Arts and culture: our past and future

Wandsworth residents are currently invited to comment on a new cultural strategy to support our local arts and cultural organisations through and beyond the pandemic, and to put art and culture at the heart of our communities. As we sow new seeds for our creative future, we take a moment here to look back at our roots, and celebrate the history of local cultural organisations and venues.

The Junction Cinema, Lavender Hill

Wandsworth is blessed with a rich cultural scene, with everything from amateur dramatic groups and small local theatres to large national institutions including the Royal Academy of Dance and the Royal College of Art, recently ranked the world’s number one university for art and design for the seventh consecutive year. A look back at our local cultural history shows that Wandsworth has long boasted plenty of theatres, cinemas and live music venues loved by local people.

Before the rise of the Victorian music hall, variety entertainment was provided in pub saloons, and performances could be raucous affairs. Once dedicated venues began to open up,  the music hall became a more morally acceptable way to spend an evening. The Grand theatre in Clapham Junction opened on 26 November 1900 with a music hall bill including singers, acrobats, a banjo player and performing mules and ponies. It was built by a consortium led by well-known artiste Dan Leno who, on the opening night, declared that it was now “possible for a man to bring his wife to the music hall and know the performance would be all it should be.” Like many similar venues, the Grand went on to become a cinema and bingo hall. In the 1990s it narrowly avoided becoming a Wetherspoons and is now a live music venue.

The Balham Varieties Music Hall, Balham High Road eventually became The Gaumont Cinema and was demolished in 1974, while the Royal Dutchess Theatre on Balham Hill was badly damaged by wartime bombs and was eventually demolished to make way for the Balham Hill Estate.  

The Granada Theatre in Tooting was huge and lavish, seating nearly 4,000 people. In 1963 The Beatles performed there and today it is the Gala Bingo Hall – the stunning interior is protected by a grade 1 listing.

Other notable theatres included the Shakespeare Theatre in Clapham Junction. It was also badly bombed and was bought by Battersea Council in 1957, and later demolished. Now an office block called Shakespeare House stands on the site. The Shakespeare Theatre stood next to Battersea Town Hall, which itself was saved from demolition in 1965 and opened as the Battersea Arts Centre in 1981. Today the BAC is one of the borough’s most important arts venues.  

Many cinemas were originally theatres, but others were purpose-built, including four in Putney. Putney Electric Cinema, subsequently called The Globe, in Upper Richmond Road was demolished in 1967 – the last film shown was, fittingly, The Last Picture Show. Two cinemas stood near Putney Bridge. Their names changed but they were eventually known as The Odeon and The ABC. One bought the other out and both were demolished in 1972 to make way for the current cinema – one of the first multi-screen cinemas in Britain. In Wandsworth Town a council green plaque can be seen on the site of the old Biograph Cinema – London’s first licensed cinema.  

Putney's Regal Cinema
Putney’s Regal Cinema

Eventually the days of obliterating much-loved venues passed, and Wandsworth Council took more of a leadership role in shaping the borough’s artistic and cultural scene, realising their importance in creating happy residents, vibrant town centres and strong communities – especially in rapidly developing communities such as Nine Elms.  

The role of individual artists was recognised and artists’ studios set up. Local theatres flourished, including the UK’s first South Asian theatre company, Tara Arts, was has called the borough its home for more than forty years. Battersea Arts Centre leases the old Battersea Town Hall for a peppercorn rent from the council, which also commissions community projects and helped BAC recover from a devastating fire in 2015. The council organised the Wandsworth Arts Festival and other events and art, music and performance was encouraged in schools. Over time the Wandsworth Arts Festival morphed into Wandsworth Arts Fringe, inviting anyone with a creative project or idea to take part.  

In 2019 the Wandsworth Council arts team was embedded into the council department responsible for developing the local economy and strengthening communities. It works closely with the council’s public health, economic development, housing and planning departments and the teams working on the regeneration of Nine Elms and the Alton and Winstanley and York Road Estates. It also works with the local artistic community and with schools to helps young people discover their creativity and navigate pathways into employment in the creative sector. 

During the pandemic it has been working to support the creative sector and provide outlet for artists’ work, including an online arts fringe, art in town centres and this website!  

Now the public is being asked to comment on a proposed new ten-year Cultural Strategy. 

Arts, entertainment and recreation is the borough’s fourth largest business sector, and the council is drawing up a new Cultural Strategy to support it – especially through the pandemic. The strategy also aims to put art and culture at the heart of local communities and to make them accessible and relevant to local people. 

Read the strategy and have your say.

Wandsworth Council’s arts and culture spokesman Cllr Steffi Sutters said: “I’m grateful to all the artists, performers and venues that make living in Wandsworth such a rich experience, and I’m also proud of the way the council’s arts team has helped the sector through the last few difficult months.  

“The new strategy is a bold and ambitious plan that’s all about putting culture at the heart of the borough and meeting the needs of local people and communities. We would ask you to take a look and contribute your thoughts.”