Lilian Baylis (1874-1937) ran the Old Vic theatre, in the Waterloo Road, for over forty years. She established the Vic as the home of Shakespeare in London, and she started it on the path that led to the foundation of the British National Theatre. She took over the Sadler's Wells theatre in Islington, and rebuilt it, thus providing Ninette de Valois with a base for starting what eventually became the Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School. Meanwhile Baylis's true love – her opera company – evolved into the English National Opera. At her death Baylis’s theatrical empire consisted of two financially solvent theatres housing a theatre company, a ballet and an opera company, all committed to bringing what was considered the very best of high culture – Shakespeare, Wagner, Mozart, Swan Lake – to working people at rock bottom prices.
What is often remembered of Baylis, however, is her eccentric behaviour and her ability to come out with the most startling comments: ‘Quite a sweet little Goneril, don’t you think?’ she remarked to an actress who had just performed that particularly unsweet role in King Lear. An unfortunate understudy, emerging exhausted from playing a lead role was greeted with ‘Well, dear, you’ve had your chance. And you’ve missed it’. Baylis was also incomparably mean in paying her staff: anyone asking for a pay rise was told Baylis would have to ask God: the reply was always ‘Sorry, dear, God says No’.