The Auditorian (photograph by Gill Allen)   

Wilton’s Auditorium (photograph by Gill Allen)

If you know where to look in London, you can find some astonishing places. Winding through the backstreets of the East End you may come across a faded building, its front scuffed and peeling, more reminiscent of a Venetian side-street than a London alley.

It’s humility hides the fact that this door is a portal into Victorian London. Wilton’s Music Hall is the oldest surviving music hall in the world and to step through the door is to immerse yourself in Victorian entertainment culture. Opened in 1859, it held a crowd of 1500 at its busiest, and featured music hall stars of the day such as Champagne Charlie. The auditorium is now faded, with its scuffed walls and balcony suggesting a grander past. But in many ways this is a far more vivid representation of what it once was than if it were superficially gilded and restored.

The current show playing there, Wink the Other Eye (until 16th August 2008), is a great introduction into music hall culture. Hosted by the ebullient John Wilton himself, you are led through an evening’s entertainment that features songs, comedy and drama in the old music hall style. Played out by the stars of the day, such as Dan Leno and George Formby, Sr., it is essentially a night out at the music hall combined with a strong sense of history. Taking you through the decade in one evening, it demonstrates how the music hall was affected by emerging technologies (electricity), new trends (moving pictures) and world events (The Great War). Not forgetting a reference to a young Charlie Chaplin, the show is highly recommend it if you can catch it in time.

A true study of the cinema is to look closely at other traditions, histories and cultures. The music hall was central to the development of areas such as the star system and film comedy, and filmgoing culture came out of the tradition of visiting the music hall. If you want to get a far deeper understanding of film, investigate other avenues. Graces Alley, London, is a perfect place to start.

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