The ghosts of theatres past

'I HAVE the best toys in Glasgow… and the best dressing-up box," beams Judith Bowers, aka "Florrie Bow Wow", pedalling an old pianola as actor and playwright Tony Roper looks on incredulously. The music churning out from the player piano is Saint-Saën's dramatic Danse Macabre – appropriate enough, for if Bowers and her friends are to be believed, we are in a place of ghosts, which once resounded with the antics of bygone troupers and the roar of one of the toughest audiences

We're standing in the dimly lit but vividly atmospheric auditorium of the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall, the oldest surviving music hall in the UK, if not the world, which opened in 1857 and where time has stood still, more or less, since it closed in 1938. In 1997, Bowers, a Glasgow historian and music hall enthusiast, managed to gain access to it and couldn't believe what she'd stumbled upon. Now with the layers of dust and pigeon excrement cleared away, over the past few years the Britannia Panopticon has been gradually taking on new life: the scaffolding swathing its restored faade will come down in the spring and, at the end of this month, as part of the Magners Glasgow International Comedy Festival, a gala dinner be held to will raise funds for further work.

To celebrate this progress, Roper has just lent the revived music hall a large framed composite print of Glasgow theatres, including the Panopticon, which formerly belonged to the comedian Rikki Fulton. Most of these buildings have vanished, and it is largely down to the efforts of Bower and two trusts – the Friends of the Panopticon and the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall Preservation Trust – that this astonishing building is now unlikely to follow suit.

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Opened in 1857 as a "singing saloon", the Britannia became a popular if rowdy venue, where as many as 1,500 crammed on its benches to enjoy the likes of Harry Lauder, Jack Buchanan and Dan Leno, not to mention the 1906 debut of a 16-year-old Stan Laurel. It became one of the city's first moving picture halls and, during the early 20th century, reached its zenith as a place of entertainment under the ownership of the eccentric millionaire entrepreneur (and slum landlord) A E Pickard, who introduced a waxworks and freak show into its attic area, and a zoo in the ground floor.

It was "A E Pickard Unlimited of London, Paris, Moscow and Bannockburn" who changed the establishment's name to the Panopticon, derived from the Greek pan – everything, and optika – as in vision, as a single admission ticket allowed the visitor to view all the sometimes dubious marvels within.

Following its closure, the ground floor was occupied by a series of shops, and currently houses amusements run by the Mitchell family, who run a number of amusement arcades and who now own the building.

As Bowers remembers her feelings on first penetrating beyond the false ceilings of the shops below, one February day in 1997, the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb almost pales in comparison. "It was as if they had just shut the doors," she says. "You could almost still smell the cigarette smoke and the body odour from the last audience. It was simultaneously heartbreaking to see how abandoned the building was, but at the same time a relief that she was still here."

In her book Stan Laurel and Other Stars of the Panopticon (Birlinn), she further recalls, "It was as if someone had locked the door in 1938 and nothing, not even the air, had moved since."

However things are moving now, if slowly, largely thanks to her devotion to the place and with the support of the Mitchell family, as well as financial assistance from Historic Scotland and the Merchant City Townscape Initiative trust. The Friends have been hosting variety and burlesque shows in the auditorium for some years now, while outside in the Trongate, the scaffolding will shortly come off the restored faade to reveal buff Giffnock sandstone and sculptural details long obscured by blue paint. On 29 March, the gala dinner at ran Mor will raise funds for ongoing work on what Bowers wants to see become "a living, breathing museum of musical hall and show entertainment".

"Now leases are being negotiated so that the Friends of the Britannia Panopticon become the end users for the auditorium," says Bowers, resplendent in the pink silk flounces of one of the revived music hall's regular characters. "Meanwhile we'll be allowed to continue opening the building to the public. The Mitchells have been fantastic about letting the public in and allowing us basically to do what we want here."

Above us, beyond the balcony, we can dimly make out where stripping has revealed areas of blue paint and gold stars, and a thick patina of old nicotine. Around us, cases display a few of the thousands of objects the Friends' have found under seats and floorboards and catalogued to date, from beer bottles to clay pipes, innumerable cigarette packets and matchboxes, First World War badges and grisly-looking fake bodyparts from the former waxworks.

They've also found a lot of rivets, for the Panopticon's famously unforgiving audiences, many of the them from the shipyards, threw more than the traditional rotten vegetables at those unlucky performers who failed to live up to expectations.

Roper, who himself had a spell in the shipyards before getting into theatre, laps up the atmosphere. "This place is absolutely amazing. I had visions of doing something with it myself, of resurrecting it, then I had a look and thought, 'No chance'. So I'm filled with admiration for what Judith has done here." Hence his loan of the theatre print, passed to him by Kate Fulton, widow of the late Rikki, who was himself presented with it when he opened the Glasgow Theatre Trail, initiated for the Year of Culture back in 1990.

Many of the once-thriving establishments it depicts have long vanished. Thankfully, the Panopticon now won't, but its rehabilitation will be a slow process, says Bowers. "We've really just touched the surface of her, and conservation of the auditorium will be a delicate process because we'll be collecting objects as we go, because this is simply the oldest surviving music hall."

In Scotland? "In the world," she reckons. "We don't know of an older one anywhere else, so this building is an opportunity for us to follow the history of music hall, from the early singing saloons right the way through to variety theatre and cinema."

She is nervous of the term "restoration": "My biggest fear is that she looks brand new and loses all her character, because there are layers and layers of history here, left by the Glasgow punters. You see all that dark brown and gold up there," she says. "That's all nicotine." Other traces may be less palatable, she suggests, referring to "the boys in the balcony, who used to wee over onto the apron of the stage".

Around the auditorium, posters and photographs recall the place's glory days – one of Harry Lauder's sleight-of-hand self-caricatures, First World War postcards celebrating "The Laddies Who Fought and Won", Andy Hay's painting of the ever-debonair actor-singer-director Jack Buchanan.

Then there are those whose unfortunate physical quirks, in a less enlightened age, brought them celebrity status at Pickard's upstairs freak show – Jo-Jo the Human Cairn Terrier, Anne Jones the Bearded Lady, Tom Thumb, "the Smallest Man in Existence".

With such a motley human history, is the "Old Brit" haunted?. "Where do I start?" laughs Bowers, before listing a soldier on the balcony and a lady in black: "Sometimes when you walk in you can hear children whistling and singing, and in the basement sometimes you hear a piano and you get the ghost of 'Solomon the Man Monkey' down there."

As we speak, I'm conscious of a liturgical-sounding chant intoning in the background, which turns out to be nothing more than a bingo caller downstairs. As Panopticon regulars in period dress wander about and the pianola gives out the odd clatter, we seem suspended in uncanny territory somewhere between a Harry Lauder chorus and a Peter Ackroyd novel.

Roper is a sceptic but he certainly appreciates the atmosphere. "Maybe it's because of what I do, but I can still feel them all sitting round about me here. I don't mean ghosts and all that crap," he laughs. "But I'd love to write a play that traced the whole history of this place."

However, an apparition of sorts, a short, dapper figure, has indeed materialised across the auditorium. Bower introduces me. The top-hatted gentleman turns out to be of the Panopticon's stalwarts, male impersonator Linda Wood, 61, who when not working as a civil servant treads the boards singing Burlington Bertie. She too claims that the establishment is haunted, and was involved when the theatre was visited some years ago by TV's Psychic Detectives.

Appearing at the Panopticon, she agrees, is like stepping back in time, clich or no clich: "But you're getting real Glasgow audiences applauding you. What more can you ask for?"

But no rivets? "They haven't thrown anything at me yet."

• See www.britanniapanopticon.org for further information. As well as the Gala Dinner at Oran Mor on 29 March, the Panopticon is hosting Glasgow Comedy Festival events on 21, 22, 28 and 29 March. Visit www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com

STAGES IN HISTORY

THE prints handed over by Tony Roper depict some of Glasgow's many historic theatres, most of them now vanished. Among those is Mumford's Geggie (1835-57) in the Saltmarket, the most famous of the "penny geggies" ("gegg" being an old Scots word for a show) which sprouted in the city in the 19th century. It later became a clothes shop and was demolished as part of slum clearance in 1902.

Then there was Hengler's Circus, established by Charles Hengler on the site of the former Prince's Theatre in West Nile Street, later moving to Wellington Street then, in 1904, to Sauchiehall Street. Hengler's was famous for equestrian acts, but such attractions were costly and competition from cinemas and other entertainments forced it to close in 1924.

The Prince of Wales opened in 1867 with a capacity of 3,000 to cater for the then densely populated Cowcaddens. Presenting mainly variety, melodrama and pantomime, it closed due to fire on two occasions. It was refurbished in 1881, reopening as the Grand Theatre, but by the end of the First World War had burned down again and became the New Grand Picture House.

Built in 1910 and designed by the notable Edwardian architect Sir John Burnet, the Alhambra hosted international artists in its variety programmes, as well as touring repertory companies. Scotland's first Royal Variety Show was held there in 1958, but the theatre closed in 1969 and was demolished by a property developer in 1971.