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Grand history: Frank Matcham’s Blackpool masterpiece celebrates 125 years

Blackpool Grand Theatre. Photo: Wikipedia Blackpool's Grand Theatre. Photo: Wikipedia
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As Blackpool’s Grand Theatre marks its 125th birthday, Catherine Jones charts the history of this gem in Blackpool’s crown that has weathered its fair share of disasters – including the threat of demolition – but continues to flourish

On July 23, 1894, Blackpool turned out in its full fin-de-siècle finery for the Grand Theatre’s first performance. The theatre was illuminated with dazzling electric lights, and the opening-night programme for Hamlet was printed on pure silk perfumed with ‘Tower’ bouquet. Today, it is celebrating its 125th birthday.

The Stage described, in great detail, the “splendid temple of the drama” with its handsome entrance foyer and retiring rooms “fitted up in the most luxurious and tasteful style”. It noted the ‘capacious’ cantilevered auditorium with its sweeping balconies and unimpeded views, modern dressing rooms with hot and cold running water, and its large stage with “space sufficient to work the most elaborate productions”.

The Grand, built in nine months and at a cost of £20,000, was the work of Frank Matcham but the brainchild of entertainment entrepreneur Thomas Sergenson, who had previously managed theatres in the resort and who ran a rudimentary circus on the site before the Grand was built.

When Sergenson heard on the grapevine that a tower was to be built on the seafront, complete with a new circus at its base, he decided to turn his compact site into a theatre in Blackpool instead, featuring state-of-the-art facilities and designed by the best theatre architect in the country.

During its early years the Grand, dubbed ‘Matcham’s masterpiece’, attracted some of the biggest stars of the day including Lily Langtry, Ellen Terry, Dan Leno, Mrs Patrick Campbell and Sarah Bernhardt.

Blackpool's Grand Theatre 125th anniversary celebrations. Photo: Martin Bostock Photography
Blackpool’s Grand Theatre 125th anniversary celebrations. Photo: Martin Bostock Photography

Meanwhile, for the 1909 Blackpool Aviation Week, the ambitious Sergenson brought in the British Bioscope Co, which showed special films in the theatre. Despite his success, that year he sold the building to the Blackpool Tower Company for £47,500 (£5.5 million in today’s money). One of the company’s first moves was to install raked seating in the stalls.

The theatre continued to flourish, staging big musical hits such as Chu Chin Chow and The Maid of the Mountains, and American shows such as The Desert Song and Rose Marie.

With the advent of talkies, the Grand found itself competing for audiences – the theatre adopting an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ stance and turning itself into a cinema during the off season while still the home of acts such as Gracie Fields over the summer.

Blackpool's Grand Theatre. Photo: Sean Conboy
Blackpool’s Grand Theatre. Photo: Sean Conboy

It was with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that quality stage work found a new and receptive audience, and the 1940s became a golden age for the Grand in a town teeming with forces personnel, relocated civil servants, evacuees and refugees.

The theatre played host to, among others, John Gielgud and Edith Evans in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Sadler’s Wells with Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton, while in 1942 Noel Coward premiered both Present Laughter and This Happy Breed there as part of his Play Parade.

During the 1950s, the programme juggled touring theatre with summer seasons aimed at holidaymakers, who were treated to headline acts such as Arthur Askey, Freddie Frinton, Sid James, Hylda Baker and Thora Hird.

However, despite its long history, like many other theatres, by the 1960s the Grand’s days appeared to be numbered. In 1968 the Tower Company, which also owned Blackpool Tower and the Winter Gardens complex, was taken over by EMI.

Blackpool's Grand Theatre. Photo: Sean Conboy
Blackpool’s Grand Theatre. Photo: Sean Conboy

Archivist Geoff Tolman says: “This little Victorian theatre was part of the package. They were a bit half-hearted; there was the summer season and then three plays or productions before the season and three after it closed, then for the rest of the winter months it was dark.”

Not only that, but it became apparent there was a plan already being discussed to demolish the building in favour of a shopping precinct. Matters came to a head in 1972 when the theatre was closed, and a planning notice appeared in the Blackpool Gazette outlining the intention to build a Littlewoods on the site.

However, thanks to one local man, Jeffrey Finestone, the Grand had recently been Grade II-listed, and the plans were therefore taken to public inquiry where the newly-formed Friends of the Grand pressure group enlisted the help of a London-based QC to fight the theatre’s corner.

As Ruth Eastwood, the Grand’s current chief executive points out, Friends of the Grand were trailblazers: “The Theatres Trust, the statutory body protecting these kind of theatres, was only created in 1976. The rest of the world was waking up to the fact that everywhere was being bulldozed, not just Blackpool.”

The Friends won their case and, in 1977, EMI agreed to basic refurbishment on the condition the building was opened as a bingo hall. Shows could be staged late at night after the bingo had finished.

One stalwart Grand supporter during the era was Ken Dodd, who would play fundraisers for nothing – as long as his support acts were paid.

In 1979, EMI’s Bernard Delfont offered to sell the Grand to the Friends for £250,000, a sum achieved by support from Arts Council England, the local council and a two-year programme of community fundraising. The dress circle walk still features two donor boards full of names.

Archivist Linda Tolman remembers: “EMI had pulled a big curtain around the gallery, and when we bought the theatre and whisked the curtain open, pigeons flew out. There were no windows.

“They’d also taken out all the stage lighting and sound. It needed a whole winter’s worth of work on it to be suitable for use as a theatre.”

The building, run by the Grand Theatre Charitable Trust, officially reopened in March 1981 with the Old Vic’s The Merchant of Venice starring Timothy West and Prunella Scales. In 2006, the now Grade II*-listed Grand was awarded the accolade National Theatre of Variety.

A three-phase programme of restoration and building work has included the recreation of Matcham’s original cast-iron entrance canopy, the creation of a modern studio theatre, improving front-of-house facilities and restoring the ornate, 1,100-seat auditorium to its Victorian glory.

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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