When the Myriorama unfolded its canvas battles

There have been many thrilling developments in the history of entertainment in modern times sound radio, the talking picture with its subsequent refinements of wider and wider

There have been many thrilling developments in the history of entertainment in modern times - sound radio, the talking picture with its subsequent refinements of wider and wider screens and perfection of sound, and television, first black-and-white, and now colour. But I wonder if people have been so thrilled with it all as were folk in the last century when the wonders of Poole's Myriorama first unfolded on the stage?How they must have been gripped by 'The Bombardment of Alexandria', with the huge scene of battle painted on canvas, unfolding from its rollers and passing across the stage to the accompaniment of flashing guns and all the mightily admired techniques that gave remarkable realism to the presentation.Westonians packed the old Assembly Rooms at the corner of West Street, the Victoria Hall (later Palace Theatre) in the Boulevard, and Knightstone Theatre, for the visits of Poole's show.It was in 1837 that George and Charles Poole showed their Diorama, 'Franklin's Expedition to the Arctic Regions', at Exeter Theatre. The family business had its beginnings at Margate. An old showman, Gompertz, who owned a travelling Panorama, was walking along the promenade. On the sands a couple of itinerant musicians, George and Charles Poole, were playing.He admired their musicianship, and suggested they should play for his Panorama, to supplement his rather old and rusty piano. They joined him and became his successors.During five reigns and over a period of 100 years, Pooles provided Panoramas, Dioramas, and Myrioramas, and also controlled theatres, variety halls and cinemas.The Panorama presented a series of pictures with some such formal titles as 'A Trip Around the World'. The first pictures were of London, and others took audiences on an overseas trip to Paris, Rome, Africa, America, and elsewhere.The pictures were on rollers and moved across the stage. As the round the world trip started from Charing Cross, the model trains were seen puffing out of stations, and then there were ships battling across the seas.There were also beautiful sunsets, charming glimpses of the moon rising, storms in the Alps and at sea, vivid shipwrecks, fire scenes, battles and bombardments.The piece de resistance was 'The Bombardment of Alexandria', which showed the British fleet bombarding and destroying the land batteries. Painted in the foreground was the British fleet in line. The fort and town of Alexandria were in the middle distance.A description in a little booklet '100 Years of Showmanship - 1837-1937' which the Pooles published to mark their centenary described this battle feature: "All along the sea-line and on the coast were holes punched, in which were inserted small pieces of brass tubing, closed at one end with touch-holes, called 'shoots'. These were loaded with small pieces of gun cotton and finely ground gunpowder."The touch-holes were at the back of the canvas facing upward. The gun discharges on the ships were painted transparently on the back. A piece of gas pipe, about four feet long, with a small flame called a torch, was placed behind the transparent gun discharge and guided by a white line over a series of pin holes, which gave the appearance of the gunfire and trajectory of the shells to the forts."Then, in turn, the 'shoots' were ignited, and gave a realistic appearance of the return fire from the forts. The conclusion was the hoisting of the Union Jack on the lighthouse fort."Obviously there were dangers with these sorts of effects, and one night at Darlington the effects man in charge of the powder placed the box too near the picture and a spark back-fired from a 'shoot'. The explosion blew out some windows and extinguished the gas and illuminated the hall with red fire. But there was no panic - the audience thought it was all part of the show!There was a more serious mishap on another occasion at the Colston Hall, Bristol, when 'The Battle of Port Arthur' was presented. An old battery of nine cannons, mounted on a heavy wooden block, was resurrected from somewhere, and the effects man not knowing much about gun powder, loaded each to the rim. The 'touches' were pinches of gunpowder, and the guns were 12 inches apart.All the 'touches' and the cannons fired simultaneously and blew all the gas out of the fit-up, leaving the stage in darkness. In addition, about 26 square feet of plaster from the ceiling of the hall, about 70 feet above the stage, came crashing down. Fortunately no one was hurt.Poole's presentation of 'The Loss of the Titanic' was so realistically achieved that audiences were moved to tears. It showed the departure from Liverpool, an illuminated picture of the ship off the Needles Lighthouse, then the crashing into the iceberg, and with mechanical aids, firing of rockets, the launching of lifeboats, and the rescue of survivors.The pictures for Poole's Myriorama were painted by some of the first-class scenic artists of the day, who received what was then considered very big money for their work. Sebastian Estelos took 19 months to paint 'The Halt by the way of the Viceroy of India's State Elephants'", and it cost C W Poole £350.George and Charles Poole had a band of three, piano and two other instruments. A man in evening dress, using a long pointer was the 'guide', and described the pictures in the most flowery language.In 1900 the Pooles had seven big shows touring Great Britain, Ireland, and the Channel Islands. Each tour took 42 weeks, and at the end the shows were taken to studios to be renovated in preparation for moving off again in the autumn. From the simplicity of the Panorama the Pooles developed the Myriorama which, as its title implies, was a more expansive, intricate entertainment, with multiplicity of ideas and technique.The programmes included about 50 myriorama subjects, six vaudeville turns, cinema shorts 'shown by limelight' and, later, the first 'talkies' - gramophone and cinema worked by hand. The variety turns included musical acts, ventriloquists, comedians, gymnasts, marionettes, vocalists, and animal acts. Performing foxes, cats, bears, monkeys, bulls, pugs, cockatoos were also featured, and there was a miniature circus with clowns, trapezists and a ringmaster. I once had a chat with Jim Fredricks, of the local Scenic Studios, who is a son of the date Carlton Fredricks, a popular professional entertainer whose name was for many years associated with Weston's former Palace Theatre in the Boulevard.Jim Fredricks told me that his father had about five years with Poole's Myriorama. Not only was he a 'guide', but he filled in about five variety acts in the rest of the programme including ventriloquism, conjuring, and big boot dancing.The Myriorama, he said, was a finely elaborated entertainment compared with the earlier Panorama. It included the use of transparent linen for the scene and this, lit from behind and accompanied by all sorts of effects, made presentation very realistic.Reviews of visits by Poole's Myriorama to Weston to be found in the Mercury's files give a good indication of what the show was like. In 1908, for instance, the Mercury recorded that Harry and Fred Poole's Myriorama was at the Victoria Hall, and was drawing crowded audiences."The paintings depicting various parts of the world are full of rich colour and grand dioramic effects," the report stated, "and provide insights into the architecture, customs, and natural scenery of foreign lands."The animated pictures shown at intervals contain many humorous subjects, whilst films are also shown depicting the King and Queen's procession to open Parliament. The proceedings are pleasingly interspersed with items by a first-class vaudeville company."One of the most outstanding features of this portion of the entertainment is Richard Karsay's giant myriophone, an extensive musical instrument occupying nearly the whole picture frame used by the myriorama. There are 25 wheels of sunflower design, and on each is 80 strings, making in all 2,000 wires. The wheels revolve and Mr Karsay and his lady produce some charming musical effects, such as the intermezzo from 'Cavalleria Rusticano'."In February Poole's Myriorama was at Knightstone, and the Mercury reported: "... Item follows item with the greatest rapidity, and in the three hours show the audience are given a bit of everything. The variety turns are of the best. There were also the Penny Readings at the old Assembly Rooms and professional entertainment at other well-nigh forgotten local halls as witness the programme reproduced on this page of an entertainment presented at the New People's Hall, Meadow Street, which was earlier the Globe Assembly Rooms. Later the Globe was for many years a billiards hall, and then became the site of Keymarket.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on August 2, 1968

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