Nancy McMillan: Last Star of the Stage

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.

Alexandra Palace Operatic and Dramatic Society bus outing (1922/1930) by PhotopressAlexandra Palace

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.

Full cast of “Veronique” (1925)Alexandra Palace

Nancy was a leading lady amongst the large cast. She and her husband Herbert were committed to the society.

Distant view of Alexandra Palace (1907-05)Original Source: Alexandra Park and Palace Collection at Bruce Castle Museum

Stage Calling

Nancy McMillan (1889-1974) was 'stage mad', living under the gaze of the entertainment complex on the hill. When her family moved from Highbury to a newly built house in The Avenue, opposite Alexandra Palace and Park in 1907, it began a life-time association with the Palace. She lived in the Muswell Hill area for the rest of her life.

Sketch portrait of Nancy McMillan (c1917)Alexandra Palace

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.

Crowds at the Grove, Alexandra Palace (1922/1935)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

By 1913 Nancy was engaged to Herbert Wells. Both shared an interest in music and attended concerts at Alexandra Palace and The Grove in the Park.

LIFE Photo Collection

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.’

Alexandra Palace (1875/1935)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

Her busy social calendar of 1913 included 104 trips to the theatre, concerts and the cinema, which had taken over as the main entertainment at the Alexandra Palace Theatre.

Wedding of Nancy McMillan and Herbert Wells (1914-10) by Arthur W. LeeAlexandra Palace

Nancy and Herbert had met through the St Andrew's Church choir. They were married there on 3rd October 1914.

Herbert Wells (1925-08)Alexandra Palace

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.’

Alexandra Palace Theatre from Balcony (1922/1935)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

A Theatre Reborn

Following the First World War the Alexandra Palace Theatre, which had operated as a church for the 3,000 men interned as 'enemy aliens', was restored and elaborately redecorated by W. J. MacQueen-Pope. Live performance returned when the stage reopened in 1922.

Nancy McMillan in “A Country Girl” (1923) by Davey & HackneyAlexandra Palace

The following year Nancy first starred with APODS, playing an Indian princess in A Country Girl. Her extravagant costume matched the new image of the 1920s and the new Theatre.

Nancy McMillan in “Florodora" (1924) by Davey & HackneyAlexandra Palace

Nancy's next was the less glamorous lead as Dolores in Floradora.

“Dorothy” programme “Dorothy” programme (1924)Alexandra Palace

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.’

Flyer for “Veronique” (1925)Alexandra Palace

And then in 1924 the title role of Helene de Solanges as Véronique.

The ‘Donkey Song’ from “Veronique” (1925)Alexandra Palace

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.

Full cast of “The Mousme” (1926) by PhotopressAlexandra Palace

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.

Nancy McMillan in “Tom Jones” (1927) by The Muswell Hill RecordAlexandra Palace

A Theatre in a Palace

In Spring 1927 Nancy played Sophia Western in Tom Jones. APODS shared the Theatre with professional companies and resident artist Gracie Fields, who rehearsed her shows ahead of transfer or tour.

Nancy McMillan at stage door for “Tom Jones” (1927)Alexandra Palace

Unusually, the Alexandra Palace Theatre sits within the wider entertainment complex which hosted music, dancing, skating, sports and exhibitions.

Shakespeare Performers in Costume (c.1925)Alexandra Palace

Professional touring companies, like the Ben Greet Players, mounted extravagantly costumed shows in a similar format to APODS.

Actors in 18th Century dress, possibly for “Tom Jones” (1927)Alexandra Palace

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.

Cast in “The Rose of Persia” (1928) by Recordograph StudiosAlexandra Palace

Another 'exotic' setting was used for The Rose of Persia written by Arthur Sullivan with lyrics by Basil Hood.

Nancy McMillan in “Iolanthe" (1928)Alexandra Palace

Followed by Iolanthe, another Arthur Sullivan operetta, this time from his famous partnership with W.S. Gilbert. Nancy played Phyllis.

Arthur Earl and Nancy McMillan in “The Arcadians” (1929)Alexandra Palace

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.

Nancy McMillan as Josephine with Ralph in “H.M.S. Pinafore” (1929) by Recordograph StudiosAlexandra Palace

H.M.S. Pinafore returned APODS to Gilbert and Sullivan. Nancy played the role of Josephine.

Flower cards for Nancy McMillan as Dora (1930)Alexandra Palace

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.

Alexandra Palace Operatic and Dramatic Society letterhead paper (1922/1930)Alexandra Palace

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.

Nancy McMillan outside Alexandra Palace, 1949 (1949-01)Alexandra Palace

Later Years

Their economic circumstances improved after WWII when Herbert was employed as Company Secretary and in senior administrative roles until he retired.  They maintained their many friendships, including friends who had been involved with them in APODS. Nancy‘s later years were characterized by her lifelong elegance, love of music, and the theatre which continued to play a central role in both their lives, as spectators rather than actors.  

Credits: Story

In memory of Jonathan

Curated by Mary Wells

Compiled by James White

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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