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Still talk of the town

In the heart of London’s West End, an army of workers are busy turning one of the capital’s most famous old venues into what should be the country’s greatest casino. Chris Lines does a ‘reccy’ of the upcoming Hippodrome Casino – and boy, it’s going to knock your socks off

I make my way past a throng of dawdling tourists and follow instructions, pressing a buzzer next to a temporary door to the side of one of those stalls selling “half-price West End tickets”. I’m let in by security and navigate a dusty staircase. Suddenly I don’t feel like I’m in London’s glamorous West End any more. I reach the top of the stairs and the same security man is sitting at a small desk.

“Alright?”

“Err, yeah. Which way?”

“Up there.”

He points to a non-descript doorway. Another set of stairs, through a door and I’m suddenly in a make-shift boardroom. There are blueprints and models lying around. Three men are in relaxed discussion at the table. They look up.

“Hi Chris, come in, take a seat,” says one of the men. “Welcome to the Hippodrome. Sorry about the mess.”

We shake hands. He introduces himself as Simon Thomas, chairman of the Hippodrome Casino. It is he that I am here to meet today, to discuss plans currently well underway to transform the Hippodrome – one of the West End’s most famous locations – into the country’s premier casino.

Thomas does not come across as flashy, but there is a slight twinkle in his eye – that hint of the showbiz entrepreneur, the merest undercurrent of Willy Wonka kookiness. You could potentially meet him without noticing it. But the longer you spend in his company, the more you can see the hallmarks of being the seventh generation of his family to work in the leisure industry. Projects like this are in his blood – he’s even operated the largest and most successful bingo club in the country, Beacon Bingo in Cricklewood – though the Hippodrome is surely the biggest project of them all.

The executives continue their discussion as I look through a portfolio containing the artist’s impressions you see on these pages, plus an array of technical drawings. Even allowing for a little creative licence from the design agency, it’s immediately clear that this is going to be one heck of a place – something that befits a venue that has been part of the fabric of the West End for over a century.

To call it one of Britain’s most legendary venues is no exaggeration. Built in 1900 for £250,000 by the esteemed Victorian architect Frank Matcham, the Hippodrome was originally a grandiose circus, with a central pool that could be filled with 100,000 gallons of water. Spectacular shows featured everything from elephants to polar bears.

Over the years, the Grade II listed venue has changed guises several times. Once the circus became passé, it was used to host world-leading performances, revues, plays and musical comedies. It was the first place in England where Swan Lake was performed, and a 12-year-old Julie Andrews made her stage debut here. Then, in 1957, caterer and hotelier Charles Forte demolished a lot of the interior and turned it into Talk Of The Town, which went on to become the most noted cabaret venue in the city, hosting such stellar performers as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr, Shirley Bassey and Eartha Kitt.

In 1983, Peter Stringfellow got his hands on the place and turned it into an infamous discotheque – London’s first ‘super club’ – before it changed hands several times between nightclub operators. The venue gradually earned itself a bad reputation for gangs, violence and two thousand drunk and disorderly patrons spilling onto the pavements come closing time. It eventually had the ignominy of losing its alcohol licence in late 2005.

A few years later, and here I am sitting in this temporary meeting area, looking through the designs, and rapidly realising that Thomas and his business partners would like nothing more than to rediscover a lot of the appeal of the venue from its earlier years and the Talk Of The Town days.

Thomas excitedly talks me through the plans; how everything will look when it’s finished. “We started building in July 2009,” he says. “And we’re set to open in September 2011. It should be streets ahead of anything in the country.”

The chairman and I don hard hats and he leads me off into the belly of the building, where construction workers are hard at work. It’s quite a strange sight to see heavy-duty machinery at work and big piles of rubble indoors – just metres away from the crowds of tourists shuffling past outside.

Thomas knows every inch of the temporary platforms and scaffolding, and I have to concentrate hard to keep up. You sense in his head he’s already seeing the finished product as he darts around the tools and dusty railings. “And now we’re in the bar,” he grins, as I negotiate more scaffold poles and wobbly wooden ramps.

A false ceiling brought in for Talk Of The Town has been removed, as have all the other modifications brought in later by Stringfellow and others. The building is being restored to something much closer to Matcham’s original work.

The new casino will be open 24 hours a day. There will be 30 gaming tables, 150 electronic gaming terminals, a dedicated card room, a high-stakes gaming area, and much more, with certain gaming areas aimed at different types of people, depending on whether they are thrill-seekers looking for a wild time, or more serious gamblers looking for a more discreet experience. And with hippodromecasino.com about to launch an online gaming site, the Hippodrome will effectively serve as a wonderfully lavish offline clubhouse for players from the website – with inevitable online prizes, giveaways and VIP incentives linked to the venue.

A Gordon Ramsey eatery will be on site, with further food and beverage operations provided hip American chain The One Group, whose emphasis is on “really good service” and making it “a fun place be”, according to Thomas. “It’s about the experience as much as the food,” he says.

And then there’s the cabaret. This will be a flexible space that can either be open to the main gaming hall, or partitioned off and turned into an elegant, intimate venue, ‘Upstage’, catering for a discerning crowd of 160 people. Leading theatre producers Creative Management and Productions (CMP) are in charge of managing the space and booking celebrated performers, musicians and entertainers that will appeal to a wide range of tastes and ages. This will be a big tip of the hat towards Talk Of The Town and the cabaret-driven entertainment scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

When you walk in the entranceway of the new Hippodrome, the main bar will rapidly come into view. This is positioned to be easily visible to new visitors, giving them a focal point, something reassuring to head towards, so they don’t feel overwhelmed on arrival.

There will be lots of little nods to the venue’s history in the décor – plans include video screens depicting silhouettes of elephants walking around the perimeter walls, top hat lightshades and bar stools depicting famous cabaret singers. It’s going to have a certain old school charm to it, while still being thoroughly modern. The flexible nature of the venue is something Thomas is keen to stress. “The audio system can move sound around the building. We can increase sound levels, or use sound screens – in between two curtains – to isolate the cabaret.”

A second entrance from Chinatown is key too. The Chinese community are an important part of the demographic and much is being done to ensure that they are well catered for. An independently run Chinese Community Centre will be housed on the premises with it’s own entrance. It will run events and activities for local Chinese people, which all helps the casino gain credibility in the neighbourhood.

In fact, the response to the plans to turn the Hippodrome into a casino has been extremely positive from most people in the area. “We’ve spoken to all the local councils,” says Thomas. “The good will is phenomenal. People have such a soft spot for the building.”

The relaunch of the Hippodrome is just part of a big regeneration of the Leicester Square area, conveniently time to be largely in place by the 2012 London Olympics. Organisations such as Heart Of London and the Leicester Square Regeneration Scheme are doing sterling work to reinvigorate what had become a rather squalid part of town despite its status as an enormous tourist draw.

“Leicester Square is London’s main crossroads,” says Thomas. “It’s also London’s second busiest tourist attraction. The tube station has 40 million exits per year. Our location on the corner of Cranbourn Street and Charing Cross Road is the second busiest corner in Europe, and Cranbourn Street itself sees a quarter of a million in footfall every day.” Those are some serious numbers. You imagine the Hippodrome Casino would be successful even if its offerings were distinctly humdrum – the fact that it’s going to be so much more is an exciting prospect for its backers.

Now they just have to get it open on time. “There is no reason to doubt that we won’t be ready by September,” says Thomas confidently.

I’m no construction expert, but the fact that I was touring the venue in a hard hat, clambering around scaffolding and observing JCBs ripping up the bare earth during my visit gives you an indication of how much hard work is ahead. I’ll be rooting for them though, and so should you be. Once it’s finished, this place is going to be something really rather special. See you at the bar on opening night!
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