A touch of Moorish Spain in Leicester Square

Leicester Square is at the heart of London’s theatres and clubs. It’s not my favourite London square by any stretch and seems to have permanent building work going on. At present, there are plans to demolish the art deco Odeon cinema. So it seems a good moment to point out what was there before the Odeon was thrown up in the 1930s.

The ill-fated Panopticon in 1851
The ill-fated Panopticon in 1851

The east side of the square was dominated from the 1850s to 1936 by the Alhambra Theatre. The Victorians loved to mix and match architectural styles and with this theatre, they went a bit mad. It looked like an enormous Moorish palace – the sort of vulgar monstrosity Citizen Kane might have constructed. By the time the wrecking ball swung, the Alhambra had enjoyed decades as one of London’s top music halls but it had started out with loftier and more intellectual ambitions.

The Alhambra, built in the “Saracenic style” was originally called The Royal Panopticon of Science and Arts. Wikipedia claims it opened in 1854. But I have a London guide from 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, that has the Royal Panopticon already doing business. A certain Mr E. M. Clarke was the managing director and its original aim was to impart knowledge. As the 1851 guide to London gushes:

A subdued and meditative light is felt to pervade it, and at once to win the mind from the external world of bustle and throng from which it has just escaped.

Alhambra Theatre
The more successful Alhambra theatre in the 1890s

There were exhibitions of “manufactures in their different processes” and a “department for the practice of photography”. But I’m afraid Londoners just wanted something a bit more grounded and entertaining. Far from wanted their thoughts elevated – they wanted a fun night out. And so the Panopticon idea was dropped and the Alhambra was born as a theatre of varieties. A 1906 London guide I own mentions the dances and “ballets” at the Alhambra and long queues to get in.

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