One of the great pleasures in attending a performance at the Hackney Empire is its sumptuously ornate interior that takes you straight back to its beginnings as a music hall when the likes of Marie Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin treaded its boards.
Built by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1901, it is a heady mix of classic decorative styles, gilt plasterwork and scarlet furnishings.
By the 1960s, though, it seemed its glory days were well and truly over and it could have easily ended up as a sad heap of rubble like the Bedford Theatre in Camden Town were it not for the fact that the council did not have enough money to demolish it and turn it into a car park.
It was sold instead to Mecca bingo halls, but it soon wanted rid of the old building as it was so costly to maintain.
Enter actor Roland Muldoon. In 1984 Muldoon was searching for a new venue for radical theatre group, CAST, possibly a church hall or a room above a pub, certainly not the crumbling 1,200 seater theatre in Mare St . But as soon as he walked in, it was love at first sight. “There and then I got that special buzz that I still got years later. I knew that something special was going to happen to us,” he recalls.
And so it proved. Taking on The Empire tells the tale of how CAST saved the theatre and, against the odds, turned it into the success story it is today. Apart from attracting new audiences with its adventurous programming that ranged from opera to Jamaican farce, it was a champion of alternative comedy long before it became fashionable and Jo Brand, Julian Clary, Gina Yashere and Paul Merton are among the many acts that have passed through its doors.
Hackney Empire’s second coming began on December 9, 1986, 85 years to the day of its original opening. It quickly developed the reputation of showcasing as many genres as possible with the aim of providing popular and innovative theatre.
It helped open up black theatre and comedy, gave what Muldoon describes as New Variety a national profile, put agit prop on the big stage, and took pantomime back to its roots, regularly producing what is generally regarded as the best panto in town. The many stars to have appeared there include, Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet, Nigel Kennedy performing the Four Seasons and even yesteryear comic Frankie Howerd.
“In this superb proscenium arched theatre we used our creative enthusiasm to break the mould and refocus popular entertainment,” says Muldoon, who founded CAST with his wife Claire in 1965 after starting out at the Unity Theatre.
But the 20 years that Muldoon and co ran the Empire proved to be as dramatic as anything that took place on stage as they battled with dead-eyed bureaucrats seemingly hell bent on ruining the show. Judging by this book, it’s no wonder the arts struggle in this country. In Muldoon’s view, the Arts Council’s funding practices ensured that, outside the elite establishments, theatres were forced to live a hand to mouth existence by being denied realistic subsidies, then berated for being loss making ventures.
“Clueless” officials regarded the Hackney Empire as a “primitive sub species”, says Muldoon, eventually giving it £1m to pay for a feasibility study into refurbishing the building, only to turn down the application. This was later reversed in 2001 after a high profile appeal campaign was launched with Griff Rhys-Jones at the helm.
Hackney Council weren’t much help either. Although councillors saw the Empire’s success as a vehicle to attract regeneration funding for their planned ‘cultural quarter’, they disliked the free-spirited Muldoon and the counter-culture image he was trying to promote. In essence “they did not like not being in control of the Empire [… and] there was never a directive to support us,” writes Muldoon.
A boardroom power struggle to oust Muldoon and his team had the council’s fingerprints all over it. When this failed the council decided to create its own music venue in a building opposite the theatre, even though it would damage the Empire in the fight for scarce resources. But the £23m Hackney Ocean proved to be a flop and is now an art house cinema in keeping with efforts to gentrify the area, ironically with the Empire at the heart of it. ‘It was the People’s Bohemia versus Estate Agents’ Hackney,’ Muldoon remarks drily.
In 2005, following the appointment of a “hostile” new management board, Roland and Claire resigned as chief executive and head of programming respectively, leaving behind a beautifully refurbished theatre and a legacy of varied and interesting shows.
Written in an often rambling but chatty style, with endless wise cracks and a few expletives thrown in, this is a hugely enjoyable read. This is definitely Muldoon’s side of the story an
d it’s bound to ruffle a few feathers as he settles scores with assorted backstabbers, opportunists and philistine officials and public representatives. As a snapshot of the state of the arts in Britain over the decades as corporate values dig in, it is alarming.
For all that, Muldoon is not a bitter man and he is rightly proud of his achievements. Taking on the Empire was a “worthwhile gamble,” he insists. “Most importantly of all, I hope it gives strength to those who think such a project is worth attempting.”
Taking on the Empire: How we save the Hackney Empire for Popular Theatre by Roland Muldoon is published by Just Press, London
First published in West End Extra, April 20 2013