Secret history

After lying mothballed for 80 years, the Victorian theatre at Alexandra Palace is ready to open its doors.

Alexandra Palace is a grade II-listed building that sits regally atop a steep hill in 196 acres of parkland. With big venues commanding the east (ExCel) and west of London (Olympia) the north is its domain, being situated between Muswell Hill and Wood Green. It has seven main spaces, including the Great Hall (6,558m2) and the West Hall (2,740m2).

Reflecting its use – an Act of Parliament was passed in 1900 to ensure the park and palace be made ‘available for the free use and recreation of the public forever’ – it is a democratic space. You can for example walk from the Great Hall straight through a door into an ice rink, where the Haringey Huskies ice hockey team practice in mornings. “It’s a microcosm of London. You really get a blend of everyone,” says Graeme Timms, Alexandra Palace's head of health and safety who is here to tell us more about the risks at London's busiest venue.

Known affectionately as 'Ally Pally', the venue hosts exhibitions, conferences, concerts, sports events (The World Darts Championship, snooker's Masters and ping pong are all held here), board meetings, training sessions and community events. The Chemical Brothers and Bloc Party played this year at Ally Pally’s 10,250 capacity Great Hall as did The Rolling Stones and Blur in their day. It was where Winston Churchill addressed crowds in 1913, where the BBC had its first TV studios in the 1930s, and was the site of London’s first and only racecourse. It’s a dizzying history made up of many events and the people who’ve made their homes there.

Graeme Timms, head of health and safety at Alexandra Palace

A jigsaw of risks

So, what of the safety challenges involved? Alexandra Palace hosts over 250 live events each year, surely a big challenge in itself. “Every venue has its quirks but all the hazards are relatively the same,” assures Graeme. “In the entertainment industry, hazards faced are similar to other workplaces such as slips, trips and falls, clean workspaces, vehicle movement, working at height, control of hazardous substances, whether from catering or cleaning. Those big-ticket items are there. It’s all about understanding how those items fit together with the time pressures of needing to be ready for doors opening to the public.”

The complexities lie in the number of different teams that come with each event. Each will have different approaches to risk. For a typical touring gig, he says: “We may be in a situation where crew are travelling in from Europe, sleeping on a tour bus and working long days on the road. While this is a way of life for many in rock and roll, it has inherent risks that need to be acknowledged. On the other side, for more long-running, community style events, we may have an organiser that has worked the same way for 30 years, they haven’t had that discussion yet as to why should do something differently.”

It’s also about communicating across cultures and with people whose first language is not English: “We have different folks coming from all over the world where they may have different approaches, and where we may have to explain to them in a way that helps them understand why, rather than just doing it from there.”

Great ideas done safely

It’s the venue’s role to facilitate the artist’s vision, whether that be the housing of a gigantic bouncy castle (‘The Monster’ in August, was 272m long) or the safe use of pyrotechnics at gigs. Graeme explains how this can be a challenge.

Two Decembers ago, the grime artist Skepta wanted to burn a Vauxhall Astra car live on stage. The venue has twice been beset by terrible fires in which lives were lost. The first happened only 16 days after Alexandra Palace was first opened, on 23 July 1873. Only the outer walls survived and three members of staff were killed (the venue was rebuilt and re-opened in 1875).

Skepta on stage at the Palace in December 2016

The next fire was in 1980 which destroyed half the building. It’s easy to understand how burning a car on stage might induce nerves. “When you have artists coming with great ideas like that, the challenge for me is helping them to realise that safely can be an issue, and not be the safety practitioner that goes ‘oh no, can’t do that.”

Vegans and chainsmokers

The venue is always open 364 days a year, with the ice rink only closing for Christmas Day. Most of the time, multiple spaces will be in use. For example, during Safety Management’s visit it’s the Chainsmokers gig in the evening with a vegan lifestyle show having recently vacated the building.

“Back to back builds for different shows and events is quite normal in the industry,” Graeme says. Is it always feasible to do safely, packing one event up – with all the traffic management, lifting, loading and moving that it entails – and getting another in, we ask?

He says that it’s important to have an early dialogue with the bookings team. “From a commercial angle, our sales team are always looking to maximise event open days, so we do have some quite tight turnarounds, a lot of that comes to the planning stage, so understanding what’s feasible, really having that discussion but also being brave enough from the event management side to say actually we can’t do it in that time as well. Getting involved in the scheduling and planning stage can be key. We demonstrate the time it takes to do an event, block it out and go from there.”

Alexandra Palace is fortunate in that it has a massive car parking space and a road that’s mainly used by the W3 bus. It helps with vehicle safety and segregation issues. “Traffic management is a huge aspect for us to consider of vehicles coming to the venue and turning it round so we have a dedicated team that we scale depending on the level of traffic,” he says.

The Trust's vision is to ‘create a proud and iconic London destination with global appeal’

CDM – the venue’s role

Under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, a venue has a clear role in terms of safety responsibilities. For a typical visiting exhibition, the organiser (the ‘client’ in CDM) will appoint their principal contractor and principal designer to operate the site.

The venue functions as contractor to the event in that it provides the services, such as electricity and water, the event needs. “It’s a very strange position where it’s our venue but technically during build up and breakdown it’s not our site,” says Graeme. “It then becomes a matter of how we are helping enable best practice to take place, influencing what is a very temporal event as well.”

He says it’s vital to get the paperwork from organisers at the early stages; such as method statements, how the equipment is being installed and operated by the various teams, and how that fits into stage plans. “The challenge is getting enough information early on so we can have the conversation to go through the plans and really understand how that all fits together."

Contractors walk across the venue's East wing, where the restoration work has been underway. Photograph: Lloyd Winters

As an example, the venue hosted the World Championships for the Drone Racing League in 2017. The organisers used the venue’s Grade II listed airy spaces as part of the obstacle course, such as the curved glass roof for the drones to do 360 degree loops. “The organisation came from New York to run us through it. The drones were flying around all through the hall. It was the first time they’d done it with an audience – there were vast numbers of people, we had 1,200. We had to work out how the venue would flow to allow them to have all the isolation between their customers and the drones.”

However, the venue’s role is a lot more than just planning. Contractually, the venue is the landlord in relationship to the visiting events, and is concerned for its appropriate use and operation. As such, it retains the right to intervene when an event is running to ensure that standards are maintained and work continues safely.

“It [can be] such a quick decision – we may find something this afternoon we don’t like,” says Graeme. “From my perspective it’s about helping to achieve the best artistic effect and to make sure the organiser and production company can do [along the lines of] what they are looking to do, while being absolutely satisfied it is appropriate for safety and we’re not breaching any licensing conditions.”

Licensable activity

Alexandra Palace has many obligations to fulfil, however, not just to events, but to the local council and its trustees. “Haringey council licenses our events and are regular visitors to the venue. The majority of what we do is a licensable activity so we’ve got it all set out in terms of what we can do, being aware the licensing team can drop in at any point and ask what we do,” explains Graeme.

All the money the venue makes via its commercial arm goes into the Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust, which itself goes into maintaining the park and the palace. The latest annual report notes: “It is a challenging task, overcoming the dereliction of decades whilst repairing and maintaining both to keep them safely open for the public to enjoy.”

But also, funds go into achieving the vision of the Trust to ‘create a proud and iconic London destination with global appeal’. To maintain a historic venue and to host spectacular events that keep crowds wanting to come to Ally Pally (ensuring it retains that maxim as the People’s Palace), must be a twin challenge.

Victorian Theatre

In December, a major project comes to fruition which will both restore its past but add a new dimension to the venue and appeal to new theatre-going audiences. This is the £27 million restoration (supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Haringey Council) of its Victorian Theatre and East Court.

Excavating the foundations at the Victorian theatre. Photograph: Keith Armstrong/AP

Located in the dilapidated east wing, it’s not been fully open for 80 years and, over its history, has been used as an early cinema, a chapel for World War I refugees and a prop cupboard for BBC TV. “It’s hugely exciting,” says Graeme. The work has been done by principal contractor Wilmott Dixon: “On any project like this you never know what you’re going to find when you peel back the first layer of dust. There’s been a lot of discussions along the way.”

The venue wanted to retain the sense of the theatre as a found space, rather than build over the period features. “The phrase that our architects used to describe the building is one of arrested decay. We haven’t gone back and rebuilt everything – it’s very much in its as-found state. But to get there has meant a load of work to make what was there, safe. For example, for the suspended laden plaster ceiling – we’ve injected a whole load of resins into that to effectively harden and secure that structure in situ, as well as all sorts of other parts of the building, [such as] plaster work on the walls – they’ve all been painted over and tapped and inspected, so everything that was not consolidated through the brick structure has been removed,” he says.

It sounds a fascinating project, among many at the palace. Does a health and safety manager ever get time to enjoy any of it all? There are moments, says Graeme: “Seeing the audience at Alexandra Palace’s first self-promoted festival Kaleidoscope this July, getting down to Flaming Lips on the stage with the sun setting behind, it had that whole panorama view across London and was an incredible experience.”

But, mainly, the job of running health and safety at Alexandra Palace puts paid to the truism that health and safety can be boring. “Working in the entertainment business will never be done. I think that’s the challenge that comes with it. We will always be wanting something new, people will always be wanting something bigger, something better, something loud or something faster.” As long as that happens, and the palace is the place to experience new things, then it’s exciting to think what the future will bring.