Another chance to see… Sunday Night at the London Palladium 

16 September 2021


ATV, 1955-1967, 1973-1974

It looks so tame now, even positively awful in places, but ask anyone over fifty-five about their early TV memories and the chances are that this will get a mention near the top of the list, and that they will also be able to hum the signature tune can be taken as a given.

Sitting just around the corner from Oxford Circus in Argyll Street, the London Palladium had seen some difficult times since it was opened in 1910. It was built on the site of Hengler’s Circus, a music hall theatre and designed by theatrical architect Frank Matcham. Unfortunately the seats were rarely filled, music hall stars were dishing out the same material that Londoners had seen over and over again, audiences couldn’t justify paying higher prices to see standard quality acts just because they were playing in a higher quality theatre.

After a few changes in ownership, the Palladium found itself part of the General Theatre Corporation, which in 1932 merged with Moss Empire with George Black in charge, now managing fifty-three theatres across the UK. Responsible for booking all of the artists playing at the company’s theatres was a young man by the name of Val Parnell, who took over as managing director of the company when George Black died in 1945. Parnell took the brave step of paying attractive sums of money to bring the cream of the world’s talent to appear at the Palladium, being frequently criticised for favouring American performers, his defence being that “If British artists can do it, they will get the chance.”

Thus the Palladium became London’s Premiere Variety Theatre and a major pull for artists and performers from across the globe, especially America. Lew Grade was now on the team of booking agents bringing the likes of Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland and Bob Hope to the London Stage.

But in the early 1950s there was a new potential enemy for theatreland lurking on the horizon. Television sets were appearing in homes across the country, the popularity of the new medium having been given a kick-start by the BBC coverage of the Coronation in 1953 and there was now talk of a new independently funded commercial service. In 1954 an advertisement was placed in the national press by the Independent Television Authority, inviting applications from parties interested in running regional television stations in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Legend has it that Lew Grade saw the advert, immediately got on the phone to Val Parnell and said “Val, we’re going into television!” Their company became part of Associated Television (ATV) and was awarded the franchise for broadcasting in London at weekends. Grade and Parnell had the theatres and a string of ‘A’ list performers only too willing to play in them, and they now also had a plum TV contract. It was inevitable that it would all come together.



And so it did. At 8pm on Sunday 25 September 1955, just four days after the launch of ITV, Sunday Night At The London Palladium burst onto TV screens bringing top line acts into viewers’ living rooms direct from the West End. The BBC did have the odd variety show but they were irregular and largely along the lines of studio based light entertainment shows, mainly featuring performers who just happened to have a gap in their diaries at the time. ATV’s offering however had the pulling power of the Grade/Parnell booking agency, not just for the Palladium but also for the other prestige theatres in their chain. Artists were guaranteed a huge audience, by the late ‘fifties it was estimated that fourteen million households across the UK were tuned in.

The hour long show was divided into three sections, opening with a spectacular leggy dance routine from The Tiller Girls, followed by a couple of acts currently doing the theatre circuit, often these would be singers, jugglers, whatever. Part Two would be the mainstay of the show, the audience participation game ‘Beat The Clock’ (based on a US game show of the same name), involving married couples playing silly games which they had to complete within a set time limit for a chance to win a jackpot of up to £1,800.

But it was during part three where the show would fire on all four as the headline act would be introduced. Viewers were now being entertained in their living rooms by the likes of Guy Mitchell, Johnnie Ray, Bobby Darin, Mario Lanza, Adam Faith, Buddy Holly, Cliff Richard and The Shadows…

The grand finale under the closing titles involved all of that week’s acts waving goodbye from the Palladium’s famous revolving stage.

All of this was linked by the resident compere, the original host being Tommy Trinder, a top comic on the variety circuit. But it was Trinder’s replacement in 1958 with whom the show is most fondly associated as a young Bruce Forsyth virtually made it his own. Like Trinder before him he had the ability to ad-lib and fill in where necessary, essential in the live TV environment. He also became a natural in dealing with the members of the public taking part in ‘Beat The Clock’, a talent that would hold him in good stead in the ‘seventies with The Generation Game and Play Your Cards Right. His ability for handling the show was put to the test one Sunday in 1961 when an Equity strike found every artist refusing to appear in that week’s show. Not being an Equity member himself Forsyth was determined that the show should go on. He contacted Norman Wisdom and together they performed the entire show between them, having put it together at Bruce’s home the previous afternoon.

Forsyth left the show in 1962, replaced by the comparatively unknown Norman Vaughan who would compere the show until Jimmy Tarbuck took charge in 1965. By now The Palladium Show, as it had been re-titled, had lost much of its sparkle. It was just one of several variety shows on ITV and in 1967 the curtain came down for good. Well, almost. In 1973 it reappeared with Jim Dale hosting, closely followed by Ted Rogers, but the revival was short lived. Strangely, ten years later London Weekend Television scored a hit with pretty much the same formula (minus the game show section) with Live From Her Majesty’s, a show which hung around roughly the same Sunday night slot as its predecessor for the middle part of the ‘eighties. But after a couple more attempts at reviving the format during the early 2000s it was clear that variety really didn’t have a regular place on TV and it had now outstayed its welcome.

If any one show can be marked as synonymous with the early days of ITV then Sunday Night At The London Palladium is that show. It drew audiences like never before and kept its place as appointment TV with a population relaxing at home before starting another working week. It was customarily followed in the Sunday evening schedule by ABC Armchair Theatre, bringing the single play live into those same relaxed and appreciative living rooms.

In 1955 it wasn’t just the viewers who were being wowed. Attending the dress rehearsal for the first edition sixty five years ago today was a young Michael Grade, nephew of Lew Grade and future controller of LWT, BBC-1 and Channel Four. The bill for that first show included Gracie Fields and American singing star Guy Mitchell. He watched the proceedings in awe, turned to his Uncle Lew and asked “Is this really going to be on the television?”

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3 responses to this article

Simon Coward 16 September 2021 at 3:29 pm

I realise that this is the most ridiculous level of pedantry, but Sunday 25 September 1955 was just three days *after* the launch of ITV, not four.

On a less pedantic level, date-wise, I’m a little sceptical about some of the detail about the Norman Wisdom / Bruce Forsyth edition in 1961. While it may be that rehearsals were indeed very last-minute, the implication that Wisdom’s involvement was arranged almost equally late-on is clearly not the case, as he’s billed in that week’s TV Times.

The date itself was presumably no coincidence, it being about as close as possible to falling exactly two years after the pair of them had done a similar thing on a previous SNALP: 29 November 1959.

Arthur Vasey 18 September 2021 at 1:52 am

I remember the 1970s revival with Jim Dale as compère – something went wrong on at least two editions when the show was suddenly taken off the air without warning and it never came back – it was replaced, on the first occasion, by a show called “Sammy” – a vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr, and, on the second occasion, by an unnamed show (they just “joined” it, as if it was airing elsewhere and ITV “opted in” to it) featuring Rolf Harris!

Apparently, although it wasn’t reported at the time, there was a bomb scare on both occasions!

Geoff Nash 20 September 2021 at 10:56 am

Yes Simon Coward,you are correct about it being three days and not four, not pedantic at all, perhaps I should have stated it as ITV’s fourth evening.

I wasn’t aware of Norman Wisdom’s advance billing for that particular show but it makes sense, having been booked to appear he would have therefore been available.

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