Life in Old Ghosts: The 1900s - present
In 1906 A. E. Pickard, a young man in his early thirties, took over the
building and re-opened it as The "Britannia and Grand Panopticon".
It was Pickard for whom many remember Britannia today. The name Panopticon meant “to view everything” (from the Greek, Pan = everything & Opti = to see) and in the Panopticon (or Pots and Pans as it became locally known) much more than cine-variety was on offer. Pickard opened the top floor of the building up to the public as a "Roof Top Carnival" offering such wonderful delights as pipe breakers, Aunt Sallies, fortune tellers, love in a tub, cockernut (Mr Pickard’s spelling) saloons and all the latest, up-to-date amusements. In addition to this, Pickard also excavated the basement and opened it up as "Noah's Ark", a zoo containing a monkey house, bird house, reptile house and bear house. Noah's Ark also housed: "Colourful prints of Chinese tortures, rich engravings by W. Hogarth and other eminent artists, while there are distorting mirrors and other things to amuse the public, not omitting a grand organ, which will play some lovely selections while the public are promenading round seeing the sites..."
In the American Museum next door, which was also owned by Pickard, you could see Freak shows and wax work exhibits. The "Freaks", which included Monsieur Beaute the man who held the world record for fasting, Leonine the Lion Headed girl, Tom Thumb, who was twenty-three inches in height and twenty-four pounds in weight and the Human Spider, performed daily in the American Museum, but resided in the Roof Top Carnival above the Panopticon, where they could be viewed whilst at their leisure and all of this for the one ticket price. This vast array of entertainments had been inspired by the great American showman P.T. Barnum.
Pickard always liked to stay ahead of the game and was fiercely competitive. In
opening "Noah's Ark" he was trying to compete with Bostock and
Wombwell who declared that Pickard's moth-eaten collection of animals did not
warrant the term "zoological collection".
Pickard also fancied himself as a bit of a talent scout, which can’t be disputed as he gave two great cinema heroes their first chance on the stage of the Panopticon. The first of these was a young man whose father managed a rival music hall on Stockwell St, the Metropole (formerly the Scotia Music Hall)
Arthur Stanley Jefferson aspired to be a great music hall comedian and at the age of fifteen he had decided that he had learned everything that school could teach him so he started to bunk off school and spend his afternoons in the Panopticon instead where he watched all the comics with studious concentration, memorising the best gags which he would then perform for his bed ridden mother. His mother had once been a performer too and encouraged her son, who, a month after his sixteenth birthday, decided to ask Pickard if he could perform at the Panopticon amateur night. Pickard agreed, and that Friday the young lad got his chance. He jumped onto the stage in his father’s best suit with the trousers cut up to fit in a comedy fashion and launched into a series of jokes and songs. The act wasn’t going terribly well but the boy soldiered on until he saw his Father sitting with Pickard at the front of the Stalls. The boy froze then jumped from the stage terrified at what his father would say. Pickard was always proud of that night and the young lad he had let perform, for that young lad eventually sailed to America where he met Oliver Norvall Hardy. Together they became the world’s most famous comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy.
In 1911 another young man debuted at the Panopticon. A dapper young gent from Helensburgh found himself billed as a new act and vainly tried to sing to a full house of Glasgow's most notorious audience. His voice failed to rise above the jeers and shouts and when his number was finished the poor young lad thought his career had ended before it had begun, but the manager booked him in for a week anyway and the lad was paid in full before going to Edinburgh where he played in the Empress (Festival Theatre) to a full house of absolutely silent spectators. This young lad was Jack Buchanan, the heart throb of a million women and the star of such films as "Band Wagon" and "Bulldog Drummond".
With Pickard’s constant search for new and unusual entertainment's the Panopticon continued to thrive and so did he. He proclaimed his wealth by stating that he had so much money he couldn't count it all and he brought theatres and cinemas all over the city: The White Elephant, Seamore, Gaiety, Black Cat, Casino and Norwood to name but a few. He also owned a number of warehouses, offices and tenement buildings which he never maintained and on one occasion, whilst arguing with a local councillor, Pickard declared "You can't throw a stone in Glasgow without hitting one of my buildings". To which the Councillor replied "And if it hits it, it'll fall down".
But as Pickard thrived with his ever increasing list of cinemas and theatres, the Britannia Panopticon had begun to age. People began to flock to the modern, purpose built cinemas like the Salon and the Cosmo, leaving this little Victorian wooden auditorium behind. Finally the depression of the 1930's saw the end for this little Music Hall and Pickard sold it to his tailors in 1938. The balcony was sealed off and a false ceiling erected above the stalls to make way for a factory and warehouse. The Trongate entrance was removed and replaced with large plate glass windows, which over the years since have given the window shopper a view of all kinds of goods. Even the rats have long since left this sleeping beauty which has slept through the Second World War, mans first steps on the moon, the invention of television and the dawn of the computer age. From penny farthing to mountain bike, horse drawn carriage to BMW, Britannia has seen it all.
As I write this potted history whilst sitting in what was once the manager’s office, I can hear the bingo caller’s voice drifting up to the office window and the noise of the traffic as buses and cars stampede by in noisy, fume emitting herds. Many of the old tenements are gone and so have the slum conditions and cholera that thrived in them. The Trongate at the beginning of the twenty first Century seems far removed from the days when Britannia was the most popular place of amusement. What does the future hold for this charismatic little building which contains such a large piece of theatre and cinema history, encapsulated in dust and peeling paint?…
Well for the last fourteen years I have campaigned with the help of a loyal band of supporters to bring this old relic back to life and now the building has a new roof and façade and gable end (thanks mostly to Historic Scotland, our local THI* and the wonderful Mitchell family who own the building). Music Hall shows can been seen throughout the summer months and every year more and more people come and visit the oldest surviving music hall in the world – so why not join them, visit our events page for more information.
Coming in May 2014 - The book about Britannia Panopticon "The Panopticon - Glasgow's Lost Music Hall - Re-found" previously known as "Stan Laurel and Other Stars of the Panopticon" by Judith Bowers. This book is being relaunched with an additional chapter about the music hall during WW1, 60 extra photographs and a foreword written by Lord Michael Grade.