Fighting and winning: the struggle for the Hackney Empire

Taking on the Empire: How We Saved the Hackney Empire for Popular Theatre by Roland Muldoon, reviewed by Jane Shallice
August 2013

Taking on the Empire cover

If you have been to Hackney Mare Street in the last few years you'll have noticed a square in front of the Town Hall, a 1930s building, across the road from the old Ocean music venue and what's now the Hackney Picture House. But dominating the north side is the Hackney Empire, its name emblazoned as an assertion of its presence. Its huge brick lettering announcing itself. And it is a presence due only to the dedication and vision of Roland and Claire Muldoon and a determined collection of people who worked to re-establish the wonderful theatre built by Frank Matcham in 1901.  It was their work that saved it from being a decaying bingo hall, with little prospect at the time to ensure a future except that of the grasping hands of real estate sharks who would eventually have cleaned up.

But this is not just a book about a theatre in East London and the work of Roland and Claire. It is an example which all of us wherever we live could have replicated. In a period when local government was at the mercy of a rampant Tory government, determined to unleash monetarist policies, which would attack all areas of public expenditure. A building for the public, which had huge potential, if there was money. And a Labour council that was incapable of responding to such attacks as their party became wedded to the view that in fact there was no alternative, and they had nothing to present as an alternative cultural policy to that of central government. A time when enterprise and 'loadsofmoney' culture was unleashed and then lauded; and developers could be found to make money through their thin dreams of gentrification. This, taking place in a working class borough where social problems required not sermons but real investment, and ways of developing services which were creative in meeting the needs of residents with input from them.  In an area that needed a big, open door and popular theatre to reflect not just the different populations living there, but cultures and groups that had never had any inclusion in the theatres and venues of Britain. Where was the popular black theatre? Where was the venue that would host the increasingly popular standup and comedy nights? Where was the place which would cater for people wanting a great night out watching opera or a Shakespeare play?

Throughout the book we learn of the ones who were or became the enemy. Local councillors who wanted to incorporate the Empire in their orbit.  Whose dreams were of “cultural quarters” and other such identifications of sterile plans. Arts administrators who were suspicious of the whole operation and concerned that proposals for the refurbishing and the plans for the future were too grand and incapable of being met. Members of the board who were persuaded that the city money and the financiers could be the ones who would be able to maintain the financial tightrope for the Empire. That such people would have the vision and commitment to programme the essential diverse and dynamic shows needed to maintain the place.

But there were also aides and supporters suddenly galloping to the rescue – some of those who had ways of accessing money for arts projects, after the rejections from the Arts Council and others.  There were those rubbing shoulders with the royals, and old friends committing money to provide necessary safety nets and support from local boys and girls made good – Pinter, Sugar et al. And throughout, the stories of loyal friends and supporters who would turn out to help, and even at times to rescue.

And there was also Roland and Claire Muldoon. Committed socialists who never wavered from their identification with the different struggles of the day – the miners, opponents of the poll tax, supporters of anti racist campaigns, women's issues, and gay rights.  A couple who throughout their lives have worn their hearts on their sleeves. Anti Thatcher, anti New Labour and now anti Coalition (or more accurately anti Tories).  But we have all had to face the fact that our history is littered with struggles well fought, but in which we have often been defeated.  And yet we also know that the very fight itself has given confidence and experiences, has provided a terrain where many have been drawn in, won to our arguments and have become committed to the issues we have been advocating.

This whole story of the fight for the Hackney Empire and the way it developed will always be an example, in the teeth of an increasingly commercialized and market dominated culture, of much of the best in trying to make real a hope and a vision of a locally based people's theatre. For Roland and Claire did more than have dreams.  They succeeded for a period and have left a legacy of a splendid theatre in the heart of Hackney, but also and in many ways more importantly, have left an example of the way you can campaign for your vision of what ought to be.


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