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First Published 23 April 2008, Last Updated 30 January 2009

The late 70s and early 80s was a watershed time for women in power; Margaret Thatcher became the first female British Prime Minister and Verity Hudson was the first female president of the Society of London Theatre. High unemployment, escalating rates of inflation and fear about Arts Council funding cuts hit the theatre world hard, but not hard enough to stop ground-breaking changes. The Barbican Centre opened, becoming the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a site was found for the proposed Globe theatre, the Old Vic was refurbished and reopened by David Mirvish, and the public had somewhere to learn about the history of British theatre when the Theatre Museum opened in Covent Garden. The Society of West End Theatre Awards changed its name to the Laurence Olivier Awards.

Musicals impact on Theatreland

It was a time when money was spent on producing some of London Theatreland’s most iconic productions, and when Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber became household names. In the space of eight years, Evita (1978), Cats (1981), Song And Dance (1982), Starlight Express (1984) and The Phantom Of The Opera (1986) had all opened in the West End. But even away from Lloyd Webber, musicals were making a big impact. The London Palladium began its association with large scale musical productions, staging shows such as The King And I, Singin’ In The Rain and Barnum, though ending its pantomime tradition in 1987. Elsewhere in London, Blood Brothers, Me And My Girl, Tommy and Chess made waves, while at the Barbican the critics didn’t like a musical set during the French revolution named Les Misérables. There was also a little controversy surrounding the co-production between the RSC and Mackintosh as some people felt a commercial producer should not have been able to make money from a project partly funded by public money.

The great controversy of the decade, though, concerned the 1980 National Theatre production of Romans In Britain and its depiction of gay rape. Threats were made about funding cuts, protestors threw fireworks and flour at the actors and, when the police took no action, Mary Whitehouse filed a private prosecution against director Michael Bogdanov. Her law suit, though 18 months coming to fruition, collapsed after three days when the prosecution counsel refused to continue.

Births, Deaths and Events

While Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Anthony Hopkins and Patrick Stewart enhanced their burgeoning reputations, performers including Antony Sher, Kenneth Branagh, David Suchet, Julie Covington, Elaine Paige, Julia McKenzie, Harriet Walter, Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Rickman and Zoë Wanamaker were making names for themselves. Warren Mitchell stunned audiences with his portrayal of Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, Gambon and Sher combined as Lear and his Fool for the RSC, Hopkins joined with Dench for a memorable Antony And Cleopatra, and two generations of Redgrave – Vanessa and Natasha (Richardson) – appeared together in The Seagull.

Sadly the decade also marked more solemn watersheds. Samuel Beckett directed his last stage work, Happy Days starring Billie Whitelaw, in 1979, and theatrical greats Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave died. Kenneth Tynan, widely regarded as the greatest theatre critic to have sat in a West End auditorium, also passed away.

Related Snapshots of London Theatre
6 March 1978: Conti asks Whose Life Is It Anyway?
12 March 1980: Make And Break for 1970s TV names
26 Feb 1981: Best Little Whorehouse in London
18 March 1982: Bogdanov obscenity trial collapses
11 April 1983: Brothers spill first blood
20 March 1986: Kramer’s Normal Heart in London
9 April 1987: Hopkins and Dench play ancient lovers


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