LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE
LAST NIGHT A DJ SAVED MY LIFE
From Steeleye Span to Ricky Gervais, the Bloomsbury Theatre has hosted a dizzying number of stars. But what was it like for the generations of UCL students at those gigs? Four alumni share their stories.
Words William Ham Bevan Photographs Peter Horvath
When the Bloomsbury Theatre closed for refurbishment in 2015, it marked the end of an impressive first act – and one with a stellar cast. As a music venue, the brutalist building on Gordon Street has welcomed top artists across the decades, from Ray Davies and Supertramp to Adam Ant and Snow Patrol. It witnessed one of Adele’s first major gigs in London, a BBC Radio broadcast of Paul Simon playing his greatest songs, and live album recordings by Tindersticks and The Zombies. Actors appearing on its stage include an 18-year-old Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Othello in an acclaimed National Youth Theatre production. And most recently, the Bloomsbury has become an important stop on the comedy circuit. Eddie Izzard, Mel and Sue, Jo Brand and Sarah Silverman are among those to have stepped up to the microphone, while Jimmy Carr, Harry Hill and UCL alumnus Ricky Gervais all chose it to record their bestselling DVDs.
Yet for all the glitz, it has remained an integral part of UCL’s own cultural life since opening in 1968 as the Central Collegiate Building auditorium (and soon changing its name to the Collegiate Theatre).
Frank Penter (SSEES History 2004, MSc 2006), Director of Operations for UCL Culture, began working at the Bloomsbury in 2004. “There aren’t many other facilities like this anywhere else,” he says. “It’s unusual to find a theatre that’s available for student productions at a university that doesn’t offer performing arts.” Indeed, before the closure, 12 weeks of each year were earmarked for university productions. When the theatre reopens at the end of its 50th anniversary year as part of the Transforming UCL programme, even more of the calendar will be reserved for student use.
So why do performers and audiences alike hold the Bloomsbury in such affection? “The shape and layout of the auditorium makes it feel very intimate,” says Penter. “It comes out brilliantly on screen, which is why so many performers film their DVDs there. Comedians like it because it’s almost like being in the upstairs room of a pub – albeit with 500 paying guests. The acoustics work brilliantly across the board, from spoken-word performances and acoustic duos right up to the Paul Simons of the world.” In fact, along with the distinctive logo designed by Gerald Scarfe, these characteristics have all been retained for the theatre’s second act. It’s public affirmation that, for all the improvements to the new Bloomsbury, the spirit of the original Collegiate Theatre endures. Here, four alumni recall their most memorable events.
Chris Mackett (International Relations 1974)
As vice-president of the Students’ Union, Mackett was responsible for paying the bands at what was then the Collegiate Theatre. He saw the folk rock band Steeleye Span play in 1973. He says: “The rock and pop bands used to appear in the refectory, so it was mostly the folk acts who’d get booked for the theatre. You’d be assured of better behaviour there because it was a seated venue. People would listen rather than bounce around. It was like the difference between being on the terraces and in an all-seater football ground.
“I saw Steeleye Span on my birthday in 1973. They had this very elaborate stage show that included morris dancers with bells and pigs’ heads, all accompanying this traditional English folky-type rock. That was probably the most memorable act I saw, but the best performer was Ralph McTell. He’d not long had his hit with Streets of London, so he was very popular at that time.
“I also saw acts like Al Stewart and America. They’d been in the charts with A Horse With No Name, and I remember how incredibly young they looked. I’d sign the cheques for these bands, and the fee would be in the hundreds rather than thousands – very different from what big-name bands would demand now.”
Mackett retired as Assistant Chief Probation Officer of Cambridgeshire in 2010, and now undertakes consultancy work.
Helen Langridge (Ancient History with Egyptology 2010;
MSc Forensic Archaeological Science 2011)
Langridge was there for Snow Patrol’s legendary 2008 Bloomsbury gig – part of their preparation for the Take Back the Cities tour. She says: “I joined the Stage Crew Society in my first year, so I spent a lot of time in the Bloomsbury. We’d heard that Snow Patrol were doing a secret gig there, just for fans who were on their mailing list, and some of us were able to watch it from the old technical box at the back of the theatre.
“It was a great gig. They were really relaxed, and played a pretty substantial set. The theatre capacity is 500, but they had a sound system that could have filled a 5,000-seater venue. I remember getting quite emotional when we heard Run and Chasing Cars because the sound was so epic. The bass went all the way through your body.
“We used to see all the comedians coming through on the way up in their career. Derren Brown once spent two days with us, doing dress rehearsals for a tour. The public weren’t allowed in – it was just the technicians, and we also had to help out when he needed a participant to act as an audience member for his mind-reading. That was amazing: we found out that nothing in his act is faked.
“Working backstage in the theatre was a fantastic opportunity. If you’re in the Drama Society, you’ll probably just get to know other drama people. But if you’re stage crew, you work with people in drama, musical theatre, magic, dance – all kinds of things. I’ve kept in touch with those friends. Many of them were at my wedding reception this year.”
Langridge has just returned from a 30,000km round-the-world bike ride in aid of mental health and lives in Edinburgh.
Emma Wilson (Psychology 2009)
Wilson was in the audience for Tony Benn: A Letter to My Grandchildren in 2009. It was the fourth consecutive year that the veteran Labour MP had spoken at the Bloomsbury. She says: “I saw Tony Benn several times at his conversation events. There would just be two chairs on stage, and he’d speak with an interviewer before taking questions from the audience. This event followed his retirement from Westminster, when he famously said he was “leaving parliament to spend more time on politics”. The theatre was packed: it was after years of anti-Iraq war demonstrations, in which he’d been a leading figure against western intervention.
“His talks weren’t about politics in the Westminster sense, but about social issues and the need to promote open dialogue with those who have different views. He made the point that politics isn’t something distant. It begins with small things that matter to normal people – whether the council has adequate street lighting, for example. If you disagree with what’s going on, you should write to your MP or find a way to engage.
“Something I’ll always remember from that particular night was at the book-signing afterwards. His son was there, and suggested they get a taxi home. But he said, ‘We don’t need that – let’s get on the tube.’ For me, that summed up the person he was.
“Part of the reason I went was because my uncle had worked with Tony Benn and knew him well. When my uncle mentioned to him I’d graduated from UCL, Tony sent me a lovely letter, saying, ‘I trust you’ll be going into politics’. I still have it to this day.”
Wilson is a trainee health psychologist in NHS Tayside Directorate of Public Health, undertaking her final two years of supervised clinical practice.
Conrad Young (Anthropology 1995)
In 1993, Young took to the Bloomsbury stage for a UCL production of The Rover by Aphra Behn, one of the first English women to become a professional dramatist. He says: “The Bloomsbury felt very much like part of the UCL campus. It was a social place: people would swing in and out of the café on the ground floor. And having a small part in this production in my first year was such an exciting introduction to the bright lights of London – literally.
“Given the historical significance of its playwright, The Rover is an overlooked, underperformed play. It’s a really funny, earthy Restoration comedy about the battle of the sexes – all swaggering, duelling, rapier-thrusting and joking. You had these incredible, flamboyant wigs and women in huge dresses, which filled all the space backstage.
“The director was an Anthropology PhD, and he hired professional actors for a couple of the main roles. That really raised our game. Having a pro or two on stage made us feel as though we were in the big league and less like giggling teenagers.
“We were well received by the audience, though it wasn’t all plain sailing. There’s one scene where a character gets thrown into a dung heap. A member of the crew had to go outside and find a patch of dirt to decorate his face and body. It was dark, and she did her job slightly too well – as we realised from the terrible smell just before he was going on stage. We were simultaneously horrified and laughing, as was the actor. That showed dedication!”
Young is managing director of a green technology company and father of two budding performers.