Welcome to the Tardis of West Hampstead.
Outside, people scurry past its flaking blue paint, barely noticing it’s there. But find a ruse to get in the door and you could get lost exploring for hours. There is a Bible Archive, but no holy books. There is a Rail Store and a Crew Room, which have nothing to do with the tube station across the road.
This is Lilian Baylis House, the English National Opera’s (ENO) rehearsal rooms tucked unassumingly down Broadhurst Gardens, and it is an unusual place. A meandering corridor concealed by Escher-like steps, which you must climb in order to descend, opens out into a vast hangar-like space. It’s disorienting. Are you underground or above? Which way did you come? And where is that singing coming from?
“Everyone who works here seems to love it because it’s so full of character,” says my guide Natasha Freedman. “There is something about the quirks of the building that make them nice spaces to work in.”
Perhaps its past plays a role. These walls have absorbed a century of celebrated musical history, with the ENO just the latest chapter.
Constructed as Victorian craftsmen’s workshops, the building served for a while as West Hampstead’s own Town Hall before becoming a recording studio in the 1920s for Vera Lynn and other big names of the day. Decca Records bought it in 1937. For almost half a century it recorded classical music and popular artists here, from big band leader Ted Heath, to Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie.
Broadhurst Gardens could have been as famous as Abbey Road given its history – but Decca only had itself to blame for missing that chance. In one of the music industry’s most notorious mistakes, its talent men auditioned The Beatles here in 1962 but turned them down. “Guitar bands are on the way out,” the band’s manager was told.
The studios closed in 1980 and were bought the next year by the ENO, which had outgrown its Coliseum home near Trafalgar Square. Today, it still needs to hire other rehearsal venues, despite three large spaces here. The site is now a confusing warren of different levels, stairs and corridors connecting three converted studios, all of it adapted to new uses rather than rebuilt.
ENO named the building after theatre producer and manager Lilian Baylis, who in the first half of the 20th century ran companies that evolved into the ENO, The Royal Ballet and the National Theatre.
Studio 2, deep in the bowels of the building where Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli once played, now has a grand piano, a wall of mirrors with barres – and a basketball hoop high on the wall that seems in keeping with the premises’ lived-in feeling.
“There is still evidence of the past, like the glass window in Studio 2 behind which all the recording equipment was,” says Freedman, who heads the ENO’s outreach division, simply called Baylis, which aims to bring opera to people who could not afford it or might never think of it.
“The building takes a good punishing, we’re moving equipment around all the time,” Freedman says.
Old soundproofing tiles still cover walls and ceilings, layered with pipes and cables that zigzag around the ENO maze. Doors in all directions are fitted with blue signs announcing the function of the rooms they guard, inside which are more discoveries.
“You can open a cupboard and it’s full of organised buttons – or another full of gentlemen’s shoes of every style,” says Freedman. “There’s one near our room full of underwear of all shapes and sizes.”
The building is long and thin and full of corners that never see daylight. It seems huge, having been extended to the back in the 1960s to house Decca’s giant Studio 3, which can fit a mock-up of a whole Coliseum stage.
During the opera season, the director, conductor, lead singers and chorus are here rehearsing for any of the three shows the ENO runs at one time. The singing you might occasionally just hear from outside will nearly always be in English, the language the company performs in.
The singers get fitted for their costumes here, occasionally giving a sense of time travel. “Walk down a corridor and you can hear a singer in one room having coaching and in the next, members of the costume department are doing fittings with their tape measures and pins,” Freedman says. Mozart’s doomed seducer Don Giovanni was here the other week to be measured up to meet his fate. Soon it will be the turn of the pitiful pirates and blundering bobbies of Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance.
Since 2015 “LBH”, as its inhabitants call it, has got more crowded. The ENO’s off-stage staff – marketing, communications, administration and Baylis – all moved in from offices in St Martin’s Lane to help the cash-strapped company save money.
Lovely as West Hampstead is, can West End Lane really compete with the West End as a place to work?
Freedman smiles. “Um… for [my team] it’s great being close to the rehearsal rooms,” she says diplomatically. “Stuff is being created and made all the time. This increasingly feels like our home.”
Freedman says long hours mean there has been little time to explore the attractions of the area but named three ENO favourites: The Sherriff centre “very good church-cum-post office-cum-wonderful whatever a real community centre should be”; Wired coffee shop outside their front door; “We love Wired, everyone goes there to keep going”; and Vietnamese restaurant Pham House – “really lovely people and delicious food”.
Unsurprisingly, West Hampstead itself is not a priority for the ENO, although Freedman says she would love to find local partnerships to help reach teenagers who have never thought of opera before. “Camden as a borough is relatively well served in terms of the arts. Our focus is more on Brent, which is very poorly served.”
The ENO has links with secondary schools in the neighbouring borough. Students regularly come to the studios to watch rehearsals and see what goes into a production, from making hats to shifting stage sets.
Around 50 students spent a week here in the summer to create a project linked to ENO productions which involves performance, set and costume design and investigating some of the moral dilemmas shown on stage.
“Opera’s not just a museum piece written 200 years ago but is storytelling through music, drama and design,” says Freedman. “Once you start talking about opera like that with young people they totally get it.”
LBH is not open to the public, so how can a local get in to have a look? You could join the 110-strong no-audition-needed ENO Community Choir which meets here on Wednesdays (and where warmup exercises, to stick to the Dr Who theme, can include singing like a Dalek).
Frenchman Julien Molinet, a West End Lane resident since the summer, joined the choir after checking out the ENO – which he had never heard of – online. “It all looked a bit derelict and at first I thought it was a closed factory,” he said. “It was a real surprise when I walked in, the size of this place!”
Or you could email Baylis to join its community mailing list and be alerted to the next “Know the Show” in the spring – a one-day singing and drama workshop open to anyone who wants to get a feel of what it’s like to be an opera chorus member. For details of these events, email gro.o1527355691ne@si1527355691lyab1527355691.
In case you never make it but were wondering about those rooms … well, the Rail Store is for clothes rails and the Crew Room is for stagehands. And the Bible Archive? For “costume bibles” from every production going back decades, minutely detailing all the designs, sketches, photos and alterations so that one day, it can all be brought back to life.