Stage Ghosts and Haunted Theatres

Images above: Stage Ghosts and Haunted Theatres; Sarah Thorne, actor – manager at the Theatre Roayal, Margate, one of Nick’s ghosts

Tales both personal and sincere and apocryphal

There’s always something poignant about an empty theatre. They’re the nexus of such creative energy and high emotion, if ever there was a place where you might be inclined to feel the presence of past generations, a theatre would be it.

Nick Bromley, a West End Company Stage Manager since 1971, has just brought out a book full of tales of ghostly encounters in British and Irish theatres. Stage Ghosts and Haunted Theatres has at least two references to Chiswick.

Nick Bromley has not just dipped in to this subject and done a bit of research. He’s lived and breathed British theatre for fifty years and is intimately acquainted with many of the theatres and characters in this book.

He starts with the recollections of Harry Loman, at 91 the oldest stage doorman in the business, when Nick started work in 1971 at the Criterion theatre. Nick himself recalls the swish of a long white dress as a figure walked past his office, not seen by colleagues further along the corridor who the ‘lady in white’ must have walked past.

Not wanting to look a fool, he kept this information to himself until the day when one of the front of house staff was sitting in Harry Loman’s booth while he nipped to the loo. She started talking to a woman in a long white dress, who didn’t reply,

‘but continued to stare distainfully at her and she was just thinking ‘what a snob’ when Harry reappeared from the direction of the toilet. As he mounted the stairs she saw him literally walk right through the woman in white, completely oblivious to her presence. As he did so the woman just evaporated and vanished’.

Images above: Criterion theatre; Vaudeville theatre; Apollo Victoria

A chill in the Ladies’ loo

While actors may be a touch fanciful and given to embellishment for the sake of a good story, old timers like Harry and his lady friend were pretty down to earth.

‘They were rude and bloody-minded at times, survivors from a harder world, unsentimental about what seldom were ‘the good old days’. Harry, beneath the chirpy Kennington charm, could be as tough as they come… I once witnessed him throwing Rudolf Nureyev out of the stage door for daring to try to slip past him, ‘the prancin’ foreign git’. Even Ingrid Bergman was refused entry until I came to vouch for her’.

Stage Ghosts and Haunted Theatres is full of such characters. The Ladies loo by the upper circle of the Vaudeville is to be avoided; inhabited by ‘something horrible’ which has been known to disturb occupants. There’s a ‘presence’ in the lift at the Apollo Victoria, rumoured to be that of the caretaker who’d been stabbed to death in the base of the lift shaft. And should you feel something soft and slinky brush past your ankles at the Guilgud theatre it’s probably only Beerbohm, the long dead champion mouser who used to hang out in the dressing rooms of Maggie Smith, Penelope Keith and Michael Gambon.

Such tales are of course impossible to prove, or to disprove, but to worry about such things as veracity and provability is rather to miss the point. Nick’s book, full of tales well told and interesting illustrations of long dead luvvies both benign and malign, is the stuff of theatre lore and all part of the magic which makes a visit to the theatre so special.

Matinee idol murdered at the Adelphi

The two tales I noticed which reference Chiswick are of one long dead actor, William Terriss, ‘a matinee idol before the term was invented’ who was murdered at the Adelphi theatre; the other of Simon Reilly, the former manager of the Chiswick Playhouse theatre when it was still The Tabard theatre, and his colleague Krystina Kreculji. I know them both and would give character references in court if need be.

William Terriss was killed in 1897, in what has become one of the most infamous murders in stage history.

‘It was a murder which contained many of the elements of melodrama: a dashing, handsome hero, a beautiful woman, a demented villain and dire, predictive dreams’.

Since 1885 the Adelphi had become well known for its popular melodramas. William Terriss was top of the bill in plays such as Harbour Lights, The Union Jack and The Swordman’s Daughter. His leading lady was Jessie Milward, who always played the heroine in their productions.

‘He shuttled freely between his house in Bedford Park and Jessie’s flat in Princes Street in Mayfair’.

She began to have a recurring nightmare about him dying a violent death and then her anxiety was increased by the presence of a man who had started to haunt the stage door – ‘ a short, dark man with a squint’.

This villain was Richard Archer Prince, ‘an occasional actor and sometime supernumerary at the Adelphi and known throughout the lower levels of the theatre world as ‘Mad Archer’.

A failed actor with delusions of grandeur, ‘on the afternoon of December 16, four rejections tipped Prince over the edge’. To cap it all, ‘a prostitute working the circle promenade of the Empire Leicester Square, told him to his face that she ‘would rather see me dead in the gutter than give me a farthing’.’

Long story short, Prince stabbed Terriss to death at the back door to the theatre and his last words as he died in Jessie’s arms were exactly as she’d foreseen in her dream.

Nick Bromley reports that that Terriss’ death shocked the Victorian world:

‘Fifty thousand people lined the route as his coffin was borne from Bedford Park to Brompton Cemetery and ten thousand more crushed around his graveside’.

The ghost of William Terriss, wearing a frock coat and top hat, has been seen backstage on several occasions, according to Nick.

Images above: Tabard theatre; Simon Reilly (right) with colleague Sandra, David and Kevin McNally and Phyllis Logan

The tale in the Tabard theatre is much more prosaic. A bit of a let down frankly, after such a story of high passion. The Tabard’s ghost is benign and helpful. Their ghost mended some scenery overnight during a production of the Mikado in 2013.

As the theatres reopen and production staff get ready to meet their audiences, this is a great book to dip into so you know not only who you expect to see on stage on your visit, but who you don’t.

Reviews of Stage Ghosts and Haunted Theatres

Simon Callow: “This is the theatre as it really is. It may come as a bit of a surprise.”

Gyles Brandreth: “Absorbing, intriguing, spooktacular – this is my kind of theatre book, rich in history, great names, wonderful stories and stuff I never knew before.”

Stage Ghosts and Haunted Theatres by Nick Bromley is available from Nick’s website, priced £8.00.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Simon Reilly, manager of the Tabard theatre, 2008 – 2019

See also: Chiswick Playhouse raises funds with ‘buy a seat’ campaign

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