“Turbulent years” behind the scenes of Hackney Empire recorded in book

PUBLISHED: 20:11 02 April 2013 | UPDATED: 20:11 02 April 2013

Derek Couturier, Dave Black, Eithne Hannnigan and Roland in the Anti-Nazi League play What Happens Next, 1979, photo Red Saunders

Derek Couturier, Dave Black, Eithne Hannnigan and Roland in the Anti-Nazi League play What Happens Next, 1979, photo Red Saunders


The man responsible for saving the Hackney Empire from demolition has written a book about the battle behind the scenes during his time at the helm of the legendary theatre.

Along with his wife Claire and the 1960s underground theatre group CAST, Roland Muldoon took on the task of renovating the crumbling Frank Matcham-designed building in Mare Street.

It was previously used as a bingo hall and when they reopened it in 1986 they wanted it to become an “alternative national theatre”.

Mr Muldoon said: “What we achieved was amazing really.Hackney Council was going to pull the place down to make a car park there.”

The theatre became home to CAST’s brand of ‘New Variety’ comedy, showcasing acts like Russell Brand, Jo Brand and Paul Merton, and also became well known for ground-breaking popular theatre and political acts alongside dance, music, panto, opera and Caribbean farce.


But after 19 years at the helm the Muldoons left the theatre in 2005, feeling they had been “squeezed out”.

Mr Muldoon claims the “national treasure” had been starved of the subsidies normally awarded to, and necessary to maintain, a 1,200-seater theatre.

His book Taking on the Empire: How we saved the Hackney Empire for popular theatre, describes how a battle raged behind the scenes, and claims that not everyone approved of their free-thinking programmes.

“It’s been in my system for a long time to write the damn thing, and it also reflects the development of Hackney over the years politically,” said Mr Muldoon.

“Clare and I were squeezed out because we did represent this anarchic trend in comedy and music and entertainment, and we were very proud of that of course – but the authorities were worried about the image.

He continued: “I don’t feel cross about it but I think the pain and the agony should be noted. What we did was significant for people who want to make something happen – we did and we found it very, very difficult, because really people want it to come down from the top, in institutionalised entertainment – it’s all planned and placid and I don’t think entertainment should be like that, which is why I like comedy.”

Roland said there’s been a real buzz around his book: “Comedians are sending out posts on Facebook saying it’s taken them back to memory lane. I wish the Hackney Empire well, but I thought I should record my turbulent years.”

Hackney Council declined to comment.

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