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Empire brings comedy to Willesden

A new comedy venue is to open next month on the site of a former cinema and variety hall in north-west London.

The Comedy Empire, in Willesden, will host shows compered by comedian Mark Lamarr (on Fridays) and presenter Jools Holland (on Saturdays), as well as providing a platform for rising stars and local talent.

The new nightspot is the brainchild of comedy impresario Malcolm Hardee, a veteran stand-up comic, former member of the eccentric 1920s revival act The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and creator of the controversial balloon dance involving three men, three pairs of socks and six balloons.

The original theatre, the Willesden Empire, opened in 1920 with space inside for 2,000 people. One of the first films to be screened there was The Foundling with Mary Pickford, after which audiences would have been able to enjoy the musical delights of Klassique, The Great Concertinist.

However, in the Sixties it was turned into a bingo hall and remained one until June of this year when it closed.

It was destined to become a supermarket or housing estate until Mr Hardee bought it. Since then he has been collecting fairground memorabilia, including laughing policemen and one-arm bandits to decorate the corridors and bar areas and continue the comedy theme off-stage.

On opening night, 14 October, there will be seats for 500 guests, but Mr Hardee has plans to increase capacity.

He expects the Empire to be a welcome addition to the London comedy scene, which has expanded during the past few years and now boasts at least five major clubs.

He said: 'We've got the big names like Mark Lamarr and Jools, but I'll also be opening it up to local talent to come along and have a go, which could be quite risky.

'I'm sure there is talent out there in NW10. Every place is comical really, except maybe Tunbridge Wells.'