2017 the Hollywood A-lister played the Varieties with his band Garden Party as part of a three-venue tour of the UK. At the time he said: “I love the City Varieties, it’s fantastic. When I saw the pictures online I thought ‘It’s such a beautiful venue. It’s a gem’.”

Crowe is one of only three people to have a seat named in their honour at the venue. The other two, delighted to be in his company I’m sure, are the Queen and Prince Phillip.

The most famous name associated with this venue, one that helped to make it world famous, is none of the above.

That name is, of course, The Good Old Days. Filmed at the Varieties from 1953 to 1983, the show recreated the popular acts of Victorian and Edwardian music hall and made it a world-famous venue.

Originally created as a one-off documentary by Leeds-born producer Barney Colehan, the programme proved so popular that the BBC commissioned a series. It went on to run for 30 years.

Airing on a Saturday evening, featuring Leonard Sachs as host, the programme took viewers inside the venue which held the Guinness World Record for the longest-running music hall in the country and attracted more than 10 million viewers around the world.

People got to experience a night at the Varieties with acts including Les Dawson, Barbara Windsor, Bruce Forsyth, John Inman, Ken Dodd and Leeds’s own Barry Cryer.

While the cameras have gone, The Good Old Days continues – when the venue is open – and the original series has recently found an audience via reruns on BBC4.

Ian Sime, general manager of the Varieties and whose name you may recognise from last week’s lockdown theatre trip – he also runs Leeds Grand – says: “Our audiences deserve and expect to see the cream of the world’s performers. Each act relies upon an equally important body of support staff, including creative, technical and venue staff to create the magic.

“It is still a great thrill to work with such talented, passionate and committed individuals. Every performance and audience reaction is unique and meaningful and enriches our lives.”

I’ve been on the stage of the Varieties a couple of times and it’s easy to understand why it’s so beloved, particularly of comedians. More than any other theatre in Yorkshire, it feels like you’re in a tiny intimate venue – like the audience, all 460-odd of them, are in your front room.

Back in 1962 Stanley and Michael Joseph took charge of the venue and decided to introduce a pantomime to Leeds City Varieties. In the early 1980s when general manager Peter Sandeman, a man with theatre in his blood, was appointed, he was very keen on continuing a pantomime tradition at the theatre. Working with writer-director Robin Davies, the Varieties pantomimes became a great family tradition, running for over 20 years.

In 2009, I remember huge excitement when the venue underwent a total refurbishment. It was needed – the Varieties was beginning to seriously show its age.

When it reopened in 2011, one of the first things it added to the programme was a rock ‘n’ roll panto, which has become something of a tradition in just nine years.

There’s a lot more, of course – from the youth theatre run by the inspirational Lizi Patch, which has seen graduates go on to West End stages and beyond, to the learning programme which inspires a new generation.

There’s also, of course, the ghosts you would expect to come with a venue over 150 years old, which is why Ghost Stories was filmed there.

The most important thing about this venue? More than perhaps anywhere, you suspect it is the one that embodies the phrase “the show must go on” so completely.

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