Theatres Trust seminar highlights ingenuity of UK theatre groups

One of the things about theatre practitioners and groups is that they are often so focused on their work and its delivery that they don’t really have the time or energy to spare to make their accomplishments more widely known.

What has been heartwarming has been the swell of appreciation across the country for theatre groups as they figured out a whole new way of working during our pandemic-restricted times.

The Theatres Trust has done much work during this time to support and champion theatres and companies up and down the UK, through funding, publicity and also webinars which have given companies a chance to come together, listen and learn from each other’s efforts and successes in making a difference in their local communities. What is great is that you and I and anyone who shares our interest in how theatre groups work, can watch and listen to these inspiring conversations too. They are well worth your time, I can say.

On 3rd February, Tom Stickland of the Theatres Trust chaired an illuminating online seminar about how theatres and theatre companies across the UK have been approaching the pandemic as it affected their communities.

Entitled “Theatres with communities in 2021”, the session illustrated eloquently and in detail how arts organisations had been jolted into thinking differently about their remit and how they interact with their communities, in some cases almost reinventing themselves entirely in order to serve their locality

The wide selection of contributors came from across the country.

Sarah Brigham CEO and AD of Derby Theatre described their outreach programs PLUS ONE which works with people in care or leaving care, and DERBY RISES, which brings in otherwise excluded or marginalised communities to participate in the communal act of making bread and then baking it. “We started from what the group wanted, not what we thought they wanted. We tried to put the community in the driving seat” said Brigham.

From Slough, Home Slough’s Director Saad Eddine Said and collaborator Christina Brooks-Abraham talked about the challenges and successes of creatively engaging their communities during a pandemic and in an area where creative engagement was very limited. After listening to their users, they invested in coaching to help individuals become initiators of change. They also created Global Cooking Theatre, recognising the universal language of food which has the potential to break down barriers and preconceptions, which was received warmly by the community.

In Leeds, Slung Low’s Alan Lane and Graziela McIntyre described their challenges to help their local square mile of community, creating partnerships with companies and Leeds FC who all brought different things to help the local community. The cultural community college they ran has transformed into a social care refrerral unit and foodbank, offering arts activities on a pay what you can basis. As Alan said, the pandemic has “made us realise that we weren’t as close to our community as we thought we were.”

From Theatr Clywd in Mold, Wales, Director of Creative Engagement Gwennan Mair talked about community outreach including 12-hour hubs to give respite to families, online help for dementia sufferers and fostering a feeling of connection and involvement with teenagers and younger people, ensuring that they feel they have a voice.

Jonny Davenport, co-founder and AD of The Old Court in Wigan talked about working with the local council to build new relationships, creating a call handling system for those seeking help, working with a local food charity to compile and deliver food parcels to those most in need. Delivering packed lunches to schoolkids in half-term, they worked with youngsters to engage them in online activities and even managed to create a touring mobile panto on the back of a beer lorry! As Jonny says, “The fact that we were relied upon in a crisis is really humbling.”

The enormous learning opportunities thrown up by this sudden shift in activity was fascinatingly uncovered in this hour-long online discussion.

I do urge you to take a look at it when you have time. It is truly inspiring, in a way that is rarely – if ever – reported in mainstream media.

Thanks to Theatres Trust for putting these seminars together and for all the participants for their amazing work. Proof, if any were needed that the arts matter now even more than they were before.

The seminar programme is supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation.

You can watch the seminar via the Theatres Trust website here

For other seminars in the series, please visit the Theatres Trust website here


Your support of at-risk UK theatres smashes fundraising targets

With the enforced closures brought about by last March’s Covid-19 pandemic, theatres across the UK found themselves out on a limb. Unable to welcome the public to present shows, theatres (and those working in, around and with them) found that they had to think creatively to support their local communities, work to produce online alternatives and generally completely reinvent the way they operated. For some it was easier than others. But for smaller theatres particularly, the box office income was their lifeblood. Their already delicately-balanced finances and small, often underpaid, often volunteer teams were decimated by a lack of Arts Council funding support. Over six months later, the majority of the UK’s large and mid-sized venues and organisation finally received some cash. But hundreds of theatre and organisations were left out in the cold.

Ignored by government, they did the only thing they could – they turned to their audiences. Supported by organisations like The Theatres Trust and Crowdfunder, they set up funding appeals to their audiences and the general UK public. In essence they asked all of us to support them – or lose them.

The Theatres Trust set up their own #SaveOurTheatres campaign, where donors can give to a central pot distributed to theatres most in need.

But they also brought together 60 individual fundraising campaigns from theatres and arts venues to make it easy for donors could look for the venue nearest to them and help to keep them going.

And the great British public certainly came through! At the close of the year many fundraisers had smashed their targets and reached even more ambitious stretch targets.

To date, almost 23,000 supporters have contributed over £1.6 million (including Gift Aid’s tax scheme).

Here’s just one example – my oft-mentioned favourite the tiny Finborough Theatre in West London. This tiny, 50-seat room above a pub runs on a shoestring and still produces work which is world-class. Their fundraiser campaign’s initial target was £25,000 but thanks to a very generous matching funds pledge, as of today they have smashed that target and raised over £35,000 (when Gift Aid is factored in).

These individual and collective appeals, originally due to close at the end of December, are carrying on so that all of us still have a chance to support your local theatres as they – like us, face an uncertain immediate future.

It’s incredible to witness the love and support the public are showing – but we cannot afford to let up in our support for them- we can’t have come all this way to stop the support too early and revive the risk of loss yet again.

So if you haven’t yet supported, or even if you have, please see if you can spare a few quid to help keep our small, local theatres going. Because when this is over we will need them even more!

You can find the details of the Theatres Trust campaign featuring all 60 local campaigns, here


Celebrating the great theatres of master architect W G R Sprague

A very poor reproduction of W G R Sprague (the only one available), with thanks to arthurlloyd.co.uk

On the anniversary of his passing, we take this opportunity to celebrate one of the greats of UK theatre architecture, William George Robert Sprague (?/?/1863 – 4 December 1933).

Sprague was born in Australia in 1863 to actress Dolores Drummond, who spent some years in Australia, before returning to London in 1874.

At the tender age of sixteen, Sprague became an articled clerk for the legendary architect Frank Matcham for four years. In 1880 he was an articled clerk for Walter Emden for three years. He then formed a partnership with Bertie Crewe until 1895. His work rate was quite prolific, designing a number of theatres and music halls, mostly located in London. At the height of his powers he produced six intricately detailed and richly detailed jewel-box theatres in Westminster in less than four years. Unlike Matcham and Emden, Sprague studied architectural forms and conventions and applied his knowledge into his designs, was quoted that he “liked the Italian Renaissance” as a style for his frontages, but was happy to take liberties when needed “to get the best effects”. In 1902, the theatre newspaper The Era described him as “Britain’s youngest theatrical designer, with more London houses to his credit than any other man in the same profession.”

Novello Theatre

Sprague favoured two-tier auditoria, which invariably paid off for audiences in terms of atmosphere and sight-lines. Wyndham’s is a personal favourite and, to my mind, one of the most perfectly designed theatres I have ever had the pleasure to sit in.

Noel Coward Theatre

Today most of his surviving theatres in the West End are owned (and lovingly restored) by the Delfont Mackintosh organisation. The Strand (now the Novello)(1905), The Globe (now the Gielgud) (1906), Wyndham’s Theatre (1899), The Queen’s (now the Sondheim) (1907), and the New (later the Albery and now the Noel Coward) (1903) all form part of DMT’s classy and well-maintained portfolio of theatres.

Other surviving Sprague West End theatres include two intimate under 500-seaters, the St Martin’s Theatre (1916) (current home of the Mousetrap) and the neighbouring Ambassadors Theatre (1913). There is also the Aldwych (1905), the “sister theatre” to the Strand, Outside the West End we can still find the Coronet in Notting Hill (1898) (for most of its life a cinema but now returned as a theatre), and The Camden Theatre (1900) (now a nightclub called KOKO).

Camden Theatre, now KOKO

His most significant design outside London was the Sheffield Lyceum (1897), thankfully restored and now a Number One touring house.

SHEFFIELD LYCEUM By Harry Mitchell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28105563

Later years saw Sprague designing fewer buildings, but he left with a wonderful swansong. The Streatham Hill Theatre was the last theatre credited to him (in association with W. H. Barton), opened in 1929. A massive suburban hall seating more than many a West End House, 2800, its size made it vulnerable later but thankfully it still survives today (read more in my article here).

Streatham Hill Theatre

Regular readers of this blog will also be interested to know that Sprague was the architect of the now-lost Fulham Grand Theatre, which was featured in my Lost Theatres collection (find the article here)

Sprague died in Maidenhead in 1933, leaving a legacy of some of London’s most beautifully intricate houses. It is fitting that we remember this great architect whose work has given such pleasure to so many audiences- and will continue to do so for years to come.

For those interested, the encyclopaedic ArthurLloyd.co.uk site has an interesting article headed A Chat with Sprague from 1905, which you can find here.


Variety on Sea – celebrating the Golden Age of the UK’s Seaside Summer shows

The culmination of a twenty-five year campaign, the passing of the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938 meant that millions of UK workers now had a little time on their hands and a little money to spend as well. Coastal holiday destinations, previously mostly the reserve of the well-to-do, now became more achievable for ordinary working class families.

Your choice of seaside town was usually the one nearest to your home location (saving precious time in travelling) , so that workers of Manchester or Liverpool went to either Blackpool or Morecambe; Leeds workers most often headed to Skegness, Filey or Scarborough; while London workers would head east to Southend, Clacton, Margate, or perhaps south to Brighton, Hastings, Bournemouth or Torquay.

Many Northern industrial towns had local holiday weeks (called wakes weeks or trades weeks) when all factories or mills in one area would shut down for maintenance and all the workers would take their annual leave at the same time.

Transport was by coach or train – often specially laid on by the employers – to move the vast numbers of workers quickly and efficiently to and from their holiday destinations.

Blackpool, already popular with holidaymakers, boomed. It became the northern holiday hub, being well-served by roads and railways – it also had the good fortune of having over 8 million factory and mill workers within 60 miles. Blackpool’s hotels, guest houses, restaurants, holiday camps and amusements of all types prospered.

Blackpool beach with the Tower in the background. Plenty of room…….

All the big seaside towns saw a massive uptick in business as they scrambled to cater for holidaymakers with every type of diversion – from a penny deckchair on the beach, ice creams, candy floss and sticks of rock, to Punch and Judy shows and donkey rides for the kids, to amusement arcades and funfairs, to pubs and cafes, souvenir and gift shops, lidos and parks, to theatres and bandstands with their brass bands and concert party shows, as well as every kind of food from cockles and whelks to good old fish and chips.

Blackpool’s world-famous illuminations started in 1879 with just a single string of the new-fangled electric light bulbs. By the 1930s they had become a huge draw in themselves, a valuable way to extend the holiday season and give holidaymakers perceived extra value for money- as well as a reason to return to see the new displays which changed every year.

And of course it wasn’t a holiday without seeing one of the big shows which ran for a sixteen-week season in the huge theatres. The biggest stars of their day played to continually packed houses, two or three times a day. All around the coast, pier theatres and those along the seafronts jockeyed for popular star names to plaster across their marquees for the summer season.

The Seaside concert parties and travelling Pierrot shows which had been popular at seaside resorts in earlier decades had catered to a more middle-class, well-to-do type of holidaymaker, but by the time of the Holidays with Pay Act they were beginning to be perceived as small-scale, “quaint” and rather old-fashioned, although they did not fully disappear from the UK holiday scene until the 1950s. The new thing was the big seaside variety shows where you could see seven or eight acts with a star heading the bill, usually a singer or comedian. It was essentially the well-known variety format taken to the seaside.

The popularity of these new seaside entertainments was easily explicable. Back in the 1930s, radio was the main form of broadcast entertainment. Many of the celebrities- comedians, singers, bands- of the day were well-known to mass audiences – but those audiences had rarely, if ever, seen them. Now, these new holidaymakers were clamouring for entertainment and the novelty of seeing their radio and film favourites proved too good to miss. The opportunity for exploitation was therefore enormous. It was quite usual for shows with an attractive star offering to sell out their entire engagement, regularly turning away business. If customers found that one show was fully booked, they simply moved on to the next show, hoping for availability there. The great thing for the shows was that every week their potential audience was refreshed by the exodus of one week’s visitors and the arrival of the next. Most theatres would have the House Full signs out at every performance.

One of Blackpool’s favourites for 30 years, Arthur Askey, here at the Opera House in 1945, in one of the many comedy plays he starred in. Askey was an exception to the rule that comedians preferred the variety format of shows, whereas actors known for comic roles (for example Sid James) found comic plays easier to navigate as they had a character to act within. Askey was a dextrous, ultra-confident and daring comic who delighted in directly addressing the audience, a special talent gifted him through years of hard-work in concert parties. In these comic plays (often in the fifties written by his co-star Glenn Melvyn- see THE LOVE MATCH below), he was able to have the best of both worlds, stepping in – and out – of character as it suited him- and the audience’s funny bone.

In the early 1950s, when variety started to decline, it was the seaside summer season shows which helped to keep those same kind of variety acts in work as other opportunities for work became scarcer. In the winter, pantomime would continue to help keep the variety acts working; let’s not forget that at its height, pantomime season could last all the way from the Christmas week through until Easter at the major theatres.

The Summer Show season was early June through to late September. Comics, singers, acrobats, monologists, ventriloquists, contortionists, jugglers, dancers (eccentric and traditional) and speciality acts of every sort padded out these lightweight diversions which slogged their way through the summer, come rain or come shine.

The scheduling of shows was specifically designed to be comfortable to what audiences already knew and accepted with their hometown variety theatres, and so just like variety, the seaside shows appeared twice nightly at around 6.15 and 8.30 Monday to Saturday, with a matinee midweek and often on Saturdays. If that weren’t enough, there was yet more entertainment on offer on Sundays when the theatres ran one-night concerts, where visiting shows and stars would tour the seaside resorts and cover large parts of the UK coastline during a summer of Sundays.

One of Great Yarmouth’s 1963 Sunday night shows featuring a band who made a bit of a name for themselves…..

Big cinemas got into the act too – and at all the major holiday resorts, the town’s largest cinemas relinquished movies for a summer season of live stage shows. The vast auditoria of 2000 or 2500 seats were consistently full from one week to the next, as the almost unquenchable flow of holidaymakers took their turn to see the stars “live”.

As to the format of the seaside summer shows, they usually consisted of a headliner with a range of other speciality acts supporting, very much like the variety bills which had been familiar to audiences in their hometowns over the previous decades. From time to time comic plays or musical comedies were presented as entertainment that was a little bit different, but these were more of an occasional exception to the expected variety format. More often than not, different theatres presented the type of shows which their audiences had grown to expect- for example the Grand in Blackpool would usually present a show which was a play format, almost always a comedy with star names filling out the marquee.

Blackpool Grand 1953. Arthur Askey stars with Thora Hird and writer Glenn Melvyn in a twice-nightly comedy play THE LOVE MATCH (written by Glenn Melvyn) at Blackpool Grand Theatre. After its theatrical life, the play was filmed in 1955 by producer Jack Hylton’s company.

Later, as TV intruded into UK homes in the 50s and 60s, stage versions of the most popular TV shows started to appear at our coastal theatres for the Summer. Almost anything -or anyone- that became popular was ripe for the summer show treatment.

To illustrate this point, in 1954 the Blackpool Grand Theatre even hosted a season of Jack Hylton’s stage production of popular radio show THE ARCHERS, then (as now) gathering large audiences on BBC radio. Interestingly, the stage version does not appear to have included any of the original cast- perhaps due to recording commitments. The stage show starred Jack Warner, Joyce Barbour, Charles Victor, Dandy Nicholls and Peter Byrne.

The big producers of the time – George and Alfred Black, Jack Hylton, and later Bernard Delfont, amongst others – rotated a number of shows around the seaside resorts across different years. From the advert below, you can see how the talent was spread around the UK by Delfont’s organisation in 1963.

A look at Delfont attractions from Summer 1963

Because the seaside towns drew such large, ever-changing audiences the shows welcomed the broadest spectrum of acts- those on their way up, on the way down, those at the height of their fame, and everything in between. Just take a glance (above) at the Delfont Organisation’s offerings in Summer 1963, ranging from early appearances by Mike and Bernie Winters; to big stars like Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Vaughan, Harry Worth and Bruce Forsyth; and those in their later years such as Hetty King (onstage since 1890!), Jimmy James (onstage since 1900!) and Marie Lloyd Jr. (onstage since 1896!).

There were also producers who specialised in entertainment at our seaside towns, whose shows returned year after year with new names but under a recurring name and the format of variety – the public seemed to enjoy the familiarity. An example below is Lawrence Wright whose ON WITH THE SHOW ran for over 30 years in Blackpool.

The show at Blackpool’s North Pier in 1950 hosted a strong Northern line-up (with perhaps the exception of Tano Ferendinos?- unless you you know differently?……)

As an alternative to variety-style bills, comedy plays were also popular. These were created for stars who were not singers or comedians, but rather actors known for comic parts they had played – on TV, theatre, film or radio. Being comic actors as opposed to comedians, they were not joke-tellers. The creation of comic plays gave them a format within which to play, capitalising upon their known character type and therefore satisfied the audience’s expectations. Flexible enough to be moulded around different types of star performer, these comic plays tended to reappear for several years at different locations, often with available TV or theatre names slotted into them. Here (below) is an example from the early seventies. In 1971, some of the stars of TV’s ON THE BUSES piled into a comedy called STOP IT, NURSE at the Windmill in Great Yarmouth. The following year, the show had moved to Torquay – but this time out, the stars were from the Carry On fold- Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor and Bernard Bresslaw.

1971 at Great Yarmouth
1972 at Torquay. Same show, different cast.

A number of these comedy plays were written by a man named Sam Cree. The scripts were loose enough to flex around different personalities and lightly written with just enough plot to keep the momentum moving forward. These shows appeared up and down the country with varying stars from year to year and kept many a theatre owner happy as well as their audiences, who had come to see the stars first and the play second.

Sam Cree was an Irishman who wrote over 20 plays, mostly for summer show consumption, which in the mid to late sixties were sometimes filmed live in the theatre or restaged for television. The BBC presented these until around 1968. Perhaps those recordings still lie in the BBC vaults, or perhaps they were part of the massive amount of videotape which was wiped for reuse. We may never know.

The stars would also be called upon to do numerous publicity and charity events during their summer seasons, which did no harm to their box office

The stars would also be called upon to do a fair amount of pre-season publicity as well as regular media appearances and charity events , beauty contests and other local events and ceremonies during the Summer season. Above is just one example of the main stars at Great Yarmouth in 1970 turning out en masse for a charity event benefitting the local Round Table.


The UK’s constant flow of seaside holidaymakers began to ebb during the late sixties as holidays abroad became more financially affordable, with the rise of the foreign package holiday. The British summer seaside season died out in the late 70s and early 80s as more people took holidays abroad (where better weather was almost guaranteed) and tastes in entertainment changed.

Holidays abroad took away the summer show audiences for good and caused a steady decline in the UK seaside’s appeal

The coastal holiday shows lasted into the eighties, becoming an ever-diminishing shadow of their former selves. Declining audiences coupled with increasing fees for stars and competing film and TV schedules meant that stars were often reluctant to carve a full four months out of their schedules, as they could earn more money with less hard work elsewhere.

And so the seaside shows simply faded away. Today, just a very few survive with a dedicated band of performers and audiences. Sadly the Golden Age of the UK’s Summer Seaside shows is long gone, but for many of us, the memories will linger.


In the next article I’ll recall my own childhood holidays in Great Yarmouth and the stars and shows I was lucky enough to see.


If you have any memories of seaside UK holiday shows then I’d love to hear about them. Please share your thoughts in the comments box below. Thank You!


NO DANCING!

Let’s face it, we all love a good dance. Chatting with some fellow audience members at the Gloria Estefan musical ON YOUR FEET! recently, they wondered why people were discouraged from dancing in West End theatres.

Having had some theatre management experience, I mentioned that as theatres need to have a license to operate, those licenses do not include dancing. Seems a bit crazy to some folks I am sure, but let me tell you a little more about why this is so.

Firstly, most of London’s theatre stock was built over a hundred years ago. Theatre then was a place where you sat and watched a performance.

Nowadays we are all used to going to a purpose-built arena or big music venue to see bands play and at those events it is acceptable- even obligatory- to stand, although it may block the views of others around you if they are sitting, or indeed have difficulty standing. Dancing comes quite naturally when you are on your feet.

Musical theatre is of course an incredibly popular artform. As the number of “jukebox” musicals have grown, audiences are responding to music which they first heard in a non-theatre setting and so it feels right to get up and have a dance. However, theatres were not built for this kind of use and therefore dancing is not licensed by the local authority, mostly Westminster for the West End. So when you see the staff holding up signs that say please, no dancing – or the management asking people to sit down, it’s because the theatre itself wasn’t built for this. It is simply not known whether the buildings could withstand this kind of treatment on a regular basis.

I remember one occasion back in the 1980s when we had a Sunday pop concert at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. To satisfy the licensing requirements for health and safety we had to fill the dress circle with passersby, friends and colleagues and get them to jump up and down! We got the license, but for one night only.

At the Victoria Palace, on another long-running show called BUDDY which a lot of you will remember, the signs were out on each level at every show, and generally people were very understanding. And on the outgoing for the show, I did have an occasional twirl with one of the many elated lady audience members on their way out.

So next time you feel the urge to leap up and dance in a West End theatre, please don’t think the theatre staff are deliberately being spoilsports. They are just doing their jobs, trying to keep you as safe as possible. So, dancing in theatres, please, no. Dancing in the streets…….hell, yes!