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An Interview with Frank Matcham - 1897

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Among our theatrical architects Mr Frank Matcham must be accorded a place of distinction. He has been so long and so busily employed that his total of theatres built can only come next to that of the late Mr Phipps. Mr Matcham has lost count, but supposes he cannot have built fewer than fifty theatres and music halls. Some ten years ago, he tells you, he thought all the theatres had been built, and that he must needs find another speciality. Now he has no such fear - commissions are numerous, and have, indeed, to be submitted to a most careful process of selection. Mr. Matcham has no notion of committing himself to tentative schemes, or appending his name to plans that have not the certainty of being brought to a successful issue. The present "boom" in theatre-building has, of course, induced a good deal of speculative enterprise. But Mr. Matcham has in hand not fewer than a dozen sound schemes, lying here and there about the provinces, and keeping him busy indeed. "You see," he says, "a theatre is so different from any other structure. From the day one first puts pencil to paper, till the night the curtain rises on the first performance, it never ceases to be an anxiety. One can delegate nothing.

"I originate all my designs - the trouble is to find time for drawing. What I endeavour to do is to spend a week in London, and a week in inspecting the progress of my provincial commissions alternately. In town I devote the early morning to office work, in Warwick-court, Gray's-inn. Then I steal away to my residence at Crouch-end, where I can devote the uninterrupted evening to designing. It is so easy to say that one theatre is just a replica of another. No theatre is a replica of another. The exigencies of the site, the capital at disposal, the characteristics of the neighbourhood have all to be considered, and tend, as I say, to make one playhouse differ from another in a remarkable degree. It has happened to me that my first knowledge even of the existence of a town has been imparted by an invitation to build a theatre. In such a case I am most careful to inform myself of the tastes of the people - here one needs more stalls, there a spacious pit and gallery. To build a theatre without particular regard for all these conditions is foolish in an extreme degree; and nothing is more fatal than to build a house too large for the playgoing needs of its district. I find theatrical managers as a class most excellent clients - shrewd, instructive, judicious. The theatrical architect has to retrace his steps so often. Having finally settled his plans, he has to apportion the various contracts. When the building gets into shape, the scheme of decoration has to be considered, and the plastic-workers to be dealt with. Then there is the lighting - gas and electric light fittings to be designed; the upholstery, and finally the act-drop. I have a very great belief in making every accessory and decorative detail homogeneous, and to secure this effect they must be the work of the one designer.

The Elephant and Castle Theatre from Dianna Howard's 'London Theatres and Music Halls 1850-1950.'Mr Matcham, it transpires, is a Devonshire man; and when the question of adopting a profession arose, he was placed with a quantity surveyor. A commission for some modest architectural work, the building of some villas, or such like, came his way, and was not refused; so, in the course of time, Mr Matcham became a general practitioner of the architectural art. Eventually be entered into partnership with a relative, who held the appointment of surveyor to the Lord Chamberlain. The firm had the commission of designing the Elephant and Castle Theatre."

Right - The Elephant and Castle Theatre - From Dianna Howard's 'London Theatres and Music Halls 1850-1950.'

"My partner, who was particularly charged with this work, died," says Mr Matcham. "I had to finish it ; and so I built my first theatre." Mr Phipps was the great theatrical architect of that day. Indeed, as Mr Matcham explains, there are really very few theatres of a period anterior to Mr Phipps - in the old style, fashioned without a pit. Mr Matcham has here and there encountered such houses in the way of renovation and reconstruction. For Mr Phipps Mr Matcham professes a great admiration." It is a remarkable thing," says he, " that during many years of contemporaneous industry we never met. We had, not very long since, occasion to confer, and a meeting was arranged. We met, in fact, only to postpone our conference awhile. Mr Phipps was ailing; and very shortly died. He was a man greatly admired and esteemed ! "

During recent years there has been quite a revolution in theatre construction. The adoption of two tiers is the most remarkable innovation, and one to which Mr Matcham is completely committed. The great object of the theatrical architect should be to secure to every playgoer an uninterrupted view of the stage - Mr Matcham thinks, in fact, that the expert designer ought hardly to escape doing so. In some of the older theatres there are numerous obstructive pillars, which the modern architect has practically abolished. To build a new house without pillars is a comparatively simple matter. To take the pillars out of an old house is more troublesome, though constantly required. Mr Matcham declares that he is dead against the horseshoe shape of theatre. Many persons in such an auditorium can never hope to see the stage. The idea should rather be to make wide, slightly curved galleries, whose occupants are nearer to the proscenium, and have an unobstructed view thereof. The use of twotiers obviates the well form, which the house of many galleries too often acquired.

The Borough Theatre Stratford East.A notable example of Mr Matcham's work is the Borough Theatre, Stratford, which had an enthusiastic admirer in Mr Tree, who was one of its earliest inspectors. At Stratford, it is to be borne in mind, Mr Matcham had a vast, working-class population to cater for. Mr Tree was particularly struck by the bars at Stratford - whose excellence, by the way, has been rendered ridiculous by the action of the authorities - and by the ingenuity of the pay-box arrangements. Another suburban theatre by which Mr Matcham sets great store is the Stoke Newington house, nearing completion. He is also at work on the new Metropolitan Music Hall.

Left - Matcham's Borough Theatre, Stratford East.

But some of Mr Matcham's most monumental works are in the provinces. Many London people would doubtless be surprised to see how excellent a theatre Southport, for instance, has. The theatre building "boom" is largely concerned with variety theatres. In the provinces, especially, many "Empires" have lately sprung up - Mr Matcham has designed half-a-dozen for the enterprising firm of Moss and Thornton. The fact is that the emancipation of the variety theatre from the restrictions of bigotry and prejudice has been much slower than the emancipation of the theatre was. In many towns where the drama has flourished the variety stage has been the unworthy adjunct of a pothouse still. But this is all over - palatial music halls are everywhere raising their proud root trees. When Mr Matcham set about a noble variety theatre for Leeds, to the order of Messrs Moss and Thornton, he was asked by local capitalists to, in effect, undertake the building of a street, of which the music hall shall be an item.

The auditorium of the London Hippodrome set up for a water spectacular - From a programme for May 2nd 1910 - Click to see a special feature on this programme.For the moment Mr Matcham is very full of the scheme to build a vast circus in Leicester-square - another Moss and Thornton enterprise. After a long process of negotiation, a huge space has been acquired, bounded on one side by Daly's theatre - from which, however, it is separated by a thoroughfare - on another by Charing-cross-road, on a third by Cranbourne-street, and on a fourth by Little Newport-street. Hereon will be erected a hotel, a winter garden, and bachelor chambers de luxe (but at an extremely moderate rental), in addition to the circus, which is to out-do the most ambitious establishments on the continent. A water show will form a part of the entertainment, a brilliantly-illuminated fountain feeding the miniature lake.

Right - The auditorium of Matcham's London Hippodrome set up for a water spectacular - From a programme for May 2nd 1910 - Click to see a special feature on this programme.

Mr Matcham has had a good deal of experience in the construction of circuses. He built several for the elder Hengler. Three of his music halls, notably that at Edinburgh, were so built that they could quickly be transformed into circuses, the idea being that as music halls they might not commend themselves to the public. But the curious fact has to be recorded that in no case has the ingenious machinery contrived for the transformation been utilised. The public dispersed any fear that may have lingered as to the prospects of palatial variety theatres in the provinces by nightly thronging the seductive halls.

The above text was first published in the ERA, October 1897.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

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