Nancy McMillan was vivacious, elegant and creative and loved theatre in all forms. She was the star of the Alexandra Palace Operatic and Dramatic Society, appearing in nine productions through the inter-war period. Her shows represent a last hurrah for the Theatre before it was shuttered for 80 years.
The Alexandra Palace Operatic and Dramatic Society (APODS) were a group of enthusiastic local performers who staged productions as part of the huge programme of activities at the pleasure palace.
Nancy was a leading lady amongst the large cast. She and her husband Herbert were committed to the society.
A skilled pianist and soprano, she passed her music exams in 1904. From age 18 Nancy began performing in concert venues across North and Central London, including the King's Hall in Covent Garden.
Nancy attended leading productions of the day. She saw Anna Pavlova dance at the Coliseum, and Nell Gwynne being performed at the Lyceum, writing in her diary that she had ‘a ripping time.’
Nancy and Herbert had met through the St Andrew's Church choir. They were married there on 3rd October 1914.
During the First World War Herbert fought in France with the Royal Garrison Artillery in and around Paschendale in 1917. Suffering from shell shock he was invalided out. While recuperating at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland where he was joined by Nancy. They both performed at the hospital, whose magazine described Nancy as ‘… (a) chic, diminutive, golden-haired lady…’ who sang ‘…golden notes.’
The following year Nancy first starred with APODS, playing an Indian princess in A Country Girl. Her extravagant costume and feathered headdress matched the new image of the 1920s and the new Theatre.
Nancy's next was the less glamorous lead as Dolores in Floradora.
Later the same year she took another leading role as the titular Dorothy, which was well reviewed by the Hornsey Journal ‘…Generally speaking the Society boasts some first-class talent.’
And then in 1924 the title role of Helene de Solanges as Véronique.
In keeping with the Victorian heritage of the Theatre, Véronique brought spectacle to the stage with live animals for the appropriately titled 'The Donkey Song' in Act II.
She next starred as O Hana San in The Mousmé. APODS performed an Edwardian repertoire, with typically elaborate and ambitious stagings for which the Alexandra Palace Theatre was designed.
Unusually, the Alexandra Palace Theatre sits within the wider entertainment complex which hosted music, dancing, skating, sports and exhibitions.
Professional touring companies, like the Ben Greet Players, mounted extravagantly costumed shows in a similar format to APODS.
The Society had eminent patrons including three local MPs, more significantly well-known actors and theatrical managers including Sir George Dance, Fred Terry, Julia Neilson and Charles Haydon Coffin.
Another 'exotic' setting was used for The Rose of Persia written by Arthur Sullivan with lyrics by Basil Hood.
Followed by Iolanthe, another Arthur Sullivan operetta, this time from his famous partnership with W.S. Gilbert. Nancy played Phyllis.
Then the Arcadians which returned to the writing team of the Mousmé, Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot with lyrics by Arthur Wimperis. Nancy played Sombra.
H.M.S. Pinafore returned APODS to Gilbert and Sullivan. Nancy played the role of Josephine.
Nancy's final role was Dora in The Toreador. Her opening night flower cards record messages from the Alexandra Palace Trustees, her son Peter and a formal business card from Herbert.
While Nancy took the leading roles, Herbert was active in the Society as the Hon. Secretary.
Herbert had worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, since around 1924, as an Area Manager but lost his job in the early 1930s when the Company closed area branches down as a result of the Depression.
The Theatre itself was closed by the time the BBC leased the East Wing of Alexandra Palace in 1935 to launch their television service. It became a prop store and workshop. There were no live performances for 80 years, until restoration was completed in 2018.
In memory of Jonathan
Curated by Mary Wells
Compiled by James White