British Burlesque History: A Peek at the Past inside The Britannia Panopticon

Contemporary burlesque has reached far and wide across the globe. Festivals and shows worldwide host thousands of performers every year, bringing glitter, glamour, weirdness, fun and humour to new stages and audiences around the world.
It’s easy to get swept up in the ever-changing world of neo-burlesque, but it’s also crucial to look back at our roots and our past, to remember the burlesque influences of yesteryear and the places that hosted these shows. Not many of them still exist, lost in the past as social changes forced their closure, and the old buildings fell prey to the developers and contractors who flattened these historical landmarks to make way for the requirements of modern living.
However, there are still some treasures out there and one of those is the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall. Nestled above an amusement arcade on Argyle Street in Glasgow, the Panopticon is the world’s oldest surviving music hall and is a veritable cornucopia of historical treasures from the variety years, plus perhaps even a ghost or two….

Vintage music hall song book (author's own collection).
Vintage music hall song book bought from the Panopticon Charity Shop several years ago (author’s own collection).

Opening its doors in the late 1850s, originally the ‘Britannia Music Hall’, the venue hosted multiple daily variety shows throughout the second half of the 19th century, providing much-needed entertainment and escapism for its working class audience. It was also one of only a few British music halls which used cinematography at that time.

Show poster from an event at the Britannia in the late 19th century.
Show poster from an event at the Britannia in the late 19th century.

In 1903, the Britannia was closed down, as it struggled to compete with more modern, purpose-built venues. However, it didn’t remain empty for long, reopening again three years later as the ‘Panopticon’ and became a museum, waxworks and played four daily shows featuring weird and wonderful entertainers, from strongmen to bearded ladies and more. The music hall element remained, as shows featuring stars such as Stan Laurel graced its stage in the early 20th century. In 1938, the doors to the Panopticon closed for the final time, plunging the venue and its history into a time-capsule of the forgotten, which would not see the light of day again until more than half a century later.

The Panopticon stood dormant and dusty until 1997, when Judith Bowers, who was living locally and often passed the building, persuaded the owners to let her in and got a peek at what lay forgotten on those upper floors. Since her discovery, the last two decades have seen a small but dedicated team, led by Judith, take on the enormous task of preserving and restoring this wonderful piece of history and making sure it retains its rightful place as a window to the past, as well as a working venue that attracts audiences in the modern day.
It has been a long, arduous slog for those involved. I first stepped inside the hall ten years ago and since then, so much work has been done. Most recently, the hall has seen the uncovering of the original stage and, at present, is working on a funding campaign to help the venue get a much-needed bar licence. The Britannia Panopticon now plays host to a series of brilliant, regular shows and fundraising events hosted on a regular basis.

The cast of a recent 'Variete' show at the Britannia Panopticon. Image copyright Mark Dunnigan Photography.
The cast of a recent ‘Variete’ show at the Britannia Panopticon. Image copyright Mark Dunnigan Photography.

Current programming includes Open Days, The Dragopticon Show, Silent Movie Nights, The Big Varieté, Music Hall Moments, Charleston classes and much more!

In fact, the Academy of Burlesque & Cabaret returns to our ‘Spiritual Scottish home’ on the 29th of July 2016 for our show ‘Shimmer & Shine’, featuring students from our classes past and present. Why not join us and experience a piece of the Panopticon magic for yourself?

To find out more about the Britannia Panopticon and upcoming events, visit their Official Website or follow them on their Facebook page.

If you are interested in supporting the Panopticon’s fundraising, you can find out more about their current campaign on their Go Fund Me page.

Thank you to Mark Dunnigan Photography for granting use of the image from ‘Variete’ featured in this blog.