restricted access The People’s Impresario: Roland Muldoon at the Hackney Empire
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The People’s Impresario:
Roland Muldoon at the Hackney Empire

On 3 November 1986, Roland Muldoon and members of socialist theatre company Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre (CAST) took over stewardship of London’s Hackney Empire. The company’s interest in the building, which was owned by Mecca Bingo, had begun the year before, when the Arts Council announced that it would be cutting CAST’s funding. An agreement was negotiated whereby the new owners would purchase the building for £150,000, with £50,000 to be paid in May 1988, and the balance by February 1989. The new management set itself three aims:

  1. 1. To create a new type of popular Variety theatre aiming at Hackney and London-wide audiences and adjacent counties.

  2. 2. To bring in audiences of all ages and all races, whilst identifying special targeted shows for the local Turkish, Irish, Black and Asian audiences.

  3. 3. To promote the newly emerging or changing art forms such as dance, music etc as well as our special interest New Variety: to link up with the past and promote traditional variety

    (Hackney Empire Archive, hereafter HEA, “Press Release”)

The aims constituted a natural progression for the company, which since 1981 had pioneered what became known as New Variety, first at the Queen’s Head in Brixton (itself an old music hall venue) and later at ten venues across the capital. The company applied for charitable status and an appeal was immediately launched to raise the £150,000, chaired by poet Benjamin Zephaniah. The company’s charter set out a division of powers and responsibility between a Hackney Empire Preservation Trust, which would own the building, and Hackney New Variety Ltd, who would be the tenants; [End Page 103] this was a decision which would have unforeseen and damaging consequences. The Trust included long standing supporters of New Variety like Ian Saville, the socialist magician. Hackney New Variety was initially conceived as a management collective, and its core were former CAST members Ann Cartwright, Peter Wren, Pete Morland and Claire and Roland Muldoon. In their initial financial projections, the new management estimated that they would need to generate £2500 a week to get by, though £4000 was seen as a more realistic figure. The bar revenue would be the key to survival, with the box office supplemented by income from hire charges. Built into the projections was an assumption that grant sources would account for at least 25% of overall income, though it never rose above 12%, a fact that would define the Empire’s development and, eventually, bring about its fall. However, the early signs were more promising, and on 29 April 1988, the Empire’s eighty-fifth birthday, the Trust became the legal owners thanks to a generous grant from Hackney Borough Council, who were given a place on the board.

The Empire, opened in 1901, had been graced by legends of the music hall, including Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin and, most notably, Marie Lloyd, whose support for a strike by variety artistes led to the foundation of the first entertainer’s union, the Variety Artists’ Association, in 1907. Hackney was also the spiritual home of twentieth-century political theatre, for it had been the Hackney Labour Players, led by Tom Thomas (another charismatic theatre radical), who had provided the inspiration for the Workers’ Theatre Movement in the late 1920s. In the following decades Muldoon and CAST would turn the Empire, what Douglas Anderson vividly terms “this glorious folly, a rococo monument to sentimentality and imperialism” (44), into one of London’s most iconic venues.

“An Unbroken Thing . . . ”

Muldoon believed in the historical continuity of popular performance forms, and located his tenure of the Hackney Empire within a tradition:

So now we’ve taken over the Hackney Empire there’s no break in our consciousness to look at the history of old tyme music hall, Marie Lloyd, music hall becomes variety, and then we come back with a new version of it . . . so that’s popular theatre. And it’s an unbroken thing.

(“Personal Interview”)

This projected continuity was given concrete expression in the invitation to the British Music Hall Society to stage what was billed...