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Brighton Hippodrome may be down, but it’s far from out

Uncertain future: Brighton Hippodrome
Uncertain future: Brighton Hippodrome
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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Brighton Hippodrome is a glorious confection, grade II* and one of Frank Matcham’s wonderful rococo creations. It was built in the 1890s as a circus theatre, one of only three that survive, and its purpose has changed one way or the other over the years – it has been an ice rink, home to vaudeville and a stage for bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

Its heyday was as a variety theatre and Brighton’s leading venue, hosting stars from Sarah Bernhardt and Gracie Fields to Laurel and Hardy and Sammy Davis Jr. A youthful Charlie Chaplin appeared here in one of Fred Karno’s productions, and Max Miller considered it his home. So successful was it that it was extended in the 1930s and on one occasion 4,500 people were said to have been crammed in, half as much again as it was licensed for.

But times and tastes change. The old Hippo became a bingo hall, and eventually closed in 2007 with its owners letting it be known that it would cost at least £13 million to restore it. Since then it seems to have changed hands like a hot potato. Various ideas were published for it, but none came to anything, and now Brighton and Hove Council has approved plans to demolish it and redevelop the site as a cinema multiplex and restaurant. The £35 million scheme comes from Alaska Development Consultants and in April it was approved by English Heritage. Meanwhile the Theatres Trust has put it at the top of its Theatre Buildings at Risk register. The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, can still in theory call the planning permission in, but on the face of it there doesn’t seem to be much reason for him to do so.

Wait, though. At the start of this month a campaign was launched called Our Brighton Hippodrome. Launched by Professor Gavin Henderson, local resident and former director of the Brighton Festival and now principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, the campaign’s mission is “to restore the Brighton Hippodrome to its former glory and to operate it as a receiving/producing theatre with a commercial partner and to provide facilities for community activity and involvement” – and it has taken on a life of its own. An e-petition gathered 1,099 signatures alongside a fighting fund with a programme of fund-raising events that started earlier in December.

[pullquote]That this venue could become Brighton’s Royal Albert Hall is catching on[/pullquote]

The idea that this beautiful venue could become Brighton’s Royal Albert Hall seems to be taking on currency, one of the few places where a company like Cirque du Soleil could set out its extravaganzas. There is a business plan and a proposed calendar that would include theatre, music, dance, opera, West End musicals, ballet, variety, stand-up – as well as snooker, wrestling, conferences and – why not? – large-screen cinema presentations.

Now the campaigners claim that local councillors are having a change of heart, and that the newly perceived need for multi-purpose venues that can offer live entertainment ranging from West End musicals to RSC tours is getting some currency in Brighton.

Who would pay for it? Maybe no one, but the arts have accomplished so much in this period of austerity that who’s to say it can’t be done?

In reality, this campaign for the Hippo has been going for half a century or more, and there’s no sign of its ending soon.

Read more arts funding columns from Simon Tait

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