The London HMV Forum (or Town And Country Club as it was) is a great rock venue in North London. I’ve seen tons of top gigs there including Dio, Anthrax, Queensryche, Mr Big, Living Colour, W.A.S.P and Motörhead. It’s a great venue with a lot of history, and it’s one particular aspect of this history that especially started to interest me.
The Kentish Town HMV Forum
One of the rumours that has been doing the rounds for a while (I’ve heard at least half a dozen variations of it, one from Scott Ian of Anthrax onstage at the Forum) is that the venue was built in the 1930s for Oswald Mosley’s British Fascists. Sometimes it is said that the venue was built for Adolf Hitler himself. Here’s one version of the story I found posted anonymously online:
“The true reason why the Forum in Kentish Town was actually built. It is quite common knowledge that not only is it one of the greatest music venues in London but it was built by Nazi facists, though this information is quite well hidden, and was originally built for the final destination of Adolf Hitler’s tour. If you have ever been inside it is plainly obvious by the decor of huge eagles and the depiction of Roman battle scenes which were associated with the Third Reich.
“Also I have been informed that it wasn’t that long ago that the swastikas that lined the walls either side of stage were removed but the whereabouts of them now are unknown. As well as this it has been said Moseley had a bit to do with its building. There is a sister building to it in south London.
“I do not have a great deal of information on the whole building’s association with its reason for being built and the information I do have is quite patchy as this piece of history has seemed to be well buried. If anyone has anymore information on this subject please post it on this site and stop them from turning this valuable information into an urban myth and making the people believe it was originally built as a cinema.”
Despite his occasional typo error, he is right about some things at least. There are certainly neo-Roman columns and big eagles on the inside of the venue.
The interior of the Forum. Note the Roman Eagles on the left
And as the blogger says, some people are trying to make us believe the venue was built as a cinema. The Forum’s official
website says: “The Forum was originally built as an art deco cinema in 1934 by Herbert Yapp… the architect was J Stanley Beard and the interior design was by his partner WR Bennett. The Forum was launched with a grand opening ceremony of music and films, conducted by the star Sydney Howard, on 17th December 1934.”
So which is true? Has there been an official cover-up of the venue’s sinister past? Was it built for Blackshirts or for black and white movies? The first point to look at is, was this “the final venue for Hitler’s tour?”
Reading around a bit, we find that unlike modern Heavy Metal bands, Hitler didn’t do ‘tours’. No, he stayed in Germany hatching evil plans. When he met with foreign leaders, such as the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in Munich in 1938, they came to him, not him to them.
He never travelled outside his conquered or closely allied territories and wouldn’t have done very well as an orator in North London anyway because he didn’t speak English.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis
Besides, in early 1934 when the foundations for the Forum were being laid, Hitler was not yet the German head of state, nor was he an ambassador, foreign minister or in any other position that might warrant a trip abroad. From 1933 he held the title of Chancellor. He only became Führer (or leader) on the death of President Hindenburg in August 1934, and then became suddenly very busy at home silencing political opponents and persecuting minorities.
He did not plan a visit to Britain in the mid 1930s.
But what about the “decor of huge eagles and the depiction of Roman battle scenes which were associated with the Third Reich”.
He’s right that there are huge Roman eagles adorning the walls. But looking into Third Reich or Nazi German artwork we don’t tend to see any Roman style figures. This is because Nazism, as a form of extreme nationalism, focused on the glories of the master race (i.e. themselves) rather than that of their neighbours. Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy made the most out of Roman glories but not Hitler’s Nazis.
The Nazis loved Wagner’s Germanic heroes- Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and Walther von Stolzing. There are no Wagnerian themes in the Forum.
Our online source says that “it wasn’t that long ago that the swastikas that lined the walls either side of stage were removed but the whereabouts of them now are unknown”. I have to doubt that bit. I find it hard to believe that during the Second World War, Londoners put up with Swastikas on the wall of their weekly Saturday morning cinema while they were being subjected to the Blitz air raids from Nazi Germany.
There’s also no reference to these swastikas in any other sources I’ve found and you really would think that large Swastikas in public would provoke some comment from somebody.
I think we’re going to have to dismiss the Hitler story both from lack of firm evidence and general implausibility. It just wasn’t his style or that of Londoners.
But maybe as our anonymous online source says there was a Blackshirt connection and that is how the Hitler story started. For those of you who don’t know, back in the 1930s politics was a little more extreme than today’s middle of the road squabblers. Rather than battling for the centre ground as our Eurocrats and US political candidates do, back in the 1930s the cool thing to do was align oneself with extremists in the left and right.
Stalin’s Russia was extreme left, Mussolini’s Italy was extreme right and both were effectively violent dictatorships. Spain had a civil war between extreme right and extreme left. The right won.
Most countries had legitimate Communist and Fascist political parties. Britain had the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Sir Oswald Mosley’s Fascists, or Blackshirts as they were known after the colour of their uniforms. Both were seen as threats to the country’s stability by the mainstream parties.
Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts
Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Baronet of Ancoats, had been the youngest member of Parliament to take his seat in 1918, standing for the Conservative Party. After several terms in Parliament, first as a Conservative, then an Independent and then in the Labour Party he grew disillusioned with mainstream politics and formed his own party which became the British Union of Fascists.
The BUF advocated ideas such as eliminating the existing British class system, promoting pacifism, keeping closer ties with Europe and forcing an end to party political bickering. These enlightened ideas hid a darker side and though the party was not openly anti-Semitic like the Nazis in Germany, violence and intimidation followed the movement from the very beginning.
Mosley’s sympathies with Nazi Germany were well known. His second marriage was conducted at Goebbels’ house in Berlin in 1936 and his first marriage in 1920 was attended by the Kings of Britain and Belgium. It is often forgotten that he was a very popular character at the time. Had he come to power however, we in Britain would undoubtedly have been under the grip of a totalitarian one party state allied to Hitler and Mussolini.
So was the Forum built as a Fascist meeting house thus inspiring a Nazi element to be added to the story? If this were the case, it would not be surprising that the venue would not want it mentioned on their official website. It’s nothing to be proud of. But is it true?
Reading through several histories of Mosley’s movement I can find no mention of the Forum at all. You would think if he’d built the place and given speeches there that it would turn up in his extensive biographies. The more I read into Moseley, the less it seemed likely that he would have built the place and this was for a very simple reason. He was just too popular for it.
A London BUF Rally in the 1930s
By the mid-1930s Mosley’s Blackshirt meetings were held at much bigger venues such as the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Royal Albert Hall. Sometimes he held rallies at large outdoor spaces like Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. In 1934 Mosley had no need for a 2,000 capacity venue like the Forum.
So it seems from a lack of evidence to the contrary, that the official story of the Forum being built as a cinema is true. Indeed, this version is backed up by several cinematographic and local histories. Before televisions became common household items people flocked regularly to cinemas to catch the latest black and white blockbuster or just to see the Pathe news.
There was a great demand for new cinemas in the suburbs in the 1930s and Herbert Yapp was the man to provide them. He owned several cinemas already and commissioned architect J Stanley Beard and interior designer WR Bennett to build two new cinemas in Kentish Town and Ealing (West London not South London as our blogger heard). Beard was a well known architect, especially known for building cinemas. In all he designed over twenty cinemas and theatres in the London area. The Kentish Town Forum was opened with a night of music and films, conducted by Sydney Howard on 17th December 1934.
Programme for the opening night
The cinemas of the 1920s and 30s were places of fantasy. Before modern technology transformed our lives, these were the only places audiences could be transported in their imaginations to the Wild West, deepest Africa or Ancient Rome (as in the popular 1925 silent film, ‘Ben Hur’).
The interior of these cinemas, courtesy of Walter Bennett and other designers like him, were usually given beautifully imaginative decor forest scenes, fake pipe organs, battlements or in the case of the Kentish Town Forum, pillars and eagles, evocative of the glory days of Rome. Perhaps the very title Forum (the Latin name for an open square or meeting place) partially inspired the particular classical theme.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about decorating a cinema with fantasy themes in the 1930s. Next time you’re at the Brixton Academy, ignore the band and have a good look around. That one’s really spectacular.
But these rumours don’t just start themselves. There must be some grain of truth, some tiny spark that the story sprung from. And I think I’ve found it.
After the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936 (immortalised by the Men They Couldn’t Hang on their 1985 track, ‘The Ghosts of Cable Street’) in which the Blackshirts openly fought with protestors and the police, Moseley’s fascists were banned from marching in East London. For their next march in July 1937 they chose a different starting point – Kentish Town. I wonder if it was outside the newly built Forum?
Could it be that the story of the Forum being a meeting place for Fascists started life simply as the Fascists met somewhere near the Forum? Add that to some decorative classical architecture and you’ve got the story that the Forum was made specially for the Fascists. From there its only a short step to Adolf Hitler himself turning up. It just goes to show what a bit of Chinese whispers can do to a small story.
I’ve listed my main online sources here:
Forum and Cinema History
Hitler and Nazi History and Architecture
Moseley and Blackshirt History
The Anonymous Blogger
I think his claim about HMV trading arms with the IRA to buy the Forum probably also has to be taken with a pinch of salt but as he admits, he’s “been unable to confirm this as being true”.