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Stan Laurel and Other Stars of the Panopticon
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Cultural Studies, Theatre
Publication Date
24 September 2007
Birlinn Limited
Age Range
19th Century, 20th Century

Stan Laurel and Other Stars of the Panopticon

by Judith Bowers - Find out more about the author

A humorous and, at times, tragic journey through the life of the oldest surviving music hall in Britain (if not the world) which is famed for being the place where Stan Laurel made his debut in 1906. Originally known as the Britannia, this early music hall was the site for many famous early performances and debuts which included Harry Lauder, Charles Coburn, Dan Leno and Marie Loftus.

Britannia was host to early burlesque and risqué performers who pushed the boundaries of decency in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1896 early films were shown in the music hall and by 1897 had become a regular feature of the Britannia playbills. In 1906 the biggest change of all was to come when ‘A. E. Pickard Unlimited of London, Paris, Moscow and Bannockburn’ arrived as manager. He was a follower of the American showman P. T. Barnum, and with this influence in mind added to the bill of entertainments by creating a carnival, wax works and freak show in the attic space above the auditorium and a zoo in the basement of the building which included 42 animal cages, distorting mirrors, paintings by Hogarth and medieval etchings of Chinese torture. The building closed in 1938 and the auditorium sealed behind partitions; its last use was as a chicken farm during the Second World War.

Judith Bowers has worked for many years as an archaeologist, and later as a Glasgow historian. She created a children’s history series called Scary Scotland, broadcast on STV in 1998 as part of the children’s programme Skoosh, for which she wrote and presented seven episodes. She first discovered the building in 1997 and from that moment has made it her mission to bring Britannia Panopticon back to life.  In 1998 she assisted in the research and presentation of a documentary on Britannia Panopticon for the series Arteries. She is secretary of the Britannia Music Hall Trust.