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Gaming at the Trocadero
Image: Steve Beech / Camera Press / Alamy

How the Trocadero blew London’s mind then vanished for ever

Once upon a time, London had a huge palace of varieties right in its centre, but now almost nothing remains of it but the name and the memories. How did this city forget a place that just wanted to make us all happy?

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell

The Zedwell hotel on Great Windmill Street, W1, has one of central London’s oddest atmospheres. Outside, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square roar away, but inside it is dead quiet. You might be deep under the sea or in outer space. It could be a stormy November midnight or a sunny spring morning. As you move between its 11 floors (this is by arrangement with the management, I didn’t just wander in off the street) you soon lose track of what level you’re on. They all look exactly alike. Its 721 rooms have multiple double beds (rooms are for two, four, eight or 12 guests), plus showers and toilets. No phone, TV, room-service menu, iron, kettle or tatty fold-out map of local attractions. The corridors and rooms also have no windows. If Radiohead opened a hotel, it would be like the Zedwell.

Sega World the Trocadero Piccadilly Circus
Photograph: James Gritz / Alamy

The Zedwell is designed to offer one thing: sleep. ‘There’s soundproof flooring, soundproof walls, when you’re inside the room it’s super-quiet,’ says Irshad Khan, former CTO of Criterion Hospitality, which owns the Zedwell. ‘We’ve got special mattresses in there. And we’ve also got pumped-in oxygen that gives you the best night’s sleep.’ No windows means more rooms, which means a relatively cheaper stay, and Khan says that for a lot of travellers, being slap-bang in central London is more important than having a view. ‘We’ve recently been featured on CNN as a sleep-tourism hotspot,’ he adds. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, ‘sleep tourism’ is staying somewhere to get an especially good night’s kip, which is also quite odd.

‘I remember the booth where you could film your own blue-screen pop videos! And the photographer’s studio where you could get old-timey sepia portraits done in costume!’ Justin

What’s really odd about the Zedwell, though, is that the building it’s in once had a very different – though still very odd – atmosphere. Its stilled rooms and susurrating carpeted grey corridors once racketed with the sound of hundreds of teenagers hopped up on giant cups of Pepsi playing shooting games and trying to cop off with each other, often at the same time. Over the years, it resonated with go-karts and bowling, with a basement full of aliens trying to dismember you and a fairground ride where it felt like some of your bowel was coming out of the top of your head. It had a giant hedgehog and an escalator SO BIG people talked about it with actual awe. Because once it was the London Trocadero. Now there’s just… sleep. What happened?

Something for everyone

‘My main memory of the London Trocadero,’ says Tom, following my call-out on Twitter for people’s stories of the Troc in its full pomp, ‘is on a family day out, going up the blue-neon-light-lined escalator, soundtracked by “Spacelab” by Kraftwerk on my Sony Walkman, and thinking: I’m in the FUTURE!’ Agnes, meanwhile, is a bit more down to earth: ‘I used to go there to play games and meet boys.’ For many Londoners and visitors, the Trocadero was – for a while, anyway – the centre of the capital, maybe of the known world, offering all the things that we grew up being told that cities would give us: drama, unhealthy food, flashing lights, a branch of Benetton and the chance to meet exciting new people who also liked all those things.

To be 14 and in the London Trocadero was to taste life

Its major attractions: ‘Alien War’, the Pepsi Max Drop, the arcade games, the cinema, its ‘secret McDonald’s’, the sweets and sweets and sweets, were a pure teenage sugar rush of mainlined entertainment. It was immersive before immersive was a thing. To be 14 and in the London Trocadero was to taste life. And life tasted good (if a bit sameish and sickmaking after a while). It’s strange, then, that this stately pleasuredome should be memorialised so little. When I ask people if they remember it, most of them do. Then they say: ‘but I can’t remember what I did there’. Sure, they can name the rides and stuff, but not why it was meaningful, or good, if it even was. When I ask Dominik Diamond, who presented long-running Channel 4 TV series ‘GamesMaster’ and who was the literal face of gaming in the UK – about the 1996 opening of SegaWorld, his response is heartsinkingly predictable: ‘I have no memory of the launch of SegaWorld at all and wonder where I [was] at the time.’ 

Sega Daytona driving games, 1997
Sega Daytona driving games, 1997. Photograph: Alamy

The before Trocs

Part of the shifting nature of the Trocadero in London’s collective memory may be to do with its site. It’s weirdly hard to find for something so huge in such a famously prominent location. When I go to visit the Zedwell, I stride confidently down Shaftesbury Avenue and end up at the permanently closed ‘Body Worlds’ exhibition of creepy plasticised human and animal corpses. This building, I later find out, is part of the ‘Trocadero Centre’. Which is different, or something. It used to be the Pavilion Theatre. Then I go down a sidestreet and arrive in the tasteful lobby of Picturehouse Central, which was once the entrance to the original Trocadero Restaurant, but wasn’t the entrance to the Trocadero that everyone remembers. That entrance, on Coventry Street, is now a souvenir tat emporium flanked by a strip club and an American candy store. Further on is a defunct ‘shrimp grill’ (surely London’s only example of this?) on the site of the old Planet Hollywood restaurant, and round another corner is a vape shop mystifyingly called Quik Pizza. Then I’m back on Shaftesbury Avenue. The Trocadero really is hiding in plain sight. 

‘I remember coming from Manchester as a uni student, playing a game called Tekken. I was really good at it’ Irshad

Even at its birth, the Trocadero was a Frankenstein’s monster assembled out of various bits. A century before ‘Alien War’ and Sonic the Hedgehog and wall-to-wall Clearasil, the building had already lived several lives. Part of the site had been a sort-of music hall called the ‘Argyll Rooms’, the ‘Trocadero Palace of Varieties’ and even the ‘Royal Trocadero Hall’, ‘notorious for its salacious shows and women who sold themselves by the half-hour’, according to Thomas Harding in his book about the Lyons family, ‘Legacy’. It had become a near-derelict dive towards the end of the nineteenth century before being turned into a high-end entertainment complex. The West End was in a surge of development catering to the wealthy and fashionable. When the new ‘Trocadero’ opened in 1896, it had a restaurant, a grill room, a ballroom, a salon, a mural of Arthurian legends and its own masonic lodge, plus a lot of smaller dining rooms you could hire for private, er, meetings. It was chic and catered to London’s nouveau riche taste for all things French and saucy; the ‘Troc’ soon established itself as a popular West End landmark, surviving through the wars and into the swinging ’60s. It wasn’t swinging enough, though, and closed down in 1965. It would sit unused for 20 years. 

1984 and beyond

George Orwell might have taken a dim view of 1984, but for Londoners, it was fun time! The disused Trocadero reopened as a mega entertainment centre, the largest in the UK at the time, with an MGM cinema, a games arcade and branches of shops including period classics Next and Benetton. Sometimes it held exhibitions of celebrity stuff. There’s an endearing video of it from the time showing (a few) happy visitors self-consciously ambling about. Okay, so it largely provided entertainment for us proles, but that was the Thatcherite 1980s: we all got the chance to leisure-spend our way to economic success. The Troc as a shopping centre wasn’t very fancy by Westfield standards, but it gave the building a new democratic identity. It was a forum, a circus, a stadium, right in the centre of the capital.

VR1 virtual reality rollercoaster, 1997
VR1 virtual reality rollercoaster, 1997. Photograph: Alamy

Peak Troc

Three things finally gave the Trocadero its date with destiny. ‘Alien’, Sega and Pepsi. Within a couple of years, the Troc went from slightly ho-hum to pretty space-age. Its star would only flicker brightly for a while, though. In 1993, ‘Alien War’, a pioneering experiential walk-through game where you hunted alien predators in a maze of corridors opened in the basement as a tie-in to the blockbuster Hollywood franchise. ‘“Alien War” was easily the highlight for me,’ tweets Dan. ‘Spent many a time as a teenager scaring myself shitless at that.’ It was a smash. With its realistic recreations of the sets from the film and smoky confusing spaces, it was exciting and terrifying and well ahead of its time. ‘Me and my mates went just after it opened, a fucking intense, scary, mind-blowing experience. We were all in total shock afterwards,’ comments TitanSound on a YouTube video of a news report from the era. 

Suddenly, the Troc became a destination in itself and attracted a massive investment from games giant Sega and soft-drinks overlords Pepsi. SegaWorld, which opened in 1996 (attended by Robbie Williams, Anneka Rice and Jarvis Cocker, among other random celebs of the era), featured the company’s latest games, off the spiny back of global phenomenon Sonic the Hedgehog. ‘I remember. It is the year 1998 and I am in the Trocadero,’ tweets Rukvcs, ‘trying to drive a red Ferrari and taking my brother to play some awesome games there.’ Apart from a giant statue of Sonic that loomed over the entrance as a warning to those brave or foolish enough to enter, the most remarkable feature of the new Trocadero incarnation was a humble escalator (as seen at a tube station near you) elevated to mythic status. The ‘Rocket Escalator’, the largest above-ground one in Europe, took you up several floors straight up into the very heart of the building, like the narrow passage in a pyramid that leads to the pharaoh’s tomb. Once you had made it inside, you could experience the Pepsi Max Drop, a freefall ride which plummeted right down the full height of the building, before braking to stop while your insides conferred on how they were going to respond to this. Pepsi also sponsored London’s very first Imax cinema screen in the Troc, which, in retrospect was quite a coup. 

‘Used to go there when it had a pinball arcade. There was also a recording booth and you could get a tape of you singing along to your favourite artist’ Simon

The labyrinthine fin-de-siècle buildings of the Trocadero by luck or by judgement offered the perfect architecture for what promised to be the entertainment of the future. Its floors and rooms and disorientating layout were like being in a videogame or on a ride before you even got anywhere near an arcade. ‘I loved it... it started HUGE, as you climbed the floors you kept discovering escalators and stairs to more floors,’ says Mark on Twitter. James says: ‘I remember it as a maze of escalators, neon lights, Sonic the Hedgehog and peak ’90s-ness. It was massive. It was like a seaside money-waster arcade on steroids.’ And like a seaside arcade or a provincial shopping centre, the Trocadero offered somewhere to go as much as it offered things to do. It was all literally under one roof.

Demonstration of remote keyhole surgery
Demonstration of remote keyhole surgery. Photograph: Peter Jordan

You could shop, eat, drink, play games, just hang, regardless of the weather. ‘Buying CDs at HMV after being out on the lash,’ tweets Lucy. ‘Sunday afternoons at the cinema on the top floor.’ Former Time Out Big Smoke editor Peter Watts has a lovely post on his blog The Great Wen about wandering about London as a teenager in the 1990s and popping into the Trocadero to buy sweets. This was when a pilgrimage to the West End was a Saturday ritual for suburban London teenagers, the equivalent of ‘going into town’ on the bus if you live in a normal town. Aimlessly strolling from shop to shop, to McDonald’s, to the cinema. The Trocadero, with its tasting menu of all possible types of (legal) fun, suited that audience to a tee. 

‘When I was in my early teens it all seemed very exciting and loud and brash and therefore not at all like home: Sutton High Street,’ says Watts. ‘It could only have existed in central London.’ ‘The first time I came to London, it was three mates of mine getting together and jumping on the Daytona race cars,’ remembers Khan. ‘For me, it was a socialising thing with my friends.’ This was the Cool Britannia era: Noel Gallager hobnobbing with Tony Blair at No 10, Geri’s Union Jack dress, Jamie Oliver showing that lads could cook too – what could be more archly alluring than a massive funfair-cum-games-arcade in central London? It’s only surprising it didn’t include a chip shop and a pub. It seemed like the Trocadero had finally found its tribe.

The novelty wears off

The ephemeral nature of the Trocadero’s charms contained the seed of its demise. In its heyday, it catered to the tastes of children – games and sweets on repeat. Its lifeblood was novelty, it wasn’t designed to inspire loyalty. Kids ‘go off’ things. Once their little brothers and sisters are into something, they’re not. And – let’s face it – for most people there’s a pretty brief period in which you can still seriously take a date to an amusement arcade, even one in central London with a very big escalator. Unlike, say, the often-celebrated Rowan’s Bowling, the Trocadero didn’t make it into the social media age, the nostalgia age or the immersive experience age.

‘Not architecture alone but all technology is, at certain stages, evidence of a collective dream’ Walter Benjamin, ‘The Arcades Project’

‘Alien War’ succumbed to a very non-outer-space basement flood. Sega pulled out after just three years as being at the heart of the West End proved a bit less lucrative (and considerably less prestigious) than it had hoped, and Pepsi followed suit, with the Drop being relocated to a funfair on Hayling Island in Essex, where, according to at least one YouTube commenter, it wasn’t as good. Most crucially, by the early 2000s, gaming was going domestic. As consoles got more sophisticated and the internet got faster, there was no need to leave the house to play against other random people. ‘When I came to uni you’re like a late teenager, I was already out of the game stuff,’ says Khan. ‘It wasn’t really my cup of tea. And when you went there you saw 16-year-olds bunking off school.’ 

SegaWorld became ‘Funland’, which, in a textbook case of reverse nominative determinism wasn’t anything like as fun as what it replaced, although it was the home for a bit of the rhythm dance game craze. The Troc struggled on gamely for another decade. Then it was gone.

The ghosts of the Trocadero

I grew up near Crystal Palace Park in south London and when I was a kid we’d go there all the time. At first, I was mainly captivated by the dinosaurs lurking about their primordial rockery, but later I became fascinated by the top of the park, where the Crystal Palace itself once stood. I loved the crumbling terraces and graffitied sphinxes, the upward-vertigo of the giant TV mast. But most of all, I loved the idea of the ghost of the building that once stood there.

‘Just machines. Winning teddies. Loud music. There use to be a bar as well’ Debbie

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that some now-vanished buildings or places ever existed. The Twin Towers is maybe the most extreme example. The Crystal Palace is another. A more subtle one is the London Trocadero. It’s not Troy or Babylon: impossible to imagine. The building that housed it is standing where it always did. It’s more that everyone knows about the Trocadero, but no two people seem to be able to convincingly agree on what it was, what it did, what went on there or why it was so great. They can’t even agree where it was. Despite this, in a lot of ways, the Trocadero was the future. It anticipated live gaming events and made arcades social spaces rather than dens of solitary saddos.

Just this week, Soho’s W Hotel announced that it is opening a ‘gaming suite’, ‘full of cutting-edge technology and decked out with the state-of-the-art equipment’, while St Paul’s-adjacent shopping centre One New Change announced its F1 Arcade, ‘the world’s first official premium F1 experiential venue’. The Troc also led the way in Imax screens, live VR gaming, preempted the West End epidemic of US novelty candy shops and created an immersive environment that meant simply being there was an experience before you’d even parted with any cash. And that’s what’s truly great about it – you had to be there.

Rocket Escalator, 1999
Rocket Escalator, 1999. Photograph: Gunnar Knechtel / Laif / Camera Press

You could see the Zedwell as a kind of anti-Trocadero. When the old basement entrance is reopened, you will theoretically be able to fly into Heathrow, get the tube to Piccadilly Circus, go into the Zedwell straight from the station, go up to your room, then do it all in reverse, spending a week in the busiest part of central London without ever actually seeing it. But as the twenty-first century lurches from pandemic to nuclear war to climate catastrophe to economic disaster, a soothing oxygenated Mujiesque windowless cocoon is maybe the ultimate escape, the new excitement. No flashing lights, no chrome or mirrors or aliens or sugar or extra bacon, no organised fun. Just peace. But I like to think that in the dead of night, the temporarily pacified guests at the Zedwell sometimes hear the ghosts of the Trocadero playing Virtua Cop 2 or shrieking on the Pepsi Max Drop at the end of a distant corridor, like a West End version of the Overlook Hotel but cloudy with Lynx.

‘I have to remind myself it all wasn’t just a dream at times. It feels like it was Pleasure Island when you look back on it now’ Dan

Zedwell hotel, Great Windmill St, W1D 7DH.

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