We are proud to bring you a constant stream of the best and brightest entertainment news each day... but we are also proud of our reports on London past. In this series, we join up our talents and take a look at London entertainments that no longer exist, and the closest equivalent available today.
They were just like any other ordinary melodrama: they had a hero and a villain and a maiden in distress. But in hippodramas, the actors got to chase each other on horseback, on real horses. Hippodramas were huge in nineteenth century London, with bills of fare including Ivanhoe and The Courier of St Petersburg, drawing regulars to Astley’s Amphitheatre in Vauxhall, a massive stadium with ramps to allow some truly stomping entrances. Astley’s began life as a riding school and circus, and when it transformed into a somewhat more conventional theatre, the horses stayed behind. Cue: recreations of great British victories, (including notable skirmishes at Waterloo and Agincourt) and some classics not normally associated with ‘horseplay’ (like Hamlet, Othello and Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
Where are they now?
Circuses still show them (of a sort), although the form is not entirely extinct. In 2002 Australians witnessed the truly hippodramatic “arena spectacular” The Man From Snowy River, a show that was “part concert, part theatre and part rodeo”. Sadly for London Astley’s is gone, but you can listen for ghostly hooves on ground bordered by Westminster Bridge Road and Lambeth Palace Road (SE1). Or, if you’re on that side of the river, trot to the National Theatre to see the lauded War Horse, which replaces live creatures for ‘transcendent puppetry’ (but surely qualifies as a ‘hippodrama’). True believers can also pay their respects at the tomb of impresario Andrew Ducrow (1793-1842) in Kensal Green Cemetery which we visited recently, a grave complete with horse sculptures and sphinxes. A producer of hippodramas, Ducrow once infamously shouted: “Cut out the dialect and come to the ‘osses’!” - probably not for the last time on the West End.
Words and photo of Ducrow's grave by Tim Benzie.