A special 25th Anniversary edition of the blog by our CEO Sir Alistair Spalding CBE
October 6, 2023
Marking 25 years of our ‘new theatre’ on this historic Angel site
Artistic Director and CEO Sir Alistair Spalding CBE pauses from his work preparing the programme for the big opening of our fourth venue, next year with a reflection on the opening of the ‘new’ Sadler’s Wells in 1998.
This month we marking the 25th birthday celebration for this much loved building which was opened on Saturday 10 October 1998 with a community day that started with Morris dancing at the Lilian Baylis tree over the road in Spa Green Gardens, included a lot of wine and cake in the foyer, a performance by Darcey Bussell and colleagues from the Royal Ballet, then singers from ENO, and ended with special Rambert performance. 200 Islington residents won a competition to attend the opening night, alongside Tony Blair, Richard E Grant, Lord Hollick, Ted Heath and construction workers in hard hats. I bet they had fun.
The official first night was Tuesday 13th October, and a few weeks later when the dust had settled – and I mean that literally! – Prince Charles came and gave the sixth Sadler’s Wells Theatre on this site the Royal seal of approval. We recently brought together some of the talented and brave team who made it happen all those years ago – including Roger Spence the project manager, Nadia Stern, theatre manager; Nigel Hindes, programming director; Paul Richardson, technical director; Emma Wilson, technical director; Martin Hunt, chief electrician; Roy Luxford, programming manager; Carole Britten and Ivan Wadeson, marketing directors, Marguerite Bullard, senior house manager and Chris Harmer, front of house cashier (both still work with us at the front of house!). We also welcomed Christopher Bruce, artistic director of Rambert during our opening. Their work set us up for an amazing period of renewed creativity.
Guests at reception for the 25th Anniversary of Sadler’s Wells’1998 building saw some of the original building team back together. Pictured (right) our own Marguerite Bullard, senior house manager, who has served Sadler’s Wells before, during and after the building transition, and now for over 25 years. Along with Larry Harrison she is our longest serving member of staff.
What a 25 years it’s been. Although there has been a theatre and merry-making on this site since the 18th century when my illustrious predecessor Dick Sadler started charging customers at his famous well, by the 1990s the 30s building which was then here was beloved but very inadequate. And getting seriously dilapidated. In fact, the ceiling fell on audiences AND the dancers – and quite simply the show could not go on much longer.
The National Lottery was a game changer for the arts
With the advent of the National Lottery under John Major there was suddenly new hope of capital funding for cultural institutions to renew the country’s creaking and leaking theatres galleries and museums. And indeed, to build new ones. Ian Albery the director here seized the moment and led a massive fund-raising effort and campaign for this new state of the art theatre. There was an auction at Grand Closure Gala of the old venue on June 23rd 1996, included Margot Fonteyn’s Dior mink hat, David Hockney lithographs and a John Piper landscape donated by Kenneth Clarke’s family. We also sold limited edition paperweights each containing blocks of the old stage!
Teamwork and leadership showed the way
Ian Albery rightly saw that lottery funding could be transformative, and against some tough odds, he and his team delivered. As well as the critical lottery grant, funds were raised by audiences, artists, donors, patrons, figures in public life like our eminent Canonbury neighbour Cherie Booth QC; the then MP and cultural secretary Chris Smith; Valerie, Lady Solti; foundations and corporations- showing then, as now, the high esteem and affection Sadlers Wells holds in the hearts of theatregoers and the general public in Britain and abroad.
There was press scepticism about using public lottery donations for these projects. But let us proudly say now – after something like 9000 performances, 7 million tickets sold, and 10 million glasses of booze served, as on investment in civic life, this was one grant that really has paid back. I’ll drink to that! It’s paid back that investment in terms of creating public value and supporting the dance sector to flourish in ways Lilian Baylis would be proud of. And it has provided a space, that even after 25 years hard use, our audiences and artists love to visit.The vision of our 1930s founder, Lilian Baylis, was reimagined the ‘new’ centre of excellence has become an even more key part in our national cultural life.
A new era dawns at East Bank in Stratford in 2024
We are a truly blessed organisation. History is repeating itself now in Stratford where we are putting the finishing touches to our 4th auditorium, Sadlers Wells East. It’s part of the London Mayor and government pledge to drive the Olympic legacy creating an amazing new cultural quarter East Bank alongside the new V&A, BBC Music Studios, London College of Fashion and UCL in Stratford.
Once more putting public money to invest in the arts is a spur to job creation, generating community cohesion, boosting the local economy, and of course creating unforgettable artistic experiences for future audiences. That’s the vision now and it was similar back in 1998.
Celebrating Sadler’s Wells as THE place for dance
I have served here 20 years as Artistic Director and worked alongside Britannia Morton for 13 of them. Making Sadler’s Wells THE place for dance in the UK was my overriding goal, and in this beautiful theatre, every week of every year, we do just that.
We stand on the shoulders of giants: Lilian Baylis, Ian Albery and Roger Spence and his colleagues. On behalf of all at Sadlers Wells, our staff and board, the artists and audiences- we thank that pioneering team for their hard work getting the funding, showing the commitment and realising – through many challenges- the vision of this splendid building.
One thing has changed.
These days not so many people call us by the old name – there’s been a generational shift to call the theatre ‘Sadlers’. But if you care to, ladies and gentlemen, join me, and let’s raise a glass to old friends, some friendly ghosts, the pioneering spirit of this place, and to the next 25 years. Let’s toast – ‘The Wells’!
Sir Alistair Spalding CBE, October 2023