AI PROFILE Bringing the palace back to the people
Louise Stewart, chief executive of alexandra park and palace Charitable Trust
Gracie Fields - Our Gracie, the Nation’s Sweetheart - is credited with coming up with “Ally Pally” (her husband had a lease on the venue for a while) and in a couple of words took Alexandra Palace off the aloof pedestal of its royal title and gave it to the people.
“The phrase ‘People’s Palace’ was a legacy of the 1851 Great Exhibition, but it has become that and now we have to live up to it” says Louise Stewart, who on October 15 marks her first year as chief executive. “Everybody who comes here says ‘What a great opportunity – but why has it never been realised?’”
Work has now started on that realisation under her leadership, beginning with a £26.7m restoration of its magnificent theatre, which has slumbered for 80 years mostly as a BBC props store, and the transformation of the old BBC studios, where television first went on air, into a high tech museum of TV broadcasting.
race track, and with a magnificent cathedral of a building on seven acres at its centre built around the Great Hall, matching the Crystal Palace to the south and the new Royal Albert Hall to the west. Sixteen days later, after 124,000 people had visited it, it was burned down - and hastily rebuilt, reopening on May 1, 1875.
Its finances were precarious and in 1900 its owners tried to sell it for redevelopment, but a consortium of “public spirited men in the district” started a campaign that brought Hornsey District Council into the picture and the park and palace was assigned to a new charitable trust with the local authority as the trustee under an Act of Parliament that required the pal- ace and park to be “available for the free use and recreation of the public forever”.
Ally Pally’s heyday was in the 1920s and 30s, and in 1936 the BBC took over part of the east wing to start television broadcasting; its aerial is The palace, says Stewart, has had a chequered history. It was opened on May 24 in 1873, Queen Victoria’s birthday, by Princess Alexandra, later Edward VII’s queen, as a great out- door leisure centre on 196 acres of parkland, complete with lido, zoo and
still there and operative, its studios A and B intact and ready to be converted to tell their story. In 1980 another fire destroyed the Great Hall, the Banqueting Suite and the theatre’s dressing rooms, and some restoration allowed it to reopen in 1988. In 2007 a commercial plan to develop the building into a mixed leisure complex, including a hotel, was challenged by local protest groups and blocked in the High Court.
Louise Stewart has come from the tourism and leisure industry. She started as a 13-year-old waiting on tables as a Saturday job in a café at home in Pudsey, Yorkshire. After adventure explorations in South America on either side of her degree she became a tourism officer in Hampshire and moved up through the industry via
Yorkshire and Tyneside, working on projects such as Stage Gateshead, the Alnwick Garden and Hadrian’s Wall, and eventually, in 2010, deputy CEO of VisitEngland where she steered a £55m programme of regeneration and strategy. “But this is like all the jobs I’ve ever done rolled into one” Stewart says. “I had become more and more involved in policy and strategy, quite remote from where the work is delivered, and I wanted to be closer to a community, closer to delivery where you could see the impact of your changes”.
Since the recession, she says, lei- sure and tourism has come into its own with a public that no longer sees its off-time as luxury; people are seeking value for what happens in their leisure hours, and those activities are not the first thing to go when belts have to be tightened. And so, 143 years after it opened, Ally Pally’s time has come, she thinks.
“The place has struggled” she says. “There have been great developments but they’ve been ad hoc and they haven’t had the sense of vision the Victorians had.
“We need to really understand what we’re trying to create here, not simply the whims and fancies of individuals. There’s been too much pressure from different elements of the public to create things here and we need to have our own coherent vision – but how do you know which ideas are good, not just financially viable, and which are going to deliver the right things?”
The East Wing project that is now under way will see the Victorian theatre, with its 19th century stage machinery still in working order, being returned to become a multi-purpose venue with the latest sound, light and air conditioning technology hid- den, as well as facilities for televising, in its 1870s plush – the rake will have to go so that the space can be switched easily from, say, Les Mis to Strictly Come Dancing. Stewart expects to welcome drama, cinema, musicals, comedy, live music and floor events after it opens in 2018.
The magnificent glazed East Court, which is a kind of annexe to the skating rink now, will become again the Grand Hall it was meant to be for public events and exhibitions. The BBC is working with Stewart’s team to create the television muse- um, and part of the plan is an education and outreach programme that will make the local links Stewart sees as essential to Ally Pally’s future.
But the East Wing is only the start. In April Stewart will publish the vision - developed from the Terry Farrell masterplan commissioned by her predecessor Duncan Wilson, now CEO of Historic England – that she and her team are working on now. There’s no time limit, no price tag, but it is at least a 25-year programme to reclaim the building, of which 40% is currently derelict, and the park, with six “big ideas”, the first of which is the East Wing.
“We’re reviewing the rest” she says. “Some are fairly fundamental, like a sense of arrival. We have been really successful as an events venue, but we also need to be a visitor at- traction and sometimes that has played second fiddle. We need better customer service, information, we don’t tell our story at all.”
There’s a perception, for instance, that Ally Pally is a long way from anywhere. “That’s London” she says as she points out of her picture win-
dow south over the sprawling me- tropolis below the slope of the park. “There are lots of attractions in Lon- don that would kill for our location, a few miles from the centre of what is the international destination, and there’s a bus from the Tube station to our door every six minutes. We’ve got great connectivity and people forget that.”
Stewart does not rule out incorpo- rating a hotel, as in the shelved com- mercial proposal of nine years ago, if it fits the business plan she and her team are devising. Nothing is ruled out, as long as the wants and needs of a lei- sure-seeking public are served. “There comes a moment in history” she says “and I think we’re there again”.
1972 Born, November, Pudsey, Yorkshire
1976 Greenside Primary and Crawshaw Secondary Schools
1991 Expedition to Peruvian rainforest, Yorkshire Schools Explorers Society
1992-6 University of Gloucestershire
1996 Expedition leader, Andes Mountains, Bolivia
1997 Tourism and culture officer, Test Valley Borough Council, Hampshire
2002 Tourism manager, Yorkshire Forward regional development agency
2004 Head of tourism and culture, One North East regional development agency
2010 Deputy chief executive, VisitEngland, National Tourist Board
2015 Chief executive, Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust