Francis Laidler - The King of Pantomime
(1867 - 1955)
'The Bradford Pantomimes'
The Bradford Alhambra has been the premier home of pantomime since Francis Laidler began plans to build it in 1912. It was an era when Music Hall was transforming into Variety, less earthy, less vulgar, and in need of Palaces of Pleasure that could accommodate the growing audience for this newer “Family” style entertainment. Laidler had already created a legacy of Pantomimes at his Prince’s Theatre in Bradford, producing shows there since 1902, and was now laying plans to create the finest showcase for Pantomime in the country.
was born in 1867, the son of a doctor in Thornby-on-tees. His connection with
Bradford began when he was employed as a clerk in the wool trade in the town,
and later became part of the management of “Hammonds Bradford Brewery
Company”. It was while he was managing the brewery interests that he started
to have connections with the world of theatre. Theatres had well stocked bars,
and Laidler decided to add to his prospects by going into partnership with
Walter Piper, who ran the Prince’s Theatre.
time the premier theatre in Bradford was the Theatre Royal, which was the number
one house. The Prince’s in Little Horton Lane had re-opened in 1879. The
partnership meant that while Piper looked after the productions, Laidler
attended to the finance and, naturally the bars. Having begun the partnership in
1902, just six months later Walter Piper died, leaving Laidler in charge. By
1903 he had left the brewery, and had become full time manager of the Prince’s
Riding Hood” in 1902/03 had proved to be highly successful, and Laidler
realised that if he could provide a popular pantomime every season, the profits
would buffer the losses that the Prince’s Theatre might suffer. During the
year Laidler decided to increase the range of productions, and in competition
with the Theatre Royal brought in number one productions. He presented Mrs.
Patrick Cambell, tours of “Ben Hur”, “The Hope” and “The Whip”.
Melodrama proved to be a popular choice for the theatre, but Laidler also saw
that variety could be even more profitable.
He took out a lease on the Theatre Royal, Leeds. He was to present his
pantomimes here, in addition to the Prince’s Bradford. At this point he was in
control of two theatres, thinking of building a third, and had his eye on a
Variety house in Keighley.
was that in 1912 Laidler decided to purchase an area of wasteland, near to the
Empire Music Hall, where he would build a new Palace of Varieties. It backed
onto the Palace Theatre (1875-1938) near to the Theatre Royal (built in 1864,
where Sir Henry Irving made his last appearance on October 13th, 1905
before he died the next morning).
took his lease out on his new theatre site at a time when Variety was becoming
respectable. In 1912 the first Royal Command Variety performance had taken
place, and he felt the public deserved a grand and sumptuous venue. In 1913 While
plans went ahead for the building, Laidler took the lease on another theatre,
the Hippodrome Keighley, where he would present pantomimes in addition to the
The Alhambra means “The Red Castle”, from the Arabic “Kal’-at al hambra”, after the historic moorish palace in Spain. The plans for the new theatre were on a lavish scale. The seating capacity was originally 1,800, later to be reduced to 1,650. The audience would enter through a marble foyer, and enter an auditorium richly carpeted, with seats that were upholstered, and had the “Tip-up” device that allowed easy access. There were no pillars to spoil the view from the auditorium, which consisted of orchestra and pit stalls, dress circle and boxes, and a balcony on the second tier. The stage was equipped for large-scale productions, at 35’ wide. To add to the comfort, the building was heated by hot water, illuminated by electricity (supplemented by gaslight) and had electric extraction fans. The décor was in the style of Louis XVI, despite the Moorish name.
was not neglected either. All eleven dressing rooms had hot and cold water, and
conditions were palatial compared to many of the Victorian buildings of the
time. Laidler however did not extend his generosity to complimentary tickets for
his artistes. On each dressing room door was a printed sign.
“Please DO NOT ask the management for complimentary tickets for your friends. If your friends will not pay to see you, why should the public?”
During the building period, Laidler continued to present shows at both the Prince’s and the Hippodrome. He did not intend to present his pantomimes in the Alhambra when it opened, preferring to offer alternative entertainment in his second Bradford Venue. Pantomimes were not produced at the Alhambra until 1929.
Francis Laidler had married Annie Uthank, and they had four daughters. By the
time of the Opening ceremony for the Alhambra on March 18th, 1914,
Mrs. Annie Laidler was in ill health. As a result of this, Laidler chose a quiet
opening ceremony, performed by Mrs. Laidler and her daughter, Olive.In the
opening year Laidler engaged the services of Walter De Freece, later Sir Walter
to engage the artistes for the new Alhambra. De Freece was not only the top
agent of the time, but was the husband of Vesta Tilley, the famed male
Laidler had formed an amalgamation with Moss, the owners of the Moss Empire
circuit, and they remained booking agents for the Alhambra until 1959.
Annie Laidler died. Francis Laidler was 42 years old and a widower. That same
year while searching out new talent for his pantomimes he saw the 23-year-old
Gladys Cotterill in a pierrot show. Although she had only been in the theatre
for a few weeks professionally, the recently divorced Gladys Stanley was engaged
by Laidler to play second boy in “Aladdin” at his Leeds Theatre Royal.
Gladys was later to remark “Little did I think when I was saying my first few
lines on the stage of the Theatre Royal, that I would one day own that
following year Gladys played second boy in the same pantomime at the Prince’s
Bradford (1920/21) to be followed by the role of Prince Charming at the
Prince’s in 1921/22. It was at this point Gladys changed her name to the
slightly more exotic “Gwladys” Stanley, and was set to change her name once
again, as Laidler proposed to her that same year. The engagement however was not
announced for a further four years, when Gwladys, now established as one of the
top Principal Boys was appearing in “The Queen Of Hearts” at the Palace,
Pictures from Puss in Boots - Lyceum Theatre 1929/30 - Click to Enlarge
his time at Bradford Laidler had continued to live at the Great Northern Hotel,
where he maintained a suite (rooms 25-26). Gwladys preferred to be in the hub of
things, and after their wedding in London in 1926 he bought number 15, Park
Mansions in Knightsbridge, as the centre of his now increasing national business
interests, and as a setting for Gwladys to entertain. A striking figure in fur
coat and cloche hat, Gwladys was fond of displaying her pristine white gloves to
friends, remarking how they would never be worn in Bradford, where this heavily
industrial town would render them useless.
day began at 8am, generally in his office suite. He was now producing pantomimes
not only in Bradford and Leeds, but also in Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester,
Nottingham and Bristol, as well as in London’s West End. During his time he
discovered many stars of Pantomime- Gwladys Stanley, Mona Vivian (SEE
ARTICLE) in addition to Sydney Howard and Margery Manners. Several
of his star Principal Boys and Girls became the wives of top pantomime
producers. Nora Delaney became Mrs. Prince Littler, while Cora Goffin became
Mrs. Emile Littler. Roma Beaumont married Alfred Black the impresario.
established stars of Variety who Laidler employed on a regular basis were
legendary- Norman Evans, possibly the epitome of the panto Dame played many
seasons for Laidler. His “Over The Garden Wall” sketch fitted perfectly into
the roles he played in Pantomime. Frank Randle was the star of many of
Laidler’s productions- his earthy vulgarity making him a huge hit with
audiences, along with his catchphrase “Bahh! I’ve supped some Ale
Tonight!”. Sandy Powell, “Can you hear me Mother?” and Albert “In’t it
grand when yer Daft!” Modley were some of Laidler’s finest pantomime
comedians. Laidler founded “The
Sunbeams”, his troupes of juvenile dancers at the Alhambra, a tradition that
extends right up to today (SEE
“CHORUS” ARTICLE- Sunbeams).
Laidler pantomimes continued at the Prince’s Theatre until 1930. The first
Alhambra pantomime was Mother Goose, starring Norah Blaney and George Lacy in
1930/31. In 1931 Francis Laidler gave an article to the Pantomime Annual
explaining his Tale of Six Cities. Thereafter, with the exception of the 1933/34 season, all pantomimes
were at the Alhambra. Laidler continued to expand his productions around the
country, and presented pantomime at the London Coliseum during the blitz. His
first West End season again featured George Lacy, in one of Laidler’s
favourite subjects- “Mother Goose” 1932/33 at Daly’s Theatre. His
pantomime at the Royal Opera House (1938/39) featured Patricia Burke, Nelson
Keyes, George Jackley and Polly Ward, and was followed by “Aladdin” at the
Coliseum in 1940/41. It was during this time that, like the famous Windmill
Theatre, the show never stopped during the bombing. In fact Laidler frequently
spent the night backstage during the worst of the blitz, which was to damage his
scenic store in London. In 1941 he presented Jean Colin and Norman Evans in Jack
and the Beanstalk at the London Coliseum. The following year he presented Norman Evans in
"Mother Goose” at the Coliseum for the 1942/43 season.
Bradford Panto by Wilfred Pickles - Wednesday 21st January 1948
year of 1948 is usually associated with the Berlin Airlift, when America and
Britain beat the Communist blockade of West Berlin by flying in thousands of
tons of food, coal, medicine and clothing and other essentials.
broadcaster was Halifax-born Wilfred Pickles, whose travelling radio programme
for the BBC, Have a Go, regularly attracted a listening audience of 18 million
and upwards. The young woman was June Whitfield. He was Buttons and she was
Cinderella in Francis Laidler’s marvellous pantomime which bridged Christmas
1947 and the New Year. The panto was broadcast on the BBC Home Service on
January 21, 1948.
the Michael Parkinson of his day, was revolutionary because he refused to
disguise his distinctive Yorkshire accent. He fought successfully against
attempts within the BBC hierarchy to use the bland Received Pronunciation which
broadcasters were expected to use.
1948 Pickles read Shakespeare’s sonnets in his own voice on the radio. The
public loved it, and they loved him and his wife Mabel for taking Have a Go out
into villages, towns, and cities beyond London to "let the people meet the
people". Have a Go was first broadcast from Bingley on March 4, 1946. It
was a cheerful neighbourly sort of programme, a precursor of Down Your Way,
exactly suited to Wilfred Pickles’ personality. He made people laugh by asking
"Are y’ courtin?" His
fan mail was colossal, more than 1,000 letters a week. He employed three
secretaries to deal with it, and ordered signed photographs of himself 10,000 at
a time. He thrived on getting out and about.
were regular venues for his radio show. At 2.15pm on Christmas Day, 1947,
dressed up as Santa Claus and accompanied by June Whitfield and other members of
the Cinderella cast, he broadcast a special show for the Light Programme direct
from Bradford Children’s Hospital, Manningham.
pantomime stars in their stage costumes brought gasps of surprise and pleasure
from the children. But there was more, a link from the hospital to Walt Disney
in Hollywood, who persuaded Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse to send their Christmas
greetings to that hospital in Bradford.
was Wilfred Pickles all over. The loss of his son at the age of seven had the
effect of making him go out of his way to do something for children. Like
Freddie Trueman and Jimmy Savile, Wilfred Pickles was an unapologetic
Yorkshireman. Pride in his roots, however, did not make him small-minded or
career was multi-faceted. One newspaper described him as "a superb actor of
FINAL LAIDLER PANTOMIMES
Laidler was never to see the opening performance of his Alhambra season in 1954.
“Red Riding Hood” opened on December 27th, and he suffered a
heart attack during the morning. Despite his illness both the Alhambra and
"Babes In The Wood" at his Theatre Royal in Leeds went ahead on
schedule. Francis Laidler died ten days later on January 6th, 1955.
his funeral in London on 10th January, it was revealed that the
87-year-old impresario had left more than £50,000 in his will. The ownership of
his theatres passed directly to his widow, Gwladys, who along with Laidler’s
right hand man, Roland Hill continued to run the business as before. Gwladys
received the license to control and run her husband’s theatrical empire in
1955. By now she had received the MBE for her services in troop entertainment
during the war years. Mrs. Laidler now ran the Alhambra, Prince’s Theatre, the
Keighley Hippodrome and the Theatre Royal in Leeds.
presented the 1955/56 pantomime “Robin Hood” at the Alhambra, and “The
Sleeping Beauty” at Leeds the following year. However, by now the attraction
of variety was waning, and despite the financial success of the pantomimes, she
felt it was time to downsize her husband’s business interests. First to go was
the Keighley Hippodrome, which was eventually demolished in 1961. Gwladys then
announced she was to sell the Theatre Royal in Leeds. It was at the closing
night of the Leeds pantomime in March 1957 that she met her future husband,
Frank Woodhead, a businessman and company director. That year the Theatre Royal
closed its doors for the last time, and its site became a department store.
Christmas Gwladys presented “Puss in Boots” at the Alhambra, in addition to
one in Sheffield, where her new husband had his business headquarters. She had
already decided that she wanted to sell the rest of the Laidler Theatres, and
offered the Alhambra for sale to Bradford Corporation. She asked for a sum of £85,000
on conditions that the building remained a working theatre. This offer was
rejected. She put the Alhambra on to the open market in February 1958, but
failed to get any reasonable offers. Gwladys now wanted to relinquish herself
from producing, and in 1958 the first Non Laidler pantomime opened at the
theatre. A Company headed by Sam. H. Newsome produced the pantomime “Dick
Whittington” starring Ronnie Hilton. The Laidler influence was finally at an
as the Keighley Hippodrome was being demolished the Prince’s Theatre Bradford
was purchased by the council for demolition. Two years later in 1963 Gwladys was
again widowed, and decided to finish her association with the Alhambra. On
September 15th 1964 she put the company into liquidation. The
Alhambra was bought by Bradford City Council for £78,000, and was under the
managing directorship of Roland Hill.
left the country a very wealthy woman. She had properties in London, France and
in Monte Carlo. It was here that she died, aged 78 in 1974. After her cremation
in Marseilles it was revealed that she left the sum of £114,335.00. Laidler had
always been referred to as the “King of Pantomime”. Gwladys, crowned onstage
at the last night of the Leeds pantomime by Billy Whittaker in 1957, was a Queen
who died in exile. The Laidler years of pantomime in Bradford stretched from
1902 to 1958. Pantomimes at the Alhambra however continue to the present day,
LISTINGS FOR ALL BRADFORD PANTOMIMES AT THE PRINCE’S AND ALHAMBRA 1902 to present day
are grateful to the author Peter Holdsworth and his book “Domes of
Delight, the history of the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford” for the above
by Bradford Libraries & Information services, 1989.
0 907734 18 9
This page was last updated 27th July 2011