The British Panopticon: Spotting the past

Published

Sean Greenhorn

When walking down the busy, noisy Trongate one voice will often boom above and over all others. The voice will be emanating from a man dressed in a large coat and a top hat, beckoning you to enter a building that is seemingly home to simply just an arcade and a sweet shop. Written large on the building are the words ‘BRITANNIA ARCADE’, and unless you are privy to Glasgow’s history you would be forgiven for taking this to be in reference solely to the house of slot machines blaring at street level. However, this is actually in reference to the Britannia Panopticon: the world’s oldest surviving music hall. The word ‘Panopticon’ meaning “to view everything”, derived from the Greek ‘Pan’- meaning “everything” and ‘Opti’-meaning “to see”.

It was given this name in 1906 by new owner A. E. Pickard as he built upon the work of previous owners to offer the poorer working class in the East End of Glasgow a place to go to forget their daily troubles and enjoy some entertainment. Pickard acquired the venue from a succession of owners stemming back to 1857, when it was converted from an old warehouse by architect Robert H. M. MacFarlane. Each owner brought a unique vision to the music hall and this freshness served to keep it alive, in 1896 it was graced with the appearance of the ‘Cinematograph’- billed as ‘the marvel of the nineteenth century’. Indeed, it ended up being larger, purpose built film houses such as the ‘Cosmo’ (now known as the GFT) or the ‘Salon’ (now Hillhead Bookclub) that went some way to finally extinguished the Panopticon’s once bright spark- or so it was thought. For the last fourteen years a small but dedicated group have formed a trust and have sought to rebuild the music hall, to maintain its cultural standing within Glasgow’s history.

In order to do this, they are reviving the very traditions that the hall was once famous for- a glance at their programme reveals performances of Broadway gems, fortune telling, magicians, bazaars and screenings of classic silent movies. Many of these movies featuring the talent of one Stan Laurel, whose very first performance was at the Britannia Panopticon before he left to make his mark on world cinema history. The phenomenological sense of vibrant history that one gets simply by ascending the narrow staircase to the hall allows complete immersion and wonder at these shows and the history of the place. The replication of time and place goes as far as the heating, and during the winter months the Panopticon must unfortunately close due simply to being far too cold! As an important part of not only Glasgow’s cultural heritage but also as a testament to the evolution of modern entertainment it must be experienced, whether for general viewing or for one of the many events.

Admission is free of charge for all.
britanniapanopticon.org for more information.