The Grade II listed Grand Theatre in Blackpool raises funds for vital renovation
PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 February 2019
Martin Bostock Photography
A famous seaside celebrity celebrates their 125th birthday this year . . . by buying themselves a new 'hat'. David Upton explains.
The Grand Theatre in Blackpool has its milestone birthday in July this year and to mark the occasion, and best preserve its future, it has set itself a target of raising £125,000 to repair and restore its distinctive landmark dome – and put a ‘fresh’ pineapple back on top.
The tropical topping is a symbol of hospitality but took a battering from the less than welcome Storm Desmond back in 2015. So the Grand, which is a charitable not-for-profit venue (despite popular misconceptions that it is council or privately owned) has set itself an anniversary challenge.
After all, a theatre generally agreed to be the prettiest in the country deserves to be looking her very best again. The launch of the venue’s new programme for the year was the ideal occasion to set the ball rolling, and to get a couple of cheques coming in, including one from the indefatigable Friends of the Grand. This is the volunteer army of fundraisers, ticket collectors, usherettes and other behind-the-scenes toilers who have helped ensure the theatre’s survival against the considerable odds stacked up for a Victorian entertainment attraction prospering in the modern age.
Nowadays it’s much more than a Grade II listed eyecatcher, indoors and out. Besides an impressive roster of year-round stage attractions for a seaside venue, its educational arm runs a full programme of workshops for children and young people.
Last year, 10,000 school children benefited from discounted tickets to see performances at the theatre. A further 3,000 actually performed on stage, and 30 local schools are involved in a project with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
This year 125 local young people will also be winners of the ‘gold dust tickets’ for an appearance in May by Sir Ian McKellen. To mark his own significant birthday he’s touring 80 theatres around the UK and donating all proceeds to their own benefit. Tickets have sold out around the country.
That’s just one of several special events throughout a year which include celebration open days taking visitors backstage, productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Dance Company of Wales, a Grand Theatre history timeline on show inside the adjacent Hounds Hill shopping centre, even a 125 Pantomime Special performance of Peter Pan, starring comedian and Radio Lancashire celebrity Steve Royle – making his 17th annual appearance in the traditional end-of-year offering.
Blackpool lass Jodie Prenger also plays a home fixture when she stars as Beverley, the 70s party hostess from hell, in a stage revival of Mike Leigh’s famous dark comedy Abigail’s Party, in March.
If you remember, Beverley’s buffet highlight is cheese – topped off with pineapple!
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Preston entrepreneur Thomas Sergenson was the Victorian behind the story of the Grand. In the 1880s he had been saving profits from his three rented theatres in the resort to splash out on a purpose-built modern attraction. He bought land on Church Street and promptly found the nearby Winter Gardens rebuilding its own theatre for fear of competition. Sergenson sat back and put shops and a circus on his site to see how things went, but when – six years later – Blackpool Tower Company revealed plans for a custom-built circus he then hired leading theatre architect Frank Matcham to design what was to became his masterpiece, at a cost of £20,000.
The Grand opened, on July 23, 1894, with a performance of Hamlet, and quickly attracted some of the leading stars of the day before Sergenson sold out to the Tower Company in 1909. For the next 60 years the Grand, and Blackpool itself, prospered.
In the 1970s it faced its biggest threat, from plans to demolish the building and redevelop the site by then-owners EMI. Protests, a public inquiry and fundraising resulted in a Grand Theatre Trust buying the building for £250,000. On March 23, 1981 it re-opened, with more Shakespeare (Timothy West and Prunella Scales in The Merchant of Venice). Two months later a Royal Variety Performance, attended by Prince Charles, was the first of several Royal visits – Prince Edward in 1989 and the Queen in 1994. Thomas Sergenson, for one, would be delighted to know that the Grand show must go on . . .