Halloween is coming up and everyone is getting into the spooky spirit. As everyone knows, anything to do with death and the afterlife is right up my street so I was super excited to be invited on the Haunted Theatreland tour with Secret London Walking Tours and Every Hotels.
We began at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, which will shortly be putting on a run of Mr Foote's Other Leg. The Mr Foote in question is Samuel Foote, who was the actor manager of the Haymarket Theatre in the mid-18th century. It was Foote's ambition to earn the royal seal of approval for his theatre, as those with the word "Royal" in their name were allowed to showcase a much broader variety of productions, including the classics such as Shakespeare's works. No matter how much Foote begged his friend, the Duke of York, he could not get the accreditation that he so wanted. One day, the Duke wagered that Foote couldn't control his unruly horse and, never one to shy away from a challenge, the thespian gave it a go. Unfortunately, he wasn't quite prepared for how unruly his horse was and found himself flung off, breaking a leg in the process. Of course medicine wasn't quite as developed as it is now and, after suffering an infection, Foote had to have his leg amputated. Crippled with guilt, the Duke of York put in a good word with his brother, the King of England, and managed to finally award the Haymarket theatre with the status of "Theatre Royal". Some believe this is where the phrase "break a leg" comes from as Samuel Foote turned his misfortune into a way of fulfilling his dream.
There have been many ghostly sightings in the Haymarket, by actors as accomplished as Dame Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart, who have both seen a man walking backstage in Victorian costume before turning sharply and disappearing into a wall. A medium was once called in and, to everyone's surprise, began complaining in a deep, gruff voice about how the actors of today don't know what they are doing and it was much better in the old days. It is believed to be the spirit of actor and playwight John Buckstone, who spent much of his career at the Haymarket.
After our first taste of ghostly goings-on, we moved onto the Coliseum Theatre, with its revolving globe sitting high atop the theatre as an early way of drawing theatre-goers into the vicinity. The theatre was very popular with soldiers in the First World War so it comes as no surprise that a young man in WWI uniform is often spotted sitting in Row G.
Opposite stands the Duke of York's Theatre (I didn't ask if this was the Duke of York of leg-breaking repute) where the ghost is not a person, or an animal, but a jacket. Thora Hird was playing a role in which she was required to wear a second hand Edwardian jacket buttoned close under the chin. As the play went on, she found the collar getting tighter and tighter until she was forced to unbutton it. Strangely, her understudy found exactly the same issue. Intrigued by these events, the costumiers returned to the shop from which they bought it to ask about the jacket's history. As it turned out, it belonged to a woman who committed suicide in the Thames, causing her body to bloat and her clothes to tighten around her.
Just beyond the Duke of York's Theatre is a hidden and unassuming alleyway tucked between two old buildings. To my utter delight, Goodwins Court, as it is called, is revealed to be what I can only assume is the real Diagon Alley. There are Georgian storefronts perfectly preserved and it is still lit by the old gaslamps today.
Goodwins Court leads out near the Adelphi Theatre, where an actor was killed in his dressing room. Richard Archer Prince, known as Mad Archie, was angry at having lost his job and blamed actor William Terriss, stabbing him in the back and leaving him to die in the arms of his leading lady. Terriss's ghost was known to frequent the theatre, until a priest from the neighbouring church was called in to perform an exorcism. He was never seen at the theatre again, but in the 1950s, passengers on the platform at Covent Garden Station saw a mysterious man in grey and ghostly writing spelling "Terriss" appear on the wall behind him. In the late 19th century, when Terriss was killed, there was a bakery on the site of today's underground station, which he used to pop into for his bread and cake.
Moving on with our tour, we headed past the Lyceum Theatre where we learned that the ghost of Marie Tussauds, of waxwork museum fame, was seen sitting in the stalls with a severed head in her lap and, as an aside, where a lion once escaped from a nearby menagerie and went on a jaunt around the Strand.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane is the oldest theatre in London, having been in operation since 1811. This doesn't seem very long at all for the oldest theatre which is a result of so many theatres burning down. As they were lit by fire, and of course had a lot of wooden scenery and furniture, it didn't take much for a fire to take hold and ravage theatres. In fact, there have been no fewer than five theatres on the site of this one since 1662, all of them burning down. Unsurprisingly, this is also the most haunted theatre in London and has claim to another actor murder. Charles Macklin, the top actor of the early 18th century, lost his wig and flew into a rage. When fellow actor Thomas Allen threw a spare wig at him in despair, Macklin lost his patience and beat Allen with a stick. Unfortunately, his aim wasn't great and the stick ended up in Allen's eye socket, killing him. Could this be the identity of the Man in Grey? Or is it the spirit of the skeleton found in the theatre foundations? Either way, the Man in Grey is seen as a good luck omen as he tends to appear in the opening weeks of plays that go on to have long, successful runs. Less welcome is the phantom of Joey Grimaldi, the comedian who brought clown make up to the UK from Italy and appears, in full clown make up, behind the reflection of people looking in the mirror. A miserable man in life, he is known to kick actors while they're on stage. Then there's the strong scent of lavender which follows the spirit of character comedian Dan Leno, who had a bladder problem and covered up the smell with lavender oil.
Our penultimate stop on the tour was the Fortune Theatre, a relatively new playhouse which didn't have a ghost until about 10 years ago when an actor on stage for The Woman in Black saw a second, ghostly woman in black alongside the actress, who had noticed nothing untoward herself. As with the Haymarket, a medium was sent in, who experienced a sudden ringing in the ears. It turns out that a stagehand working in the theatre, who was run over and killed, happened to suffer from tinnitus. Today there is a basketball court opposite the theatre but it used to be a burial ground (I want to know what happened to the people interrred there) which is believed to be described in Dickens's Bleak House.
Finally, we ended our tour at the Royal Opera House where we discovered that Macbeth is seen as an unlucky word as a result of its enduring popularity. If a play was doing particularly badly, the theatre managers would follow it up with a run of Macbeth to boost ticket sales and, as such, it became seen as a sign that things were not going well.
After our tour, we headed back to the hotel where we were treated to some absolutely delicious burgers with fries and onion rings. Once we'd filled up, we were shown a couple of rooms in Every Hotel Picadilly. They're remarkably spacious for central London and, although they're right in between Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus, they're absolutely silent. The hotel is designed with the convenience of customers in mind so it has the fastest internet connection of any hotel in the world and it's completely free! This is especially handy since TV shows or films can be streamed from phone or mobile onto the smart TVs and the restaurant jukebox is controlled by the customers using a specially designed app. Although the Picadilly hotel is currently the only one in the world, there are plans for another 50 worldwide in the next 4 years. I'll definitely be booking a room next time I'm staying in London.
A huge thank you to both Every Hotels and Diane at Secret London Walking Tours for being so welcoming and hospitable, as well as Joe Blogs for hosting the event. It was a huge amount of fun and I learned so much!