By Chris Megson
One of the compelling features of the AHRC project on Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution is the invitation to reflect on what kind of memories we take from attending performances and the various ways they become meaningful in our lives. Perhaps the first step in thinking about ‘value’ is to dredge one’s earliest memories of theatregoing and trace the images, sounds, feelings and associations that constellate around them.
Like many people, my first experience of attending theatre was the school play, the occasional musical and, in particular, the annual Christmas pantomime. The venue for the latter was the Bradford Alhambra in my home county of West Yorkshire. Built in 1913 and opened the following year, the Alhambra took its name from the famous palace in Granada although, with its impressive dome perched atop steep Corinthian pillars, the Bradford version looks nothing like its sprawling Andalusian namesake. In the nineteenth century, the city of Bradford was the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution, famous around the world for its wool and textile manufacture. The stately design of the Alhambra captures a sense of Edwardian economic confidence mixed with a heady dose of imperial exoticism. Today, exactly one hundred years after its construction, the theatre is the instantly-recognisable landmark in one of Britain’s most vibrant multicultural cities.
My grandmother (on my father’s side) was born two years after the Alhambra opened. She spent her working life, from the 1930s onwards, as a weaver in the textile mills at nearby Low Moor. She had retired by the time I became interested in drama as a teenager in the 1980s and I remember, around this time, she told me that she had taken elocution lessons as a girl. She had always guarded this fact quite closely, fearing that others would interpret elocution as snobbish disdain for her Yorkshire roots, but she nonetheless took pride in it. For many working-class families of her generation, elocution was the performance of the aspiration for social mobility but my grandmother was much more invested in elocution as a kind of rudimentary acting, one that enabled her to role-play the polished vowels of Hollywood cinema.
For a number of years, at the turn of the 1980s, our shared interest in theatre gathered momentum as the two of us (she in her mid-sixties, me around ten years old) went to see the annual pantomime at the Alhambra. Pantos have been staged at the theatre since the late 1920s and remain part of its DNA. By the early 1980s, the leading players at the Christmas panto tended to be comedians imported from ITV’s Saturday evening schedules and they included high-profile double acts like Cannon and Ball, and my grandmother’s erstwhile favourite Russ Abbot. These stars of ‘Light Entertainment’ were then at the height of their popularity: they had their own TV series and attracted millions of viewers each week. They were also, of course, direct descendants of the Variety performers of the Edwardian era for whom the Alhambra was first built as a ‘Palace of Varieties’ in 1913. Many of the working-class northern comics who appeared in the Bradford pantos started their careers touring clubs and pubs (Cannon and Ball first met as welders in Lancashire) and, on the back of this experience, were able to command the large Alhambra stage.
What do I remember of the shows? The bright colours, the immensity of the proscenium arch, bits of physical comedy and sing-along, the inevitable frisson of seeing television ‘personalities’ live on stage. I have a dusty recollection of an impressive beanstalk escalating from centre-stage. My memories of the audience are much more vivid: the giddy terror induced by our proximity to the performers (would we be called onstage?), the red velvet seats in the stalls and the deafening shouts of spectators. The interior décor of the Alhambra was modelled on Louis XVI, no less, and the high-decibel noise seemed to me wonderfully subversive, like yodelling in Buckingham Palace.
Above all, however, a single image comes to mind when I think of the pantos: my grandmother and I are sitting next to each other in the auditorium, the performance is taking place in front of us on the stage, and we’re glancing at each other and smiling. When I recall this image, I see the two of us together but from the perspective of an external observer, an outside eye, so this visual fragment cannot feasibly ‘reproduce’ a moment that actually happened – but yet this image always pops up when I recall my time at the Alhambra. I’m reminded of a comment made by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman in his book, Re-Visioning Psychology. Hillman argues that the study of human consciousness needs to be ‘based in a psychology of image […] a poetic basis of mind […] that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organization of society, nor the analysis of behaviour, but in the processes of imagination.’ For Hillman, the mind, like the theatre, is fundamentally concerned with the production of images and these images, whether in dreams or memories, carry symbolic or ‘poetic’ properties when recollected. The impossible image-memory I have retained – of my grandmother watching me, watching her, both of us smiling – is in this sense a distillation, an emblem (or what Hillman calls a ‘fantasy-image’), of this early memory of theatre, which also happens to be a formative experience of spectatorship. And the pleasure I gain from its recollection today, some years after my grandmother’s death, affirms that other people’s (as well as our own) response to theatrical performance is intrinsic to the operation of memory in spectatorship. Theatre is a practice that engages audiences in ‘processes of imagination’ and part of its value accrues from the experience of attending with others, from the mutual participation in a shared imaginary, and from the intensification of a social, in this case family, relationship. Peter Conrad conveys this point in his review of the director Michael Blakemore’s recent memoir, Stage Blood: ‘Theatre is evanescent, yet it can provide us with experiences so intense that we gratefully retain them for the rest of our lives […] it is the impregnable archive of our affections.’ This notion of spectatorship as an evolving ‘archive’ of affective intensities chimes with my own recollection of visiting the Alhambra as a child with my grandmother. I’m excited to see how far the findings of this AHRC project flesh out or challenge Conrad’s conjecture.