Bikini Stealing Dolphins And Drunken Brawls: The Secrets Of Sadler's Wells

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 49 months ago
Bikini Stealing Dolphins And Drunken Brawls: The Secrets Of Sadler's Wells
What it looks like today, but it's changed many times since it started.

If you're a fan of contemporary dance in London, then odds are you've visited Sadler's Wells. However, not many people know about its history. While the current theatre has only been there twenty years, it's the sixth incarnation of the theatre, which as an institution has been going since the 17th century.

Here are some of the juiciest and quirkiest parts of its history.

1. Virgin beginnings

One of the earliest drawings of Sadler's Wells from 1720.

Sadler's Wells was founded in 1683 on the site of a mineral spring that was said to cure many ailments including dropsy, scurvy, jaundice and 'virgin fever'. We can't find any reference to virgin fever so assume it was a made up illness as an excuse to sell the water. Sounds like a malady that Dr Nick from the Simpsons would come up with. Visitors today can still see the 'well' that gives the place its name when entering the stalls of the theatre.

2. A singing duck

The theatre next to the new river that used to flow past it — we're guessing that's where they found their star duck.

Dance, theatre and jugglers feels par for the course for a theatre. However, Sadler's once featured dancing dogs, a hare who could play the tambourine with his hind legs, a pig who could pick out letters to answer questions and a singing duck. We're not sure what karaoke hits Daffy (not its actual name) managed to quack out, but we're picturing it singing 'I should be so duck-y'. Sorry, we'll shut the duck up now.

3. Baby clowning

He looks pretty creepy as an adult too.

Famous clown Joseph Grimaldi made his debut on the stage at Sadler's Wells at the age of two. That's right coulrophobics, the only thing creepier than a full grown clown — a toddler clown.

4. Fighting time

Here's what Sadler's looks today — we imagine very little fighting happens these days.

Back in the 18th century the theatre was less know for its performances and more for the mayhem. There was once a stampede where 18 people were trampled and fights would regularly break out at every performance. That punters often happened to be drunk off their faces was probably a contributing factor.

5. Stinky sea battles

Here we can see one of the aqua dramas taking place as a packed house watches on.

The theatre occasionally featured 'Aqua drama', for which a tank spilled onto the stage, so that naval battles could be acted out using model ships. The downside is that the water could lie there for up to three weeks before being drained — smelling pretty fetid by the end of its time there.

6. Bikini stealing dolphins

Alas, we don't have a picture of a dolphin removing a bikini but we're guessing these fishermen outside the theatre didn't manage to catch a dolphin. Image courtesy Wellcome Collection.

Animals can be trained to do many things but getting dolphins to unclasp a bikini seems very niche... and rather taboo. It was part of 'The Great International Nude Show' and the dolphins named Pennie and Pixie would disrobe Miss Nude International — they sound like a much raunchier duo than Pinky and Perky. It was staged by Paul Raymond — the 'Porn baron of Soho' — and performed at the Peacock theatre, which was hosting productions while Sadler's Wells was being refurbished. The historic ties remain and Sadler's still looks after the programming at the Peacock.

Sadler's Wells theatre continues to host dance productions and prospective visitors should check the website for the full programming.

Last Updated 06 August 2018