Theatreland Tour with Ian McKellen
Stop now, and look right, across Charing Cross Road.
Do you see the Garrick Theatre? The white building with Garrick in large letters along the top.
It’s named after the actor David Garrick.
When Garrick was around in the 18th century, acting was considered a low profession- beneath the dignity of a true gentleman. And Garrick started the process of raising its profile. When he died, he was the first actor to be buried in Westminster Abbey.
Now, turn around. Who do you see? Do you see the tall bronze statue? Take a step closer to it.
We’ve heard a few times about Henry Irving today, how his theatre sets and with them his savings were lost to fire, how his business manager Bram Stoker used him as his model for Dracula, and how his friend William Terriss was murdered outside the Adelphi Theatre.
What I’ve not told you is that Henry Irving considered it his life’s work to make acting a respectable profession.
Here’s a story.
After a wildly successful first night of a play in the West End, Henry Irving’s wife asked him a question typical of Victorian attitudes towards actors:
[Irving's wife:] “Are you going to make a fool of yourself like this all your life?”
He didn’t reply
[Irving]: “Driver, stop the cab.”
But he got out of the cab that was taking them home and he never saw his wife again.
And throughout his life, Irving campaigned tirelessly on behalf of actors, some of whom paid for this statue. And he took every opportunity to bemoan the low status of performers.
So when he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Victoria in 1895, on the very same day that Oscar Wilde was taken to Bow Street Magistrates Court, Henry Irving became the first actor to receive the accolade, his life’s work was complete: West End theatre was respectable at last!
Now, turn to your right and head up Irving Street. It leads back to Leicester Square and the TKTS ticket booth, where we started.