Arts Council England has just identified Dudley as one of the “Priority Places” in the UK where arts and culture are significantly underfunded by ACE, and is consequently substantially boosting their investment in Dudley to help the locality grow their arts and culture offering in order to benefit their communities, which is great news for everyone.
So can this be the right time for Dudley Council to press ahead with their application to demolish the area’s largest single arts and culture asset, the Dudley Hippodrome- the only purpose-built professional theatre in the area?
As Heritage Open Days 2021 draw to a close, when all across the country, local authorities have proudly celebrated their priceless heritage buildings, I aim to do what the Council seems not to have done – to celebrate Dudley Hippodrome
This article introduces Dudley Hippodrome to those of you who may not live nearby, or have heard of it before. Locals have heard it all, I am sure, but this article aims to give an overview of the building, the story, the struggle and the vision that could, potentially, bring Dudley Hippodrome back from the brink.
The Dudley Hippodrome
The Dudley Hippodrome is an impressive Art Deco theatre with over 70 successful years of entertainment history, bringing enjoyment to the community and visitors from far and wide. However, its last 12 years have been dogged by closure and neglect. Now it faces the prospect of demolition -for a third time- with few friends in the Council and only the people of Dudley to speak up for it. And boy are they shouting! The saga of the fight against demolition, with the passion, dogged perseverance and the angry cries of the people – is an involved one, but I have broken it down into sections in the hope that you’ll stay with me – to introduce you to one of the important heritage preservation battles of 2021.
The history of the Dudley Hippodrome – “The Showplace of the West Midlands”
When the town of Dudley in the West Midlands lost the Dudley Opera House, built in 1899, which burned down in 1936, its proprietor, Benjamin Kennedy, decided to demolish the remains and build an entirely new theatre on the same site. The Dudley Hippodrome, as the new building was called, was built in 1937/8 and opened in 1938.
Kennedy was also the owner of a new cinema, the Plaza, built in 1936 to replace a previous one which stood right next to the Opera House. The Plaza cinema was designed by local architect Archibald Hurley Robinson. Robinson’s main body of work was in and around the west Midlands, with his practice established in Birmingham. Hurley Robinson was known as a prolific cinema designer over a 25 year period from World War 1 to the outbreak of World War 2.
So, when Kennedy was looking for an architect for his new Hippodrome, he turned once again to Hurley Robinson. Although built as a variety theatre, its construction was very much in line with the look and style of super cinemas of the 1930s. Indeed, the Hippodrome is the only theatre on Hurley Robinson’s long list of building credits.
The Hippodrome opened in December 1938, seating a total of 1,750 in stalls and circle, with the region’s largest stage and fly tower- amply equipped to present big touring shows. For many years the Hippodrome was proudly known across the country as “the Showplace of the West Midlands”.
The owner, Benjamin Kennedy died on 10 April 1939, passing on responsibility for running the theatre to his sons, Maurice and Robert. The theatre then enjoyed a glittering couple of decades of operation, with top stars from all around the world headlining here including Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope, Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd, Bruce Forsyth and many more.
The theatre ran into financial difficulties in 1958, in common with many UK theatres which were then suffering the combined effects of the decline of variety coupled with the new television channels luring away their audiences with the offer of free entertainment in their own homes.
After a few months of closure, the Hippodrome re-opened under new ownership in December with a pantomime to tide them over the holiday season. But eventually changing times saw another change of owners and the final stage show at the theatre came on 24 February 1964, and the last live concert starred Roy Orbison in 1974.. A succession of new owners through the 60s and 70s finally saw the Hippodrome reverting to bingo, and it was as a bingo hall that the theatre closed in 2009, after 70 years of operation.
The empty years
In 2010 the building was placed on the Theatres Trust’s annual At Risk Register for the first time (it has appeared every year since). Later in 2010 the building was purchased by Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council.
For those wishing all the details of the theatre’s next few years, the Theatres Trust website can provide you with a detailed background information which you can find here.
In short, the Council compulsorily purchased the building with the possibility of demolition for a scheme which didn’t happen and the building has been empty and languishing ever since. Several interested groups have wanted to revive the venue, but according to Theatres Trust reports, none of them appear to have had the right level of support or finance available to them, together with too many constraints which limited their chances of success from the start.
But now things move up a gear……
The Friends, the Trust – and the Council
The Dudley Hippodrome Friends and Community Group was established in early 2020 and quickly grew a sizeable following on Facebook of over 2,500 followers. What the group has tried to do, with little outside support or assistance, financial or otherwise, is revive the idea of returning the theatre to its previous role as a vital community hub. They have done a remarkable job in mobilising local opinion and feeling to support their aims and my heartiest congratulations go out to each of them for their commitment and hard work.
In an extension of the Friends and Community group, the Dudley Hippodrome Development Trust was formed in April of this year, applying to register as a charity to fundraise seriously and step up their fight to save the Hippodrome.
The DHDT/Friends’ vision for the Hippodrome is positive, ambitious but is well-considered as well as achievable and offers incalculable benefits to the community.
The Hippodrome sits upon an important site at the gateway to Dudley town, close by the Zoo and Dudley Castle. This whole area is rightly designated a conservation area, which gives higher protection for buildings than if they were simply locally listed. This illustration below shows the aspect as you approach the ‘Heritage Quarter’ and the Gateway to Dudley.
The proposed glazed aspect (on the right hand side of this illustration) would be repeated on the opposite side facing the Zoo and Castle. It cleverly turns the previous “wall of brick” side aspects into something really attractive from all sides.
The DHDT and Friends’ vision is that the theatre would be repurposed leaving a Main Auditorium, albeit with smaller capacity, allowing the construction of a secondary Studio Theatre for smaller shows / events and rehearsals, increasing the potential footfall even further. This approach has been proven to work in other entertainment venues such as the very successful Stockport Plaza.
Moving on to the massive basement with its own entrances which is now reinvented as an all day venue for healthy breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners and drinks where you would find a Deli/Bakery, Vegan and Street Food Concessions, Shakes/Ices, Artisan Deli/Coffee House, Prosecco/Ginsecco, Black Country Craft Ales and a Gin and Ale Bar & Kitchen….a vibrant world of food and drink options.
The adjoining soundproofed rehearsal studios would have the flexibility to open out to form a Black Box Theatre with platform stage and flexible seating layouts. Eclectic community meeting rooms, Kids cinema/Xbox/PS4 lounge, and more. The basement studios would benefit younger people of Dudley’s diverse community for musical instrument tuition and performances, acting, singing and dancing, education, health, well-being and personal development, empowering and inspiring for generations to come. What an amazing asset to the community and for local community services to tap into!
Upstairs on the higher levels, the vision continues with a nod to the past. Glazed aspects overlooking the gateway to Dudley, a Laurel and Hardy (who appeared here in 1947) themed Cocktail Bar/Kitchen/Restaurant for lunch, brunch, afternoon teas and pre-show dinner or personal dining with Sunday lunches and special celebratory occasions catered for in style. A rooftop terrace would be added to enjoy views of the town and the Castle.
Here we have a clear, comprehensive, well-thought out plan for a revived and thriving much-loved heritage building. A plan any town (or future city) would be proud of. You’d think….
The struggle and the silence
The Friends/DHDT group has done fantastic work with rallying the local community, generating some smaller-scale fundraising and has created the above visuals to communicate their inspiring vision of how the theatre could revive not only its own interests, but also, according to locals, the run-down Dudley centre which is crying out for regeneration. But it is perplexing that the Conservative-led Council doesn’t appear to be interested.
The Friends/DHDT group has found support from opposition councillors, with Ryan Priest, a spokesman for Dudley Liberal Democrats, saying “To tear down such a significant icon of our history, and to ignore the calls for its restoration is an absolute failure of leadership. Dudley Hippodrome is a local landmark, an important part of Black Country history, and if reopened and restored to its former glory could have a huge impact on the local area.”
Passion is all very well, you may say, but where is the evidence it can work? The Friends and DHDT asked for just £15,000 to survey and analyse the potential for the Hippodrome’s viability as a leisure and entertainment venue. In the only Council meeting they were granted- on June 2nd this year- Mr Harley, the Leader of the Council, seemed to think that was reasonable – so reasonable that there and then he offered the group that £15,000, stating himself that the sum asked was “a drop in the ocean”. But a few weeks later that offer was withdrawn. Could this have aligned with the news that money had come through to proceed with their alternative regeneration plans which involved the Hippodrome’s demolition….
What, we must ask ourselves, could Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council possibly not see in exploring the potential of the Hippodrome? That a large-scale entertainment venue, viable for 70 years, could be brought back to life, bringing financial input into the area by rejuvenating the day-time and night-time economy, opening up opportunities for business to benefit from increased footfall and visitor numbers, providing a first-rate entertainment venue for local people and surrounding areas which they currently lack?
And yet here in their midst is a ready-made, plush, purpose-built, 1500+ seater theatre with comfy seats and great sightlines, and all the potential to bring popular big-scale touring shows into the heart of Dudley, with the resultant financial benefits. Evidence? The hit musical Blood Brothers has already expressed an interest to play a revived Dudley Hippodrome. Just think how many other shows would jump at the chance, given the opportunity?
The Council may not wish to acknowledge the reality of the Hippodrome’s current existence, but there is a growing clamour for positive action to save this significant asset – owned, let’s not forget, by the Dudley people whose hard-earned money was used by the Council to buy it.
Some of the protestations that the building is ugly and austere are very easily countered by the new vision for the building. The current large expanses of brick are broken down by the new additions, making it much more attractive. And yes, it’s run-down right now. But it has been unused for ten years – and any run-down building can be spruced up with a little vision, some money- and the will to do so. Someone also commented along the lines of “It’s just a building-no culture here”. A building is just a building – well, you could say the say the same of a school, a church or even a castle. It’s the people who use it that make a building come to life – and to deny the value of the arts impoverishes the whole community.
The recent news of a financial award for a regeneration scheme was not good news for the Hippodrome. The Council have pushed forward with its application to knock down the Hippodrome (at an estimated cost of £5million, not to mention the huge environmental costs), and spend yet more taxpayers’ money on building some big boxy college buildings in its place. All this, remember, in one of the Council’s own-designated Conservation Areas! The application for demolition was posted in August and statements both for and against demolition have been sent, including a strongly-worded objection by Theatres Trust, the UK’s leading authority on our theatre heritage buildings, as well as the Twentieth Century Society, who stand up for all significant buildings of that period. The application period has closed (although objections can still be posted at the Council’s planning site), and now we wait to hear about the date of the hearing which will finally decide Dudley Hippodrome’s fate.
With feelings understandably running high, it’s important to maintain perspective. As one person writing to the local newspaper helpfully summed up in this way. No-one is saying “let’s not have the college”; what people are saying is “have the college somewhere else, and let’s have both”. Which must be a win-win in any borough’s book. There has not been any reason given why the college has to be built upon the site of the Hippodrome, as far as I know.
Is that idea so controversial that it can’t be viewed as the “win-win” that everyone in Dudley could agree upon – and benefit from?
So we arrive back at the present Heritage Open Days – with Dudley Council’s social media seeming to forget to include the Hippodrome, whilst still asking people to name their favourite building, with many loud replies coming back – the Dudley Hippodrome!
SOME QUESTIONS WORTH THINKING ABOUT
Why did a community survey of development options which omitted the Hippodrome entirely get responses from just 0.18% of the population (within a six-mile radius), yet the petitions in favour of retaining the Hippodrome gathered over 15,000 signatures, representing over 3% of the population? What does that tell us about how more passionate Dudley people are to see their Hippodrome retained and revived than demolished?
Why have the Theatres Trust and the Twentieth Century Society both objected so strongly to the loss of this theatre?
Can the Council find justification for demolishing a building which sits in one of its own designated Conservation Areas, which in itself should afford more protection than Local Listing ?
“Isn’t it listed?” you may say. It is not, because the theatre sits in a Conservation area, which means that all the elements of that Conservation area are protected – and indeed have more protection than Local Listing alone would confer.
It is hard to understand why the Hippodrome was not included in the Heritage Open Days celebration media and other publications.
Can Dudley Council’s admirable commitment to the Climate Emergency Agreement be reconciled with the needless wholesale demolition of the Hippodrome, releasing thousands of tonnes of unnecessary emissions upon the people of Dudley over a sustained period of time?
In lodging the application for the Hippodrome’s demolition, were the Council aware that this application contradicts their own Action Plan, the National Planning Policy Framework and Dudley Development Strategy too?
Can anyone explain why the proposed new college building needs to be built right where the Hippodrome is, when there are plenty of other sites where demolition of existing buildings is not needed, saving countless unnecessary emissions? If there is a valid reason it should be known.
Wouldn’t it be good to know who, if any, current members of Dudley Council actually been inside the Hippodrome building to see what is there?
I wonder if the people of Dudley consider the current non-purpose built entertainment venues are good enough for them, when they have a plush, purpose-built theatre with perfect sightlines, great acoustics and big-show potential to rival the rest of the UK which stands waiting but unused?
Would the people of people of Dudley prefer to have £15,000 spent on a viability study BEFORE anyone commits to spending £5MILLION on wholesale demolition of a building that the people of Dudley own?
Will Leader Harley consider reinstating his offer of £15,000 for the DHDT to complete a Viability Study to settle the theatre’s future once and for all? Surely both sides would be bound to accept the result?
“A theatre is the heart of the community”Sir Ken Dodd on Black Country Radio, talking about the Dudley Hippodrome
SOME FACTS WORTH THINKING ABOUT
The Dudley Hippodrome is the only surviving theatre built by this local architect.
The theatre proved itself financially viable for 70 years. There seems no reason it cannot be viable again with the right vision. This could be easily and quickly validated with a Viability Study.
The building comprises a major 1500+ seat auditorium with full stage facilities, which qualifies it to bring the very best Number One touring shows right to Dudley people’s doorsteps.
The building extends over five floors with large amounts of useable internal space. The huge self-contained basement, large numbers of rooms and other areas could provide fantastic community resources as well as providing significant volumes of local employment opportunities.
The Friends group discovered that there is a 1920 Covenant on the land on which the Hippodrome sits, forbidding anything else to be built upon it than a theatre, playhouse, shops or housing.
Theatres are a hugely valuable heritage asset which have the potential to bring a wealth of value to their localities. Many other UK towns are now reaping the huge benefits of understanding these buildings in terms of being strong community hubs as well as tourist attractors, not to mention increased footfall, job creators and day and night-time economy opportunities that they bring.
Dudley has expressed a desire to apply for City status next year. One of the key qualifiers is appropriate entertainment provision. A City without a professional Theatre is a non-starter. However, a retained and revived Hippodrome could be one of Dudley’s keys to city status.
Councils up and down the country are falling over themselves to bring these irreplaceable buildings back into use – Stockton on Tees has recently reopened the beautifully-renovated Globe Theatre seating 1700 with top-notch management from theatre specialists ATG, Walthamstow in London has its Granada Theatre on the way to renovation seating 1500, with a reduced size main auditorium and many rooms and spaces available to the community, run by Soho Theatre Company. Morecambe’s massive 2000 plus Winter Gardens is gradually coming back to life, and Burnley Empire is diligently, productively laying the groundwork for future success. There are many other success stories waiting to be heard. It is hard to understand why, when all these areas are enthusiastically getting behind their local theatres, reaping all the many benefits, why is Dudley the only one going in the opposite direction?
AND LET’S NOT FORGET THE MONEY
Detailed financial studies by Gateshead Council in 2010-11 showed that for each £1 invested in arts provision there, over £4 was returned to benefit the local economy. Surely Dudley Council would want to at least explore that kind of massive financial potential?
THE CRUNCH IS THIS…..
A “drop in the ocean” £15,000 viability study would determine once and for all whether the Hippodrome has a viable future. Surely the Council wouldn’t have a problem with that? And just think how easily this could be done…
The Council has a precious opportunity to listen to the people, support their vision, and reap the many benefits – including opening the door to potential future City status. It could, but will it?
AND FINALLY: I see Dudley Council are presenting their redevelopment plans at the High Streets and Town Centres Development Conference in London (online plus in-person) on September 22nd. How interesting that the innovative Stockton-on-Tees Council will appear before them at the same conference, talking about the regeneration of their Globe Theatre and how it contributes to their borough’s cultural and financial economies – let’s hope Dudley will be listening…….
Please visit the Friends’ site to sign the petition to save the Dudley Hippodrome here
If you can afford to, please contribute to the Friends group’s fighting fund here
UPDATE 13 October – Theatres Trust requests “call-in” for Dudley Hippodrome demolition planning application. Read the details here