This weekend thousands of people will enjoy the fireworks at Alexandra Palace. It’s an autumn highlight in the capital, combining two nights of pyrotechnics with a large-scale German Bierfest, circus, disco on ice, music, street food and more.
The north London landmark, dating from 1873, is a unique destination – a Grade II listed hilltop Victorian edifice covering seven acres, with exhibition halls, concert spaces, ice rink and the BBC studios which first broadcast public television in 1936, all set in 196 acres of parkland complete with boating lake, formal gardens and spectacular views across the city.
Ally Pally, or the “People’s Palace”, has not had an easy history: devastated by fire, once just 16 days after it opened and again in 1980, leaving some 40 per cent of it unusable even after repair work. It has since faced significant challenges maintaining its charitable status as “a place of public resort and recreation.”
But now, behind the impressive façade which forms the backdrop to the fireworks, the finishing touches are being made to the ambitious £27 million restoration of the Alexandra Palace theatre, an original Victorian auditorium closed to the public for the past 80 years but reopening next month as “London’s oldest new theatre”.
The complex project has taken two years to deliver, preserving as much of the original fabric and Victorian character of the unique space as possible while configuring it for modern, flexible uses. Finds during the restoration included shoes, Victorian sweet packets, menus detailing first, second and third class dining options – cold meat and bread for eightpence – 100 year old vials of tetanus serum, and even a discarded storyboard from a 2014 Schweppes ad featuring Penelope Cruz.
A major discovery was a collection of historic photographs documenting decades of Ally Pally history, now scanned and available on Google Arts and Culture.
The theatre has already hosted a BBC Proms Gilbert and Sullivan performance, and its opening programme from December includes Gilbert and George in conversation, a Ronnie Scott’s showcase, Gareth Malone with the Royal Philharmonic, a Horrible Histories Christmas show and a new production of Richard III.
The restoration, made possible with £18.8 million English Heritage funding and £6.8 million agreed by Haringey Council’s previous administration, is a significant milestone for the palace, and a positive shift away from sometimes controversial decision-making after Haringey took on corporate trusteeship of the Alexandra Park and Palace charitable trust in 1980.
Plans after the 1980 fire to lease the palace to Firoka group for development as a leisure complex with hotel, bars and a casino failed at the eleventh hour after a successful 2007 judicial review by local campaigners.
Longer-term plans for Ally Pally are still in train, but with the theatre restored and experienced management in place, the future is looking brighter for the People’s Palace. A book of photographs recording the restoration work will be published shortly, and donations to the trust can be made here.