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#177 Trocadero

April 13, 2011

If the Westfield Centre is a terrifying Kubrickian iPod factory, then the Trocadero is its dark counterpart: a post-apocalyptic early-90s cyberpunk nightmare. For better or worse – and boy, has it had enough of both – it’s a London landmark.

It seems like there’s a curse on the Trocadero that’s worse than our gypsy one. You’d think a huge site dedicated to entertainment, in the epicentre of the West End, would be popular, right? But as Londoners know, the venue is central London’s deadbeat junkie, lurching from one shambolic scheme to another in the desperate hope of another hit. Not just for decades, oh no. For centuries.

Here’s what’s existed on the site of the Trocadero, for real:

pre-1744 – Some unsuspecting cottages

1744 – Thomas Higginson’s Tennis Court
A tennis court is built. For a man called Thomas Higginson. This is the last recorded occurrence of the site not having at least one House of the Dead cabinet in it. By the 1820s, it’s already being used for circuses and exhibitions. Not classy ones, either.

1830 – The New Private Subscription Theatre
BAM! The Trocadero becomes a proper theatre. Well, sort of. The ‘subscription’ part meant that its plays weren’t officially ‘public’, which meant they could show anything they liked, instead of having to have a license. It doesn’t do particularly well.

1832 – The Royal Albion Theatre
Renamed, to try and give it a bit of class.

1833 –  The New Queen’s Theatre
Renamed again. Oh dear.

1834 – The Theatre of Arts/lots of other names
New names, same down-market fleapit. Won’t help.

1835 – Circus and Boxing Ring
Told you so. The theatre was closed when an actress was found to be performing there illegally. The interior is gutted – not for the last time – and the space dedicated to circus attractions, then turned into a boxing ring.

1836 – The Shaftesbury Avenue House of Generic Entertainment
is my name for what came after – a decade of tawdry entertainments in the empty rooms, like moving waxworks and even a rollercoaster called a centrifugal railway. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

1849 – The Argyll Subscription Rooms
Now the space gets back into its filthy stride. The buildings were renovated by a wine baron, and became one of London’s best-known places to pick Sir up a prostitute. To be fair, this was Victorian Soho. You couldn’t walk three feet without tripping over a prostitute. Possibly literally. The Argyll Subscription Rooms prostitutes were classier than most, though, and charged more for their time. Some of them could even afford shoes.

1878 – Raided by Police
Someone didn’t pay their hush money, and the Argyll Subscription Rooms were duly raided and shut down.

1882 – The Trocadero Palace of Varieties
Refusing to be beaten, the owners revamped the place at great expense, and turned it into a music hall.  They chose the name Trocadero as an echo of the trendy Palais du Trocadéro in Paris. This was classy. None of your muck. Hoorah! The fortunes of the Trocadero are finally turning around!

1883 – Nobody comes
Oh. 😦

1888 – The Royal Trocadero Music Hall
Under new ownership and a new name, the ailing music hall finally gets  a break, and thanks to stars like Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno, theatre-goers come flocking…

1889 – The Eden Theatre
…for a while, at least. Another name change, and the music hall limps along a while longer. By this time, Picadilly Circus has been built. So now the theatre faces the back of the London Pavilion Theatre, which can’t have helped.

1894 Closed down
In a shocking turn of events, the owners go – you guessed it – bankrupt. The music hall’s doors shut for good.

1896 – The Trocadero Restaurant
But the location is just too good to ignore. The famous tea-house company J Lyons and Co. invested over £100,000 to create the current building, fit to house their new titan-sized restaurant. As one of London’s first public restaurants, the Trocadero became a magnet for fine dining. If you’re interested, this family own the book that recorded every meal in gut-busting detail. Its patrons include Sarah Bernhardt, Cecil Rhodes and Jadis, Queen of Charn (in C S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, during said royalty’s tumultuous visit to Our World).

1902 – Entire block purchased
The Trocadero Restaurant expands to fill the whole row of buildings.

1920s – Cabaret
The restaurant is so popular that cabaret acts perform during meals. In the space where the old music hall used to be, in fact. Plus ça change.

1965 – Tiffany’s Restaurant and Dance Hall
But the restaurant couldn’t stay popular for ever. Eventually it was sold to Mecca Ltd, who made it a nightclubby, casino-y sort of place. Your mum went here. Ask her. She’s no better than she should be, that one.

1984 – The Trocadero Centre
The (once-again) lacklustre complex is recreated as a high-concept entertainment hub! The interior is gutted and a Guinness Book of World Records Exhibition moves in. Then moves back out again when nobody comes. The arcade machines begin to creep inexorably in. There’s no stopping them. This marks the last time anyone over 16 has ever been inside the Trocadero.

Sega, ever the masters of canny business decisions, decide to develop the site as an ‘urban theme park’. Where once Victorian whores plied their trade, a statue of Sonic the Hedgehog now stands proud. Pepsi Max sponsor an interior ride that drops you from the height of the building. Segaworld’s finest hour is the launch of its 3D virtual reality goggles. By artfully lagging a half-second behind your movements, they are instantly able to conjure motion sickness in the hardiest of stomachs.

1999 Post-apocalyptic wasteland Funland
Sega move out, having spunked all their cash on solid gold pyramids and unicorn research. The multifloor void is colonised from the basement up by the amusement arcade aptly called Funland, a name that effortlessly evokes sinister movie carnivals full of killer clowns. In place of Sega merchandise stalls, cheap clothing manufacturers and mobile phone unlockers creep in. It’s a third-world techno-wonderland that would give William Gibson a chubby.

The Trocadero is purchased by a go-getting team of entrepreneurs, who draw up plans to completely renovate the place!

Give them a chance. They’re warming up. Any minute now.

2012 – Trocadero Pod Hotel
Plans are unveiled to turn the Trocadero into a 500-room pod hotel! You know, for businessmen! With tiny rooms, but trendy and that! If we’ve learned anything here, it’s that as long as they gut the interior AND spend a fortune on refurbishment, nothing can go wrong.

But here’s the kicker to the Troc’s tragi-comic story – if you do dare venture inside right now, in 2011, you won’t find a ghostly space or a depressing wilderness. The Troc has once again embraced its tawdry heritage. It’s packed with teens and tourists. The arcade machines, once broken and battered, are now (for the most part) brand spanking new. The place stinks of sweets and sweat and cleaning products. It echoes with the hiss of pneumatics, the blare of Jap-pop themes, and the rattle of slot-machine wins. Someone, somewhere, is actually making a lot of money from the old girl.

And as always in the Trocadero – for the last 200 years at least – everyone is actually having fun.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2011 5:21 pm

    I like yer timeline!
    *Wonders whether i’ve been inside the Troc’ more than twice in my half century as a Londoner?*

  2. April 20, 2011 7:33 pm

    Thanks – great post, informative and funny. At least now I can blag about Le Troc without actually having to go. Though Westfield is on my list for this weekend…

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