Savoy tales

Savoy Hotel, London

Savoy Hotel, London

My 1960s grammar-school education was enlivened by the headmaster’s obsession with the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan, which provided our only experience of practical drama.  Shakespeare was for classroom study;  any play written after 1900 was to be seen in the professional theatre.

I didn’t understand for years why the G&S canon is referred to as the “Savoy operas”.

The reason, of course, is that the promoter of these odd survivals of Victorian show-business was Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), who used the capital he accumulated from the first collaborations of William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) to build a brand-new theatre on the land between the Strand and the Thames Embankment, ground which had been the site of the medieval Savoy Palace, of which the chapel still survives.

He named his new venue the Savoy Theatre.  When it opened in 1881 it was the first building in the world to be entirely lit by electricity, though limited generating capacity meant that the stage itself was lit by gas for the first couple of months.

D’Oyly Carte’s other theatrical innovations included free programmes, queues, numbered tickets and tea at the interval.

The Savoy Theatre was built on the profits of Trial by Jury, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and Patience, which transferred from the Opera Comique to open the Savoy Theatre.  Gilbert & Sullivan’s first work for the new theatre was Iolanthe.

It seems that the profits of The Mikado provided the capital for D’Oyly Carte to build the Savoy Hotel (1889), which boasted no less than 67 bathrooms, “ascending rooms” between each floor and “speaking tubes” communicating between floors.

When the hotel was enlarged in 1903 its main entrance transferred to the Strand, and the theatre-foyer was moved to the hotel courtyard, so that the audience enters at a level higher than the top of the proscenium arch, descending to their seats by stairs and corridors which are partly beneath the roadway of Savoy Court, the only roadway in Britain where vehicles drive on the right.

Rupert D’Oyly Carte, Richard’s son, had the entire theatre remodelled in 1929 in an uncompromisingly modern manner by Frank A Tugwell and Basil Ionides – a splendid confection of silver and gold, autumnal fabrics and concealed lighting.

This was the venue for the 1941 première of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

During a renovation in 1990 a fire destroyed the entire auditorium.  The terms of the theatre’s insurance required that Tugwell and Ionides’ design should be meticulously reinstated, and so it reopened in 1993.  The architect, Sir William Whitfield, added a further storey, so that now the 56-ft stage-tower is surmounted by plant rooms and a leisure-centre with a swimming pool.

The hotel was closed in 2007 for a comprehensive renovation that took until 2010.

The stories and the personalities attached to the theatre and the hotel are endless.  My own favourite is of the actor, Richard Harris (1930-2002), a long-time resident, who was carried out of the hotel foyer on a stretcher on his way to his hospital death-bed, shouting to passers-by, “It was the food!”

There is a comprehensive history of the theatre in Kevin Chapple et al, Reflected Light:  the story of the Savoy Theatre (Dewynters 1993).

To see what’s on at the Savoy Theatre, go to  The Savoy Hotel website is


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