On a freezing December afternoon in 1900, a crowd of locals gathers on the corner of Camden High Street and Crowndale Road to watch an elegant lady descend from a carriage. The esteemed actress Ellen Terry is here to open the Royal Camden Theatre.
“I have not time to generalise,” she declares, “and will only say a few words to – as it were – introduce to you this beautiful theatre, which Mr Sprague, the architect, has built for my friend Mr Saunders for the mutual benefit of himself and the public … The Americans have a saying that ‘the lucky cat watches’, and in Mr Saunders you will have a cat – if I may be allowed the expression – who will always be alert in the interests of the playgoers of the Camden Theatre.”
It’s Boxing Day before the plebs are allowed inside for the first time. “Very charming and attractive in appearance is the interior,” reports The Era, “with its cream and gold colouring and ruby plush upholstering”; the ceiling “beautifully painted with allegorical figures representing the Hours” and, on the drop-scene, “a classical subject, entitled ‘A Tribute to the Dramatic Muse.’”
The early plays are of a standard befitting the splendour of the building: Romeo and Juliet is “a Production of Unparalleled Magnificence”, as the programme for 1905 has it. But the Grand Shakespearean Revival turns out not to be the locals’ cup of tea. What is more in their line is Mr James Dubois, whose “assumption of the appearance and manners of a monkey is one of the best things in animal impersonations” that the writer from the Black and White Budget has ever seen.
“If they want good plays in the coming century they will get good plays – the public must choose,” Ellen Terry had proclaimed in 1900. And choose the public do – over Shakespeare, they plump for farces such as The Bishop and the Thief, The Forest of Happy Dreams, and Be A Pal. Less than ten years after it opens, the building is renamed the Camden Hippodrome Theatre.
Fred Karno’s Fun Factory sends in the clowns, including a young scamp who’s particularly good at hamming it up, name of Charles Chaplin. Soon, Charlie travels to the United States as part of Karno’s company, catching the eye of the New York Picture Company; back over here, the theatre becomes the Camden Hippodrome Picture Theatre, and on ‘Novelty Nights’ flickering reels play out The Prisoner of Zenda and The Perils of Pauline.
After a while the actors on the silver screen start to speak: the golden age of the cinema, five shows a day. Boys in school caps and scuffed shoes gawp at the screen, their feet up on the seats; women wrapped up in threadbare furs imagine themselves ravished by Clark Gable; their husbands wheeze with laughter at the Marx Brothers. But not every picture house can also boast its own live wrestling bouts. On Wednesday evenings, the safety curtain falls and men place bets on Farmer Rainbow to defeat the Comet Kid, Johnny Hammond to vanquish the Masked Top Hat.
Then the darkness. No shows as the bombs fall. Put out that light!
In 1945, the lights go up on the BBC Camden Theatre. In this age of austerity, the classical figures and the cupola that sits atop the copper dome are dismantled, but inside, Friday Night is Music Night. Hemmed into the pen of a wooden orchestra pit, the BBC Radio Orchestra rehearse beneath the battered gold balconies of past glories. Then on comes Spike Milligan, imitating the sound of a boiled egg exploding. Audiences howl with laughter as Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe talk in silly high-pitched voices. “You dirty, rotten swine, you! You have deaded me!”
In 1964, a rock ’n’ roll interlude – the Stones belting out Route 66 and Cops and Robbers – and then back to the ludicrous. John Cleese is outraged as the parrot he hits against a table does not respond in any way, shape or form. Michael Palin dresses in women’s clothing, and he hangs around in bars. The Monty Python’s Flying Circus album is recorded in one day in front of an audience characterised by Eric Idle as “particularly dead”; a laughter track subsequently has to be added in.
And, after the BBC leaves, The Music Machine arrives. Mohicans and safety pins through ears. The Clash, Sex Pistols, Boomtown Rats. Hazel O’Connor stands glowing in the dark, blonde hair slashed into an edgy bob, and sings about electric scenes and laser beams, neon brights to light boring nights. Bon Scott from AC/DC wanders round, pissed off his face. In a day’s time he’ll be dead.
At the Camden Palace the look is big hair, chalk faces, fuchsia blusher like futuristic bitch-slaps to the face. Steve Strange is on the door and Grace Jones slums it in style, long nails ripping holes in the banquette. It’s a poser’s paradise that might just change your life, says the Evening Standard, because it’s here that the world’s media and photographers come looking for the next big thing. Surely it will not be this scruffy bleached-blonde American in black ra-ra skirt and bare midriff, singing Lucky Star and Holiday? Perhaps it will instead be Gary, who wears cossack trousers and ballet pumps and is a civil engineer from Harlow. Or perhaps it will be his friend Marilyn, wearing “her hair in a vicious banshee cut, plus a nun’s habit, altered and donated by her aunt who is a nun”.
The nineties fly by with trance and breaks nights: crews with names like Mind over Matter, Sundissential, Frantic and Insomnia. Gradually the place ruins until, in 2004, it drags to a knackered halt. The pink neon Camden Palace sign is stripped from the wall and sold on eBay.
It takes a million pounds to scrape away the grime of a century’s dirty nights. When the ruby and the gold are restored, and the name in lights reads Koko, the bands start coming back. Some big names, some not. It can do both vastness and intimacy, this place. It can host the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Amy Winehouse, Prince and Dizzee Rascal, Christina Aguilera and Elbow.
I am led through the back-street door of Koko. Along a corridor that smells of vomit, through the Green Room, up stairs and more stairs right to the very top. Dressing Room Two is a small wedge-shaped room with dark crimson walls.
The band awaits the girls. Hardly any of us have met before, yet immediately we share a sense of purpose, of conspiratorial mischief. We are presented with matching sunhats and summery dresses, each a slightly different flavour of floral. Who will we become tonight? In my dotted daisies, with red lips and feline eyes, I am a lady at a 1940s tea party. Another girl transforms into a Victorian innocent, waist-length hair and lace-up ankle boots. There’s a tall pirate-woman with hair curling into ringlets; a cockney flower girl in chintzy black and pink blooms; a thrift-shop waif in a peach dress and multicoloured ’80s shoes; a hoedown queen in a puff-shouldered dress dotted with rosebuds. And, of course, the leader of the newly-christened Skinny Sisters, Lorna, bobbed hair and wide, luscious mouth, resplendent in high red shoes and a crimson dress with bows down the back.
Skinny Lister beermats are flung around; out comes the huge, heavy Victorian ledger book filled with scribbled comments from previous crowds – ‘nuts deep!’ and requests for Lorna’s phone number. I loop my hand round the thick clay handle of the flagon, take a swig, feel the rum burn, and then pass to my left.
The call comes: Skinny Lister, onstage, please! We follow the band downstairs and wait in the wings, tapping heels and swirling dresses, whilst onstage concertina, guitar, melodeon, ukulele and double bass play shanties and waltzes and polkas. At the beginning of Rollin’ Over, Lorna: “BRING ON THE DANCING GIRLS!”
Down into the crowd, we six girls spread out and insinuate ourselves within. I waltz with a Spiders-From-Mars-era Bowie who only falls over once on his stack heels; at the end of the song we bow to each other solemnly, then I race onward to dance arm-in-arm with men, women, a giraffe. “Let’s get wasted on rum and ginger!” Slipping on the beer-sodden floor, clambering straight back up, tights subtly laddered. By a mysterious osmosis, all the Sisters end up at the front of the crowd at the same time, waving our white sunhats in the air with joy.
We rush back up the stairs, round and round the banisters, squealing with excitement until we reach the safe confines of Dressing Room Two. Another swig of the rum and then I smear a hand-span across the steamed-up window so I can look down onto Crowndale Road.
In 1878, in a house in this street, my great-grandmother Annie Berry was born. A little wiry-haired lady, eyes bright as berries: a mischievous mouse of a woman. Bet she stood huddled amongst the group of locals on that freezing Boxing Day in 1900, waiting to be let loose inside this chameleon of a place. I can imagine her excitement, her pride: You bigwigs can take your West End and shove it up your jacksy! Look at that huge copper dome, the roaring lantern lighting up the night! This is our palace of glittering delights, a Shangri-La amongst the pawnshops and pubs! Bet she made her friends laugh by caressing the golden chests of the bearded gods holding up the pillars. Bet she sank into the ruby plush of a chair and kissed someone she shouldn’t.
Now, one hundred and eleven years later, shining above the rooftops is the brightest full moon for decades, as close to the earth as it will ever get. Obviously exerting a substantial pull.
About the author
This piece is part of our NIGHT BUS TO CAMDEN project. For more about the venue in its Camden Palace era, see: and I will only drink drinks that are red like blood by Alice Slater.