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Vivien Leigh & John Braham’s Lost Theatre

This year the 5th of November marks not only Guy Fawkes Night, but the one hundredth birthday of my favourite actress – Vivien Leigh.

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Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With The Wind, 1939

I find that research is often a serendipitous experience. On so many occasions I have been researching someone or something, when another person I have an interest in has appeared unexpectedly in the picture. This happened recently when working on John Braham, a nineteenth-century opera singer I have been researching for my thesis. Little did I expect that Braham would have any connection to Vivien Leigh…

In 1835 John Braham built the St James’s Theatre in King Street, Westminster. It was designed by Samuel Beazley, whose notable work includes the Lyceum and Adelphi theatres. The exterior to St. James’s was neo-classical, with an opulent Louis XIV interior. Despite several financial and personal issues that delayed the building process, Braham opened his theatre on the 14th of December 1835. The first performance was the operetta Agnes Sorel, in which Braham himself starred. Things appeared to be going well for a short while, but ultimately the theatre was to prove a disastrous speculation for Braham. Facing bankruptcy, he was forced to sell up in 1838.

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The interior of St. James’s Theatre, watercolour by John Gregory Crace

Happily, the theatre went on to thrive under new management. Queen Victoria attended several performances and the theatre presented works from Charles Dickens, W. S. Gilbert and Henry Irving, amongst many other luminaries. In the 1890s St. James’s was associated with Oscar Wilde; The Importance of Being Earnest premiered at the theatre in 1895.This successful era continued into the middle of the twentieth century – which is where the serendipity comes in.

In 1950 who should take over the management of the theatre but Laurence Olivier and… Vivien Leigh. Olivier and Leigh had many successes at St. James’s; a particular highlight being their production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which was part of the Festival of Britain.

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St. James’s Theatre

This was all to come to an end, however, in 1957 when the theatre was scheduled for demolition. Olivier and Leigh led a nationwide campaign to save the theatre, culminating in a protest march through the West End. In an episode that was reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara, Leigh even addressed the House of Lords. Reporting on this incident, Time Magazine wrote:

Sweeping into the distinguished visitors’ gallery of Britain’s House of Lords, high-spirited Cinema actress Vivien Leigh listened impatiently to debate on the proposed demolition of London’s 122-year-old St. James’s Theatre (which Actress Leigh had protested two days before by marching down the Strand ringing a handbell). Fuming as Baron Blackford described the St. James’s as “simply an obsolete, Victorian, inconvenient, uncomfortable playhouse with no architectural or historic value,” she leaped to declaim: “My lords, I want to protest against St. James’s Theatre being demolished!” While their lordships sat in stunned silence at this breach of protocol, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod gravely put the arm on the interloper: “Now you will have to go, Lady Olivier.” Said Lady Olivier ruefully after her ejection: “None of the lords moved a muscle. It was what, if I had been on stage, I would describe as a dead audience.[1]

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Vivien Leigh marches to ‘Save the St. James’s Theatre’

Sadly, the campaign was to prove fruitless. The theatre was demolished in 1957, and a dreary office block now stands in its place, with only a sad-looking plaque to suggest its former glory. In 1958 Leigh wrote the forward to a book about the history of St. James’s, written by W. Macqueen-Pope. She wrote:

By the time this book is published, the St. James’s will have been pulled down. One of the oldest and most celebrated of London’s theatres will have disappeared, after close on a century and a quarter’s faithful and honourable service to the public. […]

Mr. Macqueen-Pope’s book is thus, alas, a memorial or obituary volume. It will remind readers today of much that was memorable in London stage history from the reign of William IV to that of Elizabeth II; and it will surely fill readers of the future with nostalgia and astonishment—nostalgia for the past, and astonishment at the apathy and levity with which our generation disposes of London’s landmarks. For the death, or more correctly, the murder of the St. James’s Theatre must be seen in the wider context of the ruin spread throughout the West End in the years since the First World War. One more building of historical and architectural importance is gone, one more place devoted to entertainment and the arts shut down. […]

All that now remains of the St. James’s is the traditions and the memories of those who went to see plays there, and of those who put them on or acted in them. In his affectionate and carefully detailed book, Mr. Macqueen-Pope has collated these memories and records, from the first days when Charles Dickens’s friend Braham opened the new theatre for the Christmas season of 1835.

Although this story ended sadly, these words demonstrate that Leigh was someone who cared passionately about culture and heritage. Of course, she herself is now part of our cultural heritage. Earlier this year the V&A acquired Leigh’s archive, which includes a staggering 7,500 letters between her and Olivier, as well as diaries, photographs and film scripts. A rotating selection of these items will be on display in the Theatre and Performance Galleries at the V&A; a fitting tribute to our finest actress.


[1] Time Magazine, July 22nd 1857

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