London Letter

Can Vivien Leigh save the St. James’s?

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 31 1957
London Letter

Can Vivien Leigh save the St. James’s?

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 31 1957

Can Vivien Leigh save the St. James’s?

London Letter


It was Kipling who wrote a poem with the recurring theme that the female of the species is more deadly than the male. We in London have had that theme forcibly brought to our minds by the recent off-stage activities of that remarkable actress and even more rcmarkable woman. Vivien Leigh. As a martyr she docs not yet rank with the suffragette who threw herself in front of the King's horse in the Derby to remind the world that women were determined to have the vote, but Miss Leigh is not doing badly. In fact. we may some day erect a statue of her on the north bank of the Thames, shaking her fist at the London County Council building on the opposite bank.

The story begins with the announcement a few weeks ago that St. James's Theatre was scheduled to be pulled down and replaced by an office building. This ought to have been no surprise, for the simple reason (to adapt the famous words of Edward, Viscount Grey), the footlights are going out one by one.

Two or three months ago I attended a performance of La Bohème at the Stoll Theatre, which was once known as the London Opera House and built in the reign of Edward VII by Oscar Hammer-

stein Senior. But what significance was there in my attending a performance of La Bohème there? Because it was the last time that Puccini or any other composer would be heard in that setting. Hammerstein’s palace of music will make way, like St. James’s, for an office building.

And what has happened to the old Gaiety Theatre where the “bloods” used to wait at the stage door to take the chorus girls to supper and when the correct thing was to drink champagne out of your lady’s slipper? Alas! The Gaiety is to be pulled down and offices and studios built on the site. Just one more lament and we shall get down to our narrative. The Lyceum Theatre, where Sir Henry Irving and the incomparable Ellen Terry gave Shakespeare to the people, is now a public dance hall. Thus the march of progress!

I am aware that in giving this background

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London Letter continued from page 7

Piccadilly smiled at Vivien’s protest, but

the Lords were shocked

I am keeping Vivien Leigh waiting off stage, and those of you who remember her Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind will realize that when Vivien’s anger is roused anything may happen.

Therefore let it be stated at once that when she heard that St. James’s Theatre had been sentenced to death she was filled with fury. Five or six years ago she and her husband, Laurence Olivier, took over St. James's and did a season consisting of alternate performances of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Believe me, Vivien in her dual interpretations of the Serpent of the Nile was terrific.

So when the protests against the demolition of the theatre began to take voice, Vivien’s blood boiled. First she got a sandwich board with a picture of the theatre and a placard proclaiming that St. James’s must be saved, and then she paraded Piccadilly. Some people laughed, others waved their hands but Vivien’s face was deadly earnest. In fairness no one said it was a stunt. Vivien is of the theatre and of nothing else.

The pressure of public opinion became so heavy that it was announced that the sale of the theatre would be debated in the House of Lords. Let me assure you that their lordships seldom display emotion and there is none of the barracking that takes place among the lesser breed in the House of Commons, but within these limitations the peers were considerably worried as the debate proceeded on its stately way.

Imagine then the confusion, the shock and the embarrassment when suddenly Vivien Leigh from her seat in the Distinguished Strangers section jumped to her feet and in a ringing voice cried, “My lords, I wish to protest against the St. James's Theatre being demolished . . ”

The peers were startled, shocked and excited. Here before them on her feet was a defiant female in a glamorous green floral frock, daring to speak not only in a chamber to which she did not belong but in the presence of the Lord Chancellor himself.

Fortunately Black Rod, who wears a sword, leaped to his feet and hurried to Vivien, carrying his gold-tipped staff of office. “You had better leave,” he said gently but firmly. “Certainly,” said Vivien. “1 have to get to the theatre anyway.” So she was escorted from the chamber and took a taxi to the theatre where she and Sir Laurence are starring in Titus Andronicus.

At this point you might be wondering why the sentence of death on St. James’s should rouse such resentment whereas the slaughter of the Lyceum, Stoll’s, the Gaiety and Daly’s aroused only disappointment and irritation. The fact that my own play, It Happened in September, was a sensational flop at St. James’s in 1941 would hardly give the theatre an aura of immortality, although I never pass it without remembering the faithful cast that spiritedly played the last performance of my play as if it were the first night.

Fortunately for this letter, the story of

St. James’s involves some of the most famous names and exciting incidents in the whole history of the London stage. It was there that the youthful Charles Dickens not only wrote and produced a play but made a curtain speech after each performance. It was also at St. James’s that the Marquis of Queensberry went to the theatre on the opening night of a play by Oscar Wilde, with a horse whip under his arm. The scandal of Wilde and young Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the marquis, had attained such notoriety that Queensberry was determined not only publicly to thrash Wilde, but to ruin him. However, the attendants compromised by locking the marquis, known as the Black Douglas, in the box office. At the end of that particular performance Wilde wenf on the stage and made a bland and witty speech, as if nothing unusual had happened. In short, St. James’s Theatre has a history and a character that are unique.

Now to return to Vivien and the aftermath of her intervention. The Daily Express gave prominence to Mr. Harry Fieldhouse who wrote a letter in which he argued that “this island is overrun with sentimentalists” and roundly condemned Vivien and all her works. But the following day the Express published a telegram from one of the famous figures of the BBC which read:

Your correspondent Harry Fieldhouse is right. St. James’s Theatre is just a museum piece. Away with it and up with offices! Carry his idea a

step further — away with the Old Curiosity Shop and the Cenotaph (just silly sentiment). Burn the Cutty Sark and as for Nelson’s old Victory, rip it out and turn it into flats. Stonehenge should be modernized, Ann Hathaway’s cottage become an espresso bar. I also suggest pulling down Mr. Fieldhouse.

(Signed) Spike Milligan.

This was followed by a letter from Dennis Price, a well-known London actor, who went full out in the bloody struggle between art and materialism:

Congratulations to Lady Olivier for waking their serene lordships out of their after-tea coma. And to Miss Athene Seyler for ringing a bell with her against the preposterous idea of shoving up unimportant offices in a place where thousands have captured hours of pleasure. The next “head" to fall will presumably be the Victoria Palace Theatre, with the Crazy Gang of comedians making way for British Railways headquarters as an extension to the Brighton line.

The next step was inevitable and I was not wholly surprised when George Strauss, a wealthy, idealistic socialist MP, asked if I would join him in an all-party deputation of protest to the minister of housing and local government. With a promptness that was admirable the minister replied that he would see us within twenty-four hours. Perhaps he was moved to this swift decision by the fear that Vivien might gain access to our public gallery and address the House of Commons.

Well, we went to sec the minister, Henry Brooke, and realized that we had better get right down to business because, as the former head of the London County Council, he knows the whole problem at every level. One of the interesting questions put to him was whether private enterprise had the right to erect an office building in an area that includes St. James’s Street with its clubs and quaint old shops and ends in the ancient glory of St. James’s Palace. “Why should office buildings invade the centre of London?” asked a fellow Tory. “Office buildings should be barred within a certain range.”

The minister said that he would consider our arguments, but we wanted more than that. Eventually he agreed that a statement should be sent to the press that if any person or body would agree to pay

fifty thousand pounds compensation to the owners of St. James's (the profit the owners were to make on the sale), he would consider a fresh approach to the retention of the St. James’s as a theatre. At the end of our talk a statement to this effect was issued to the press.

At the moment I cannot carry the story farther than that, but you will agree trfat the issue that has been raised is far more important than the loss or the retention of a single theatre, no matter how splendid its history. The straight challenge is whether materialism—and I do not use that word disparagingly—has the right to impose its will upon the spiritual.

Those of my grandfather’s generation who were born in Toronto and lived there saw a waterfront and harbor of great natural beauty turned into a hideous jumble of railway tracks, sheds and warehouses. But our ancestors were struggling to create a community that could support itself and they were not primarily interested in beauty. There must have been dreamers who saw ahead into the vista of the years but their voices were drowned in the rattle of freight cars and the groaning of cranes conveying supplies to the wharves.

Yet thé paradox of St. James's Theatre is that the man who bought it for the purpose of demolition was Felix Fenston, the financier-dreamer with the golden beard who backed the mad venture of Mayflower 11. He met with Miss Leigh and talked the whole thing over, but emerged from the meeting with his mind unchanged: the hundred-and-twenty-twoyear-old theatre must go. Vivien refused to accept defeat. "I still hope.” she said, “to persuade Mr. Fenston to reprieve the St. James’s.”

Meanwhile, she continues to fight the same battle on other fronts. Recently she appeared on television and appealed to trade unionists to refuse to pull down the historic show place.

The struggle between the realist and the romanticist is as old as life itself. I think it was Oscar Wilde who wrote a fanciful story of the First Artist. The world was in its infancy as the men went out to kill animals for food and to take the fish from the sea. But there was one man who stayed behind and with his hands made beautiful things, out of clay, andthe women were glad although the men laughed derisively when they came back from the hills and the sea.

As it was in the beginning—and ever shall be. ★