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 15, 2013
5 min read

Taking on the Empire coverIf 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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram

Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope


6