IT was the most sleazy, dodgy, dangerous and dirty theatre in the British Isles, infamous for its bawdy vaudeville on stage, and sex in the stalls between prostitutes and spectators.
And now it's back. But don't be too scared ... it's only the vaudeville that's making a return, not the sex and violence.
Almost a century after it last played host to one of its world-famous variety nights, the Britannia Panopticon is bringing vaudeville back to its long forgotten home in Scotland.
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The Britannia Panopticon - the world-famous Glasgow venue that gave Stan Laurel his big break - last played host to the stars of vaudeville in 1938.
The new show - which will feature some of the biggest vaudeville acts from the United States - harks back to the glory days of the theatre which began life in the 1850s as the Britannia Music Hall.
In the days when Glasgow was the second city of the British Empire, about 150 customers who could afford the admission price would cram into the small auditorium four times a day, sitting shoulder to shoulder on rough wooden benches.
Social historian Judith Bowers, the current director of the Britannia Panopticon project, said: “This was an audience that had for generations cut its teeth on the barbarous practice of public punishments and executions, which in Glasgow had been the only form of legitimate entertainment from the 1550s to the 1750s.
“Consequently the Glasgow audience evolved over the generations into a merciless mob who literally left no turn unstoned. In Britannia Music Hall the turns could find themselves pelted with shipyard rivets, nails, rancid turnips and horse manure, whilst urine might rain down on them from the balcony. However, if the turn appealed to the Britannia’s audience, they would be rewarded with thunderous applause and foot-stamping instead.”
In those early days the uncivilised audience could expect to be entertained by dancing, singing, and comic performances.
Bowers said: “The dancing girls were a particularly strong draw for the men who - ordinarily starved of the sight of female flesh - would whoop and whistle their appreciation at the sight of the stocking tops.
“This titillation meant that the ever resourceful prostitutes who inhabited the Trongate found themselves a brisk trade in the Britannia Music Hall where hundreds of fly buttons still survive as evidence of their booming business.”
Over the years some of the greatest acts of music hall history were to tread its boards - Marie Loftus, Dan Leno, George Leybourne, The Great Vance, Jenny Hill, Bessie Bellwood, Harry Champion, WF Frame, Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder and Stan Laurel.
In the first decade of the last century, soon after the Britannia was renamed the Panopticon, a 16-year-old named Arthur Stanley Jefferson approached the management and asked if he could perform on the stage.
When the boy was asked why, he apparently replied: “Because I’m funny”.
That was enough to secure him a slot and he went on to become one half of famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.
By the late 1930s more than 100 cinemas had opened in Glasgow and the Panopticon was closed.
It is now in the hands of a charitable trust and there are high hopes of a revival - starting with the Great American Vaudeville Show on August 5 and 6.
Bowers said: “To have a proper vaudeville show is superb because we haven’t had such a show since 1938. We’ve got a capacity of 120 and we’d really like to fill the place. Every penny we’ve got we spend on the charity ... so we’re desperately trying to raise money to upgrade the venue.”
If this show does signal a return of regular vaudeville shows to the famous Glasgow venue some elderly patrons will be pleased.
Bower added: “Our demographic is very wide, teenagers through to senior citizens. But we do have a few senior citizens who remember the way it was. We had a lady in the other night who is 93 and a man who is 92 and was thrown out as a boy for spitting - although he insisted it wasn’t him.”
Tickets to The Great American Vaudeville Show are available from britanniapanopticon.org.