As an ancient borough, Islington is well supplied with entertainments. A history of its theatres, music halls and cinemas would be fascinating and would need a lot of research. In the meantime, here is a brief sketch of just a handful of the entertainments, past and present, just in the Angel area.
In July 2007, I photographed this lady, standing upon a dome and carrying a lamp. I noted her elegance, but at that point I had no idea why she was there.
By November 2008, the lady looked as above: well cared for and painted, but with a broken lamp. How did that happen, I wonder? Surely not heavy footed pigeons…
Earlier today, I snapped her again (see below) still looking out serenely across Islington Green and still with her damaged lamp.
But who is she? Unfortunately, I cannot say, but I do know she was put in place when Electric Theatres Ltd built the cinema upon whose dome she stands. That was in December 1908 and the site has seen many changes since then, being by turns an amusement arcade, an antiques emporium and, today, an outlet of Blacks, the camping and outdoor specialists.
The demise of the Electric Theatre was not the end of cinema entertainment in the Angel, however. In 1911, the Pesaresi brothers opened a “picture theatre” a few doors further along Upper Street. It was taken over, three years later, by the Empress Picture Theatre company who also bought premises on either side and built a new, larger cinema called the Empress. In 1950, refurbished, the theatre was renamed the Rex and, finally, in 1970, under new management, it opened as the Screen on the Green, by which name it is known today.
Across the road, facing Islington Green, is a large shop currently operating as a bookshop, under the name of Waterstone’s. The observant eye will notice two historical references upon the façade. The first is this blue plaque installed by the Greater London Council, itself now also, ironically, consigned to history.
The other clue is the phrase “Rebuilt 1897” moulded into the façade at third-floor level.
In 1862 there stood here a public house called the Lansdowne Arms and, following an old tradition of entertainments in pubs, Sam Collins opened the Lansdowne Music Hall at the back and ran it from 1863. Although Sam died in 1865, the music hall continued to operate and was remodelled in 1897. That was its last refurbishment as it backed onto a burial ground and this precluded further expansion. Nonetheless, the music hall continued, and remained associated with the name of Sam Collins, until it was destroyed by fire in 1956. Converted into a bookshop, the building retains few traces now of its previous purpose.
As remarked above, it is a long tradition for pubs to provide entertainment, perhaps because they already attract an audience out for pleasure and amusement. Throughout the Victorian era, for example, popular entertainment was provided by the “penny gaffs” attached to pubs. As the name suggests, entry cost one penny (1d) and the entertainment was light. In modern times, pub theatres generally offer a more serious and up-market form of dramatic entertainment. Many produce performances to a high standard and are justly renowned.
One such is the King’s Head in Upper Street. There has been a pub here since time immemorial but the present building is of Victorian vintage, dating from 1860. While operating as a traditional pub, the King’s Head also boasts a theatre, opened in 1970.
Down the road in St John Street, the King’s Head faces competition (friendly, I am sure) in the shape of the Old Red Lion.
The Old Road Lion boasts origins going back to 1415 when Islington was a country village standing in a lane then called Chester Road. In the 18th century, the area was infested with highwaymen but this did not prevent some famous people from visiting, including William Hogarth (one of whose paintings has the pub in the background), Samuel Johnson and Thomas Paine. The current building dates from 1899.
If you cross the road opposite the King’s Head and pass behind St Mary’s Church, you may see a soulful face looking out of a window. If so, it means that you have discovered the Little Angel Theatre. No prizes for guessing that this is a puppet theatre.
The youngest of the places of entertainment mentioned here, the Little Angel Theatre was founded in 1961 and claims a unique status as London’s only permanent puppet theatre. As well as mounting a varied range of productions, the theatre boasts its own workshop where puppets are made.
This is just a selection of the Islington venues, past and present, that have caught my eye and camera lens. There are many others with equal claims to fame and I hope their owners do not feel aggrieved that I have not mentioned them. I hope to catch up with them in later posts.