Culture / Interview

Age of Empire

Roland Muldoon – the man who led the remarkable renaissance of the long neglected Hackney Empire

Roland Muldoon’s dress is that of the off duty creative: a black blazer, a blue plaid shirt, no tie. His eyes are sparkling, and his expression seems to hover constantly around a smile. Before we meet I confess I’m a bit terrified – partly because actors scare me, but mainly because the radical magazine Red Pepper interviewed this particular actor under the headline ‘Keep throwing stones’, in reference to his deepseated political convictions. Yet when we’re inside his Marylebone mansion flat and he’s plonked down onto the sofa, the impression I get of Roland Muldoon is less firebrand socialist, more a man who’s conquered theatre through determination, skill and a not inconsiderable shedding of tears.

Tears of frustration certainly – but mainly tears of helpless laughter at the various comedians he has helped to find an audience throughout his  years as a director and theatre manager. The names of the careers he helped build read like a Comedy Store line up: Jo Brand, Paul Merton and Harry Enfield are just three of his successes, while his most recent discovery is the hit Asian comic Paul Chowdhry. But it was in saving the beloved Hackney Empire theatre from ruin, and giving it an entirely new lease of life, that Roland Muldoon found his real claim to fame.

Roland was brought up in a working class household in Weybridge, Surrey where his father worked in an aircraft factory during the war. After leaving school at 15, he joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School as a technician. “I was a little bit too enthusiastic as an actor and less well trained than they were looking for,” he grins, “but it was a great break for me because I could learn theatre from watching rather than having the drama of getting your part right.”

While there he met his now wife, Claire, on a railway station. “A friend of mine said, ‘Oh, you’d really like to meet my friend Claire who is coming down from Yorkshire’ – and we’ve been together ever since.” Was it love at first sight? “Well, that sounds like Disney. We like to think it’s more Terence Rattigan. But yes,” he strokes his white beard thoughtfully. “Yes, I suppose it was.”

Like Roland, Claire is from a working class background and largely self-taught in the art of performance, paying for ballet lessons then hanging back so she could pick up some tap skills too. Together they moved to London and set up a satirical left-wing theatre group, CAST. In many ways, this was intended to redress the woeful lack of opportunities for working class actors at that time. As Roland points out, “even if you look at those old war movies, all they ever play is people like themselves”, and there was barely any chance of a factory worker’s son making it big in the West End.

There was another reason why Roland and Claire chose to go it alone rather than audition: sheer impatience. “It’s always a model of everything we’ve ever done,” he laughs. “It’s because I can’t wait to be discovered. I did one audition after the Old Vic, at the Cardiff Opera House, and it didn’t take long for me to think, this is not for me.”

When we meet he has just started work again on his Hackney Empire memoirs, having taken two months ‘off’ from writing them to write an entire novel instead. Naturally, he published it himself. The book is a dark detective story – a welcome relief, he says, from pursuing the truth. “When I was writing the memoirs I had to keep changing the perspective to accommodate different aspects. It was so difficult. In the end I just had to write the fiction as a break.”

Listening to the story of the Empire you can see why: Alan Sugar, Margaret Thatcher, a leaking roof and English Heritage all feature on a trajectory which stretches from the venue’s days as a neglected bingo hall in the 1980s right through to its rebirth in 2005.

Roland’s connection to the Empire began when CAST’s future appeared threatened by cuts to arts funding. “When Thatcher came in she didn’t like theatre groups like ours, and she tried to get rid of us,” Roland recalls. “We thought, either we stay together or we disband.” After a long meeting he and his colleagues decided that their best hope lay in securing a permanent venue of their own. Roland recounts how they “sent our administrator to find somewhere – a church hall or something like that.” A few days later he came back suggesting the Hackney Empire – a faded relic of the music hall era which had been served with a Grade II Listing from English Heritage. The rest is history, “a little bit of money – and a lot of derring do.”

In short, Roland says, “we bullshitted. We bullshitted the whole thing. We had the confidence and we knew what to do.” Having bought the whole theatre for £250,000 in 1986, the group spent the next 15 years restoring the building, while simultaneously pioneering a new breed of variety performances and providing a haven for cutting edge theatre. In 2001 they received news of a much needed Lottery grant to help complete the renovations – yet no sooner had the champagne been popped than they were dealt a blow. “We were just about to succeed when Labour changed the deal on the Lottery,” Roland remembers. The grant disappeared, “so we ran campaigns, and banged the drum, and then Alan Sugar rang out of the blue.” Having just sold Tottenham Hotspur, ‘Suralan’ wasn’t short of a few quid and, as a local Hackney boy himself, pledged £1 million to the theatre. With the boldness of a brass band (or a Welsh actor), Roland’s partner in the restoration project, Griff Rhys Jones, asked for 1.3.

“We couldn’t believe it when he said yes,” Roland says gleefully. “It blew the Arts Council’s mind.” Thus, yet again, the Hackney Empire was saved. After a year or two of construction hiccups, the Empire reopened – in the middle of a blizzard on a cold January day in 2005. “We played anyway. We opened with this Russian clown show, and everybody loved it, and afterwards the audience were playing in the snow.” Throughout his period as chief executive, which ended shortly after the reopening, Hackney Empire was Roland’s universe. “It was 20 years in the end. I’ve never been so consistent in my life,” he says.

Even now when Roland ventures back to Hackney there are people who will stop him to congratulate him on what he did. He’s done other things since: worked with other theatres, written a detective story and a memoir, and this month he’ll organise the most important entertainment industry showcase for new comedians – entitled New Act of the Year (NAYS) – for the 30th year in a row. Yet for all his subsequent achievements, the legacy of his time at the Empire goes far beyond the theatre.

For one thing, there’s the people. Hackney was the epicentre of the alternative comedy boom at the end of the 20th century. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders gave one of their first headline performances at Hackney. 20-odd years later Russell Brand followed suit.

Nowadays the mainstream stand-up scene is depressingly formulaic. By contrast, Roland’s approach has always been to put some meat on the funny bone. “New Variety we called it,” says Roland of his love of blending comedy with other forms of entertainment – a formula still practised by CAST. “It has a big appeal, because if you go out and watch a night of just stand up it can be wearing.” Featuring everything from ventriloquism to poetry, these shows bring a refreshing mix of talent to the boards. “Those endless shots of happy people get on my nerves,” he growls. “We have got into the trap of just comedy, but if you look at something like Live at the Apollo it would benefit greatly from having other acts.” Straight stand-up may be popular, but whether it is fertile ground for cultural diversity is another matter.

On this subject, Roland is unequivocal. “When it’s just Michael Macintyre in the Apollo we’ve had it really – and that’s where all the money’s going,” he laments. The swingeing cuts in the arts world – a chilling reprise of his 80s experience – terrify him. “When you think about it, we were always a rebel company – but that was why we were supported by the state. They knew the knock on effect of funding us was that it would give great invigoration to theatre, that the best material that goes into the West End has subsidised roots.”

Like many famous playwrights, directors and actors who were given time and space to learn their crafts in the subsidised backwaters, Roland is a product of this ‘acorns to oaks’ approach. He has also, having been on the receiving end of Thatcherism, seen the other side of the fence. “It’s no surprise in a way that theatre casts are becoming smaller and that stand-up comedy is replacing drama. Thatcher’s cuts were bad enough.” He shakes his head, and his smile leaves his face entirely. “This is very, very frightening.”

Roland Muldoon is a man with whom you could chat from dawn to midnight: about fixing the roof with Ralph Fiennes mid-Hamlet, about the rich culture that produced Shakespeare –“ It wasn’t an isolated thing, this one clever bloke. He came out of the right conditions” – even about arthropods in his hometown.

“I was so Weybridge-proud,” he laughs. “I’d find out something, like that our Catholic church was where they’d buried some French monarchy, or that the ants were bigger here than they were anywhere else, and I was fascinated. I just wanted to live in the best place in the world.”

These days his local fervour appears to have been transferred to Marylebone, where he’s lived since 1969. Even when life at the Empire was completely chaotic, this was one safe haven to which he and Claire could retreat. “Thank god we were in Marylebone,” he says, gazing appreciatively around his living room which, though we’re moments from the Marylebone Road, is surreally quiet. “We could always escape here. We were anonymous.”

It wasn’t always so peaceful though. “When we first arrived here, our whole theatre group moved in with us, and for years there was always seven or eight of us bouncing around.” Looking round now it’s difficult to believe: their flat is elegant but rather small for an entire theatre troupe. As Roland wryly remarks, “It was really weird having a satirical theatre group live here.” But while for a long time he had to “pretend I was a whole lot richer than I was” to keep the flat, his dissembling paid dividends in the end. “I always feel like I’m getting away with it,” he grins. “Even now, 43 years on.”

It was here, in this cosy W1 bolthole, that the acclaimed contralto Clara Ellie Butt first met Edward Elgar. It was here too that Diane Abbott started canvassing for votes. Now, with this left-wing actor /director and his wife still seeking new talent for the theatre and scouring venues looking for that creative spark, these two themes continue.

As ever, the show must go on.

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Jos Van Tyler

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