Built in 1901 by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham, the Hackney Empire in east London looked set to shut its doors for good in the early noughties. Back in its heyday, the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel trod the boards, but the Grade II listed building was facing closure.
Thanks to then-artistic director Roland Muldoon and actor Griff Rhys Jones it was saved, but it did mean a whole lot of fundraising had to go into the restoration, which ended up costing a whopping £17m.
Speaking on White Wine Question Time, comedian Rhys Jones said even though he finds it really difficult asking people for money, he reached out to Hackney-born Sir Alan Sugar to see if he would donate to the fund.
“I went to Alan Sugar and I said, 'Sir Alan… Would you be interested in supporting the Hackney Empire, because you're from that way?” he told podcast host Kate Thornton.
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“He said, 'My mum and dad used to go there every Saturday. In fact, there's a really good chance I was conceived there.'”
While the billionaire didn’t immediately donate, after five years of communicating with Lord Sugar, Rhys Jones finally received the call he had been waiting for.
“Just before Christmas, one day he rang me up… He rings me up and says 'Alright, Griff. How much do you need?'” recalled the comedian.
“And I said, 'Well, I've just been to a meeting actually Alan. We've done quite well but we need a million’. And he said, 'Alright, put me down for that. Happy Christmas!'”
Naturally the actor, who’s is the President of The Victorian Society, said he was over the moon and contacted his friend and artistic director Muldoon to share the good news. However, the response wasn’t quite what he had hoped for.
He told Thornton: “Roland said, ‘Oh, I'm so sorry. I've just came out of that meeting… When I said a million. It's actually one and a quarter million!”
Rhys Jones who says he’s the sort of person “who finds it very difficult to ask people” had to go back to The Apprentice mogul with his begging cap once more.
“I am the person who had to go back to Alan Sugar and say ‘You know when I said a million, Alan...’” laughed Rhys Jones.
“’A million is really great. Just is there any way that it could be like £1 million, 250,000!’
“I think that was one of the most complicated asks that I've ever had to do!”
Thankfully Lord Sugar agreed, and the Hackney Empire reopened in 2004. However, since the pandemic, like many theatres, it’s struggling to survive, and is asking the public for contributions.
“Hackney Empire is facing the greatest challenge of its 120-year history,” the official website states.
“Closing the doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for Hackney Empire: over 85% of our funding comes from our box office income.”
To donate, visit The Hackney Empire Donation Appeal.
Hear Griff Rhys Jones talk about why he’s not keen on Boris Johnson and what it was like meeting his teen idol Eric Clapton on this week’s episode of White Wine Question Time. Listen now on iTunes and Spotify.