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Despite the fact that many Actors, Actresses, and other Performers have received much recognition over the years Theatrical Scenery - which includes drapes (curtains) and which often plays a major part in an Audience’s enjoyment of a Show or Performance - has, more often than not, been forgotten, or almost forgotten, about. We believe that any true understanding of the history and development of UK Theatre must also include a depth of knowledge of the history and development of other facets of UK Theatre of which Theatrical Scenery is certainly one. Hence, as our humble attempt to at least partly rectify the situation, this website. So, welcome to the world of well in excess of 5,000 Shows for which the Scenery was built by Brunskill and Loveday Limited, arguably one of the most successful of 20th century UK Scenery-building firms. [There are over 25,000 entries in the databases.]
For further information about Brunskill and Loveday, about Variety Theatre, Impresarios and so on go to the British Library’s Theatre Archive website at http://sounds.bl.uk and type loveday in the Enter keywords box.
Also, you might find the following article, INSIDE THE STRANGLING OF VARIETY THEATRE, interesting. It was published in the Summer 2012 edition of the British Music Hall Society’s Call Boy magazine.
INSIDE THE STRANGLING OF VARIETY THEATRE
In 1960 or 1961 my Mother, Auntie Lil, and I were sitting chatting. Auntie Lil, a lovely lady, was not really my Auntie but I had always called her that. She, like my Mother, was a Lady Ratling. In fact Auntie Lil had been the first Queen Ratling when the Theatrical Charity the Grand Order of Lady Ratlings was founded back in 1929.
The three of us were talking about Commercial Television. “What Val was doing darn near killed Fred”, I well remember Auntie Lil saying. Fred, Auntie Lil’s Husband, was Fred Russell. Known as the ’Father of Variety’ Fred Russell was totally committed to Variety Theatre, was a founder of the Variety Artists Federation, was largely responsible for the resurrection of the Grand Order of Water Rats in 1927, and was described by many as being the founder of modern ventriloquism : And Val was Val Parnell who as well as being Fred’s Son was also Managing Director not only of Moss Empires but also of Associated Television [ATV]. I knew Fred Russell but, to my recollection, I never knew his Son, Val. However, in early January 1959 I personally experienced some of Val Parnell’s tactics.
My Father had died in October 1958. Still driving to work every day, he was a fit man with a very active brain when, under somewhat suspicious circumstances, he died after having spent all of his 78 years involved in Theatrical Scenery. In 1899, aged 19, he had started his own Scenery business [One of his very first customers was Oswald Stoll] and in July 1939, with the ’Second World War’ fast approaching, he amalgamated his successful business with Jack Brunskill‘s successful Scenery business to form Brunskill and Loveday Limited.
At the time of my Father’s death the Deputy Managing Director, under Val Parnell, of ATV was Lew Grade who, shortly after my Father’s death, arranged to meet with me at Brunskill and Loveday’s Scenery Works in Newport Street, Lambeth. Jack Brunskill had no children, and I - as both Lew Grade and Val Parnell were doubtless well aware of - had been ‘trained’ by my Father not only to design and build Scenery but also to run, at least his half of, Brunskill and Loveday Limited - a firm which by then had built the Scenery for several thousand ‘West End‘ Shows.
I was not yet 15 when I had my, very courteous, Meeting with Lew, whom I had vaguely known for many years. Lew’s intention was to get me to agree to the sale of Brunskill and Loveday to ATV so that ATV could use it to build its Scenery. My Father, to whom I was very close, had throughout his entire life been passionate about Theatres and about Scenery and had no intention either of selling out or of abandoning Theatres : And neither had I any intention of selling out or of abandoning Theatres for I knew, for instance, how sad my Father had been when in 1953 the Empire Theatre in Croydon, under its Manager Arthur Dixon, had closed.
The closing of Theatres had been going on for years and was increasing for, due in part to the transmission on BBC Television of HM the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, television was in the ascendancy. But the coming into existence of Commercial Television brought to the fore a ruthless streak insofar as some Theatre Impresarios were concerned, for Commercial Television was viewed as a potential goldmine : And I well remember not only how sad but also how bitter my Father had been when in July 1957, after the final performance of It’s the Geography that counts, London’s great historic 1,000plus-seat St James’s Theatre in King Street - then under the control of the American Impresario Gilbert Miller and the British Impresario Prince [not a title but his forename] Littler, who was also a Director of ATV - went dark, never to re-open, a fate that the next month also befell London‘s Stoll Theatre in Kingsway after the last curtain fell on Titus Andronicus. As with the St James’s, the Stoll Theatre - a magnificent theatre of truly substantial dimensions, built as the London Opera House for Oscar Hammerstein IST to rival Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House and with a seating capacity of nearly 2,500 - was under the control of the Littler family and likewise was sold to Developers (for, as with the St James’s, demolition and conversion into office buildings).
It required a lot of money to fund ATV; and the sites on which Theatres stood were often valuable ‘prime sites’, and Moss Empires, and those ‘connected’ with it, controlled a lot of prime sites. And who was running Moss Empires ? Why, Val Parnell, Lew Grade, and ‘the Prince of Pantomimes’ Prince Littler - The very people whom hundreds, if not thousands, of Variety Artist(e)s looked-up to and relied upon for work and yet they were the very same people who were deliberately diverting moneys away from Theatres into Commercial Television for mass-entertainment productions such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and, later, Danger Man and The Saint and in the course of which were taking work and livelihoods away from Variety Artist(e)s .
Of course, Val Parnell and the other Impresarios did continue their interest in Variety Theatre so long as they felt that they could still make money out of it. Parnell, of course, is renowned for his ATV production [Val Parnell’s] Sunday Night at the London Palladium which in its own way, with its weekly audience of many millions of viewers, took punters away from Theatres and thus assisted in the demise of Variety Theatres. And whilst all this was going on Val Parnell’s public image, and his image within much of the Profession below the level of those who knew what was going on, continued to be that of a ’hard’ businessman but a businessman fully supportive of Variety Theatre and its Artist(e)s.
Needless-to-say, come what may Commercial Television was here to stay. One could not, neither did one want to, stop it : But the whole era was one of intrigue and manipulation by many who, some of us feel, could have and should have gone about things in a more sympathetic way and thus been much more considerate towards those in Variety Theatre whose livelihoods depended on what the likes of those who controlled ATV were doing.