After 80 years, show goes on at ‘ghost theatre’ where Gracie Fields sang to an audience of 5,000

The Alexandra Palace Theatre in north London, ahead of it re-opening to the public for the first time in 80 years
The Alexandra Palace Theatre in north London, ahead of it re-opening to the public for the first time in 80 years
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It lies deep inside the original home of television, but the vast auditorium at Alexandra Palace is notable more for its theatrical pauses than its shows.

The “ghost theatre” which reopens today after more than 80 years in what its producers have called a state of arrested decay, once echoed to the rasping tones of Gracie Fields, and to opera, ballet and pantomime.

Gracie Fields

Gracie Fields

But its extended interval act saw it abandoned to storage for the BBC’s old props, and to shelter for wartime refugees.

It has taken six years of restoration, and nearly £19m of lottery cash, to bring it back to life.

It has happened because of the “unique atmosphere” which those behind the reopening wanted to preserve, said Louise Stewart, chief executive of Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust.

The theatre, on the edge of Muswell Hill in north London, originally seated 3,000. It was not quite a ruin but had been maintained only to a level that prevented further deterioration.

While some might wonder “where the money has gone”, it had been spent on many things “you can’t see” to make the theatre safe and “fit for purpose”, Ms Stewart said.

“It was always conceived as an ‘arrested decay’ project. Most people react as we would want them to, with a sense of wonder and spectacle,” she added.

“But like most artistic projects there are always those who don’t quite get it and wonder if we made these design choices because of lack of budget.

Alexandra Palace, or “Ally Pally”, was originally opened in 1875 as a so-called People’s Palace for recreation, education and entertainment, and to do for north London what Crystal Palace had done south of the Thames.

But by 1936, the site was being threatened with redevelopment. It was saved when the BBC leased part of it as a studio for its experimental television service. It remained in use, for Open University programmes, as late as the 1980s.

However, the theatre – whose sophisticated mechanics could make artistes disappear from the stage and be propelled into the air – struggled to compete with its rivals in the West End, and fell into disuse. The music hall performer Archie Pitt, who was married at the time to Miss Fields, leased it for a concert at which she drew an audience of 5,000 – but there was to be no encore.

While Ally Pally itself became a concert venue, playing host to the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd over the years, the theatre remained dark. When the BBC props men moved in, the show stopped.

Its restoration has been supported by Dame Emma Thompson, Sandi Toksvig and other celebrities.

Stuart Hobley, of the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “Alexandra Palace is one of north London’s best-loved landmarks and has played an era-defining role in popular culture, from the birth of television to the Pink Floyd.

“The beautifully-restored theatre and East Court will build on this unique legacy.”

The first performances for 80 years will form part of a Christmas carnival, which will include performances from the jazz musician Courtney Pine, comedian Dylan Moran, choirmaster Gareth Malone, the artists Gilbert and George and the BBC’s long-running Friday Night is Music Night.