Francis Laidler - The King of Pantomime

(1867 - 1955)

'The Bradford Pantomimes'

The Bradford Alhambra has been the premier home of pantomime since Francis Laidler began plans to build it in 1912. It was an era when Music Hall was transforming into Variety, less earthy, less vulgar, and in need of Palaces of Pleasure that could accommodate the growing audience for this newer “Family” style entertainment. Laidler had already created a legacy of Pantomimes at his Prince’s Theatre in Bradford, producing shows there since 1902, and was now laying plans to create the finest showcase for Pantomime in the country.

Laidler was born in 1867, the son of a doctor in Thornby-on-tees. His connection with Bradford began when he was employed as a clerk in the wool trade in the town, and later became part of the management of “Hammonds Bradford Brewery Company”. It was while he was managing the brewery interests that he started to have connections with the world of theatre. Theatres had well stocked bars, and Laidler decided to add to his prospects by going into partnership with Walter Piper, who ran the Prince’s Theatre.   Keighley Hippodrome

At this time the premier theatre in Bradford was the Theatre Royal, which was the number one house. The Prince’s in Little Horton Lane had re-opened in 1879. The partnership meant that while Piper looked after the productions, Laidler attended to the finance and, naturally the bars. Having begun the partnership in 1902, just six months later Walter Piper died, leaving Laidler in charge. By 1903 he had left the brewery, and had become full time manager of the Prince’s Theatre.

“Red Riding Hood” in 1902/03 had proved to be highly successful, and Laidler realised that if he could provide a popular pantomime every season, the profits would buffer the losses that the Prince’s Theatre might suffer. During the year Laidler decided to increase the range of productions, and in competition with the Theatre Royal brought in number one productions. He presented Mrs. Patrick Cambell, tours of “Ben Hur”, “The Hope” and “The Whip”. Melodrama proved to be a popular choice for the theatre, but Laidler also saw that variety could be even more profitable.  

In 1909 He took out a lease on the Theatre Royal, Leeds. He was to present his pantomimes here, in addition to the Prince’s Bradford. At this point he was in control of two theatres, thinking of building a third, and had his eye on a Variety house in Keighley.

So it was that in 1912 Laidler decided to purchase an area of wasteland, near to the Empire Music Hall, where he would build a new Palace of Varieties. It backed onto the Palace Theatre (1875-1938) near to the Theatre Royal (built in 1864, where Sir Henry Irving made his last appearance on October 13th, 1905 before he died the next morning).

Laidler took his lease out on his new theatre site at a time when Variety was becoming respectable. In 1912 the first Royal Command Variety performance had taken place, and he felt the public deserved a grand and sumptuous venue. In 1913 While plans went ahead for the building, Laidler took the lease on another theatre, the Hippodrome Keighley, where he would present pantomimes in addition to the Prince’s Bradford.  



The Alhambra means “The Red Castle”, from the Arabic “Kal’-at al hambra”, after the historic moorish palace in Spain. The plans for the new theatre were on a lavish scale. The seating capacity was originally 1,800, later to be reduced to 1,650. The audience would enter through a marble foyer, and enter an auditorium richly carpeted, with seats that were upholstered, and had the “Tip-up” device that allowed easy access. There were no pillars to spoil the view from the auditorium, which consisted of orchestra and pit stalls, dress circle and boxes, and a balcony on the second tier. The stage was equipped for large-scale productions, at 35’ wide. To add to the comfort, the building was heated by hot water, illuminated by electricity (supplemented by gaslight) and had electric extraction fans. The décor was in the style of Louis XVI, despite the Moorish name.

Backstage was not neglected either. All eleven dressing rooms had hot and cold water, and conditions were palatial compared to many of the Victorian buildings of the time. Laidler however did not extend his generosity to complimentary tickets for his artistes. On each dressing room door was a printed sign.

“Please DO NOT ask the management for complimentary tickets for your friends. If your friends will not pay to see you, why should the public?”

During the building period, Laidler continued to present shows at both the Prince’s and the Hippodrome. He did not intend to present his pantomimes in the Alhambra when it opened, preferring to offer alternative entertainment in his second Bradford Venue. Pantomimes were not produced at the Alhambra until 1929.

In 1888 Francis Laidler had married Annie Uthank, and they had four daughters. By the time of the Opening ceremony for the Alhambra on March 18th, 1914, Mrs. Annie Laidler was in ill health. As a result of this, Laidler chose a quiet opening ceremony, performed by Mrs. Laidler and her daughter, Olive.In the opening year Laidler engaged the services of Walter De Freece, later Sir Walter to engage the artistes for the new Alhambra. De Freece was not only the top agent of the time, but was the husband of Vesta Tilley, the famed male impersonator.

By 1916 Laidler had formed an amalgamation with Moss, the owners of the Moss Empire circuit, and they remained booking agents for the Alhambra until 1959.  



In 1919 Annie Laidler died. Francis Laidler was 42 years old and a widower. That same year while searching out new talent for his pantomimes he saw the 23-year-old Gladys Cotterill in a pierrot show. Although she had only been in the theatre for a few weeks professionally, the recently divorced Gladys Stanley was engaged by Laidler to play second boy in “Aladdin” at his Leeds Theatre Royal. Gladys was later to remark “Little did I think when I was saying my first few lines on the stage of the Theatre Royal, that I would one day own that theatre….”

The following year Gladys played second boy in the same pantomime at the Prince’s Bradford (1920/21) to be followed by the role of Prince Charming at the Prince’s in 1921/22. It was at this point Gladys changed her name to the slightly more exotic “Gwladys” Stanley, and was set to change her name once again, as Laidler proposed to her that same year. The engagement however was not announced for a further four years, when Gwladys, now established as one of the top Principal Boys was appearing in “The Queen Of Hearts” at the Palace, Manchester, 1926. In 1929 Gwladys was starring in the Lyceum Pantomime Puss in Boots.

Pictures from Puss in Boots - Lyceum Theatre 1929/30 - Click to Enlarge

Mona VivianDuring his time at Bradford Laidler had continued to live at the Great Northern Hotel, where he maintained a suite (rooms 25-26). Gwladys preferred to be in the hub of things, and after their wedding in London in 1926 he bought number 15, Park Mansions in Knightsbridge, as the centre of his now increasing national business interests, and as a setting for Gwladys to entertain. A striking figure in fur coat and cloche hat, Gwladys was fond of displaying her pristine white gloves to friends, remarking how they would never be worn in Bradford, where this heavily industrial town would render them useless. Norman Evans

Laidler’s day began at 8am, generally in his office suite. He was now producing pantomimes not only in Bradford and Leeds, but also in Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol, as well as in London’s West End. During his time he discovered many stars of Pantomime- Gwladys Stanley, Mona Vivian (SEE “WEE MONAARTICLE) in addition to Sydney Howard and Margery Manners. Several of his star Principal Boys and Girls became the wives of top pantomime producers. Nora Delaney became Mrs. Prince Littler, while Cora Goffin became Mrs. Emile Littler. Roma Beaumont married Alfred Black the impresario.

The established stars of Variety who Laidler employed on a regular basis were legendary- Norman Evans, possibly the epitome of the panto Dame played many seasons for Laidler. His “Over The Garden Wall” sketch fitted perfectly into the roles he played in Pantomime. Frank Randle was the star of many of Laidler’s productions- his earthy vulgarity making him a huge hit with audiences, along with his catchphrase “Bahh! I’ve supped some Ale Tonight!”. Sandy Powell, “Can you hear me Mother?” and Albert “In’t it grand when yer Daft!” Modley were some of Laidler’s finest pantomime comedians. Laidler founded  “The Sunbeams”, his troupes of juvenile dancers at the Alhambra, a tradition that extends right up to today (SEE “CHORUS” ARTICLE- Sunbeams).

The Laidler pantomimes continued at the Prince’s Theatre until 1930. The first Alhambra pantomime was Mother Goose, starring Norah Blaney and George Lacy in 1930/31. In 1931 Francis Laidler gave an article to the Pantomime Annual explaining his Tale of Six Cities. Thereafter, with the exception of the 1933/34 season, all pantomimes were at the Alhambra. Laidler continued to expand his productions around the country, and presented pantomime at the London Coliseum during the blitz. His first West End season again featured George Lacy, in one of Laidler’s favourite subjects- “Mother Goose” 1932/33 at Daly’s Theatre. His pantomime at the Royal Opera House (1938/39) featured Patricia Burke, Nelson Keyes, George Jackley and Polly Ward, and was followed by “Aladdin” at the Coliseum in 1940/41. It was during this time that, like the famous Windmill Theatre, the show never stopped during the bombing. In fact Laidler frequently spent the night backstage during the worst of the blitz, which was to damage his scenic store in London. In 1941 he presented Jean Colin and Norman Evans in Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Coliseum. The following year he presented Norman Evans in "Mother Goose” at the Coliseum for the 1942/43 season.  

Air Raid Shelter Notice from Aladdin Programme 1940/1

Theatre Royal Leeds - 1955/6

Bradford Panto by Wilfred Pickles - Wednesday 21st January 1948

The year of 1948 is usually associated with the Berlin Airlift, when America and Britain beat the Communist blockade of West Berlin by flying in thousands of tons of food, coal, medicine and clothing and other essentials. At least the first month or two of that year are special for Bradford for an entirely different reason. A very great broadcaster, revolutionary in his own Yorkshire way, was starring at the Alhambra with a young woman who went on to become Britain’s most popular comic actress.


The broadcaster was Halifax-born Wilfred Pickles, whose travelling radio programme for the BBC, Have a Go, regularly attracted a listening audience of 18 million and upwards. The young woman was June Whitfield. He was Buttons and she was Cinderella in Francis Laidler’s marvellous pantomime which bridged Christmas 1947 and the New Year. The panto was broadcast on the BBC Home Service on January 21, 1948.


Pickles, the Michael Parkinson of his day, was revolutionary because he refused to disguise his distinctive Yorkshire accent. He fought successfully against attempts within the BBC hierarchy to use the bland Received Pronunciation which broadcasters were expected to use. "There has been a gradual standardisation of spoken English. Too many Northerners, I’m afraid, are ashamed of speaking the language their forefathers spoke," he said.


In 1948 Pickles read Shakespeare’s sonnets in his own voice on the radio. The public loved it, and they loved him and his wife Mabel for taking Have a Go out into villages, towns, and cities beyond London to "let the people meet the people". Have a Go was first broadcast from Bingley on March 4, 1946. It was a cheerful neighbourly sort of programme, a precursor of Down Your Way, exactly suited to Wilfred Pickles’ personality. He made people laugh by asking "Are y’ courtin?" His fan mail was colossal, more than 1,000 letters a week. He employed three secretaries to deal with it, and ordered signed photographs of himself 10,000 at a time. He thrived on getting out and about.


Hospitals were regular venues for his radio show. At 2.15pm on Christmas Day, 1947, dressed up as Santa Claus and accompanied by June Whitfield and other members of the Cinderella cast, he broadcast a special show for the Light Programme direct from Bradford Children’s Hospital, Manningham. The Yorkshire Observer reported: "While the millions who heard little Harvey Matthews, aged 11, of Torre Crescent, Bradford, sing from his bed the second verse of Away in a Manger, and the third verse by eight-year-old Jean Scotcher, of 8 Bowling Alley Terrace, Rastrick, accompanied by Jack Harvey’s Orchestra, must have immediately understood the whole spirit of Wilfred’s party."


The pantomime stars in their stage costumes brought gasps of surprise and pleasure from the children. But there was more, a link from the hospital to Walt Disney in Hollywood, who persuaded Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse to send their Christmas greetings to that hospital in Bradford.


That was Wilfred Pickles all over. The loss of his son at the age of seven had the effect of making him go out of his way to do something for children. Like Freddie Trueman and Jimmy Savile, Wilfred Pickles was an unapologetic Yorkshireman. Pride in his roots, however, did not make him small-minded or one-dimensional. His career was multi-faceted. One newspaper described him as "a superb actor of startling versatility".  He brought cheer, fellowship and a bit of silliness to the nation during the years of rationing after the war


Francis Laidler was never to see the opening performance of his Alhambra season in 1954. “Red Riding Hood” opened on December 27th, and he suffered a heart attack during the morning. Despite his illness both the Alhambra and "Babes In The Wood" at his Theatre Royal in Leeds went ahead on schedule. Francis Laidler died ten days later on January 6th, 1955.

After his funeral in London on 10th January, it was revealed that the 87-year-old impresario had left more than £50,000 in his will. The ownership of his theatres passed directly to his widow, Gwladys, who along with Laidler’s right hand man, Roland Hill continued to run the business as before. Gwladys received the license to control and run her husband’s theatrical empire in 1955. By now she had received the MBE for her services in troop entertainment during the war years. Mrs. Laidler now ran the Alhambra, Prince’s Theatre, the Keighley Hippodrome and the Theatre Royal in Leeds.

Gwladys presented the 1955/56 pantomime “Robin Hood” at the Alhambra, and “The Sleeping Beauty” at Leeds the following year. However, by now the attraction of variety was waning, and despite the financial success of the pantomimes, she felt it was time to downsize her husband’s business interests. First to go was the Keighley Hippodrome,  which was eventually demolished in 1961. Gwladys then announced she was to sell the Theatre Royal in Leeds. It was at the closing night of the Leeds pantomime in March 1957 that she met her future husband, Frank Woodhead, a businessman and company director. That year the Theatre Royal closed its doors for the last time, and its site became a department store.

That Christmas Gwladys presented “Puss in Boots” at the Alhambra, in addition to one in Sheffield, where her new husband had his business headquarters. She had already decided that she wanted to sell the rest of the Laidler Theatres, and offered the Alhambra for sale to Bradford Corporation. She asked for a sum of £85,000 on conditions that the building remained a working theatre. This offer was rejected. She put the Alhambra on to the open market in February 1958, but failed to get any reasonable offers. Gwladys now wanted to relinquish herself from producing, and in 1958 the first Non Laidler pantomime opened at the theatre. A Company headed by Sam. H. Newsome produced the pantomime “Dick Whittington” starring Ronnie Hilton. The Laidler influence was finally at an end.

In 1961, as the Keighley Hippodrome was being demolished the Prince’s Theatre Bradford was purchased by the council for demolition. Two years later in 1963 Gwladys was again widowed, and decided to finish her association with the Alhambra. On September 15th 1964 she put the company into liquidation. The Alhambra was bought by Bradford City Council for £78,000, and was under the managing directorship of Roland Hill.

Gwladys left the country a very wealthy woman. She had properties in London, France and in Monte Carlo. It was here that she died, aged 78 in 1974. After her cremation in Marseilles it was revealed that she left the sum of £114,335.00. Laidler had always been referred to as the “King of Pantomime”. Gwladys, crowned onstage at the last night of the Leeds pantomime by Billy Whittaker in 1957, was a Queen who died in exile. The Laidler years of pantomime in Bradford stretched from 1902 to 1958. Pantomimes at the Alhambra however continue to the present day, and beyond.  


This page was last updated 27th July 2011

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