Ally getting Pally

Ally Pally’s 140 years should never have happened. It probably shouldn’t have lasted more than a few days, given that it was burned down 16 days after it was opened but then rebuilt opening less than two years later, bigger and better. There have been several fires since, an attempt by the local authority to lease it off, vandalism and neglect, and it’s main claim to fame is that television started there 80 years ago.

 

 

It’s a sorry sight now, the great South Walk, once the tea room of all tea rooms, is empty and yesterday there were metal barriers along most of it. The park is host to the street food and craft beer festival this weekend, next month there’ll be a pop-up antiques fair and a YouTube gaming event, plenty of good little earners, but palatial?

 

Much, probably 40%, of Ally Pally – Gracie Fields’s name for it when her husband ran the theatre, more appropriate she felt than the pretentious “People’s Palace” the Victorians liked to call it – is derelict, even the BBC studios now, and their stories ignored, one whimsical idea after another having bitten the dust.

 

But that’s changing, and it's a result of the progressive impact the National Lottery has had on our approach to our history and its relevance with the Heritage Lottery Fund now being prepared to back a vision. Ally Pally has just launched a public appeal for £1m, a morsel of the £28m needed for its refurbishment plan for the East Wing; most of the rest is coming from the HLF (£18.6m), with all its faults the most enlightened as well as richest champion of our history, and Haringey Council (£6.8m). The Victorian theatre, once seating 3,000, will be the first to be done up, ready to bring up the curtain in the spring of 2018; the BBC studios will be turned into a museum of television and the grand old East Court, now a dowdy foyer for the skating rink, will be returned to its 1870s glory as an exhibition and reception space – “somewhere where people can just be here, which they really can’t now” says the new CEO Louise Stewart.

 

Like her predecessor Duncan Wilson, who brought Somerset House back to life then created Discover Greenwich and is now running Historic England, Stewart is a believer: she comes from the tourism sector where business plans rule and the phrase “value engineered out” – referring to good things in projects that can’t in the end fit the budget – is almost a cliché, but for her a properly arrived at vision is the starting point, and has to be the end. And she’s talking about a 25 year vision to allow Ally Pally to “do what it’s supposed to, what people want it to do”. The point is that the history has been ignored, when it is the one thing that everybody can connect with, and the Victorian vision of a place of recreation for all sections of society still prevails. Interpretation is the trick, connectivity the holy grail.

 

The East Wing is a third of the building on the seven acre site, and there’s 196 acres of parkland to be visionary about too which she says has to be thought out in a piece because it’s all part of the history. Think monumental sculpture, then think security, then do it. Stewart has many battles to fight still and to win, to bring the colour back to the face of our Ally Pally, but with allies like HLF she’s determined to do it.

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