TOWARDS THE PREVENTION OF A THEATRE DEMOLITION, 2002
The Forum Theatre, Billingham (Architects Elder, Lester Associates, 1967)
This speech was given whilst a trustee of The Theatres Trust, the national body for the protection and improvement of theatres. A highly charged and full house was entertained by youth theatre members and speakers from the Teesside amateur theatre movement. The meeting launched the ‘Save our Bill’ campaign, and fortunately the Forum is still thriving! Closed for a £17 million refurbishment, it reopens in April 2011.
The Theatres Trust exists to protect theatres and our top priority is to safeguard theatre use. In our opinion, The Forum Theatre is one of the best buildings of its generation. This theatre has an immediate feeling of energy and accessibility – it is special without being intimidating; a rare combination. The auditorium is of outstanding historical significance; and serves the widest programme of shows across many art forms very well. The architects – Elder, Lester Associates – studied old and new opera houses in Germany, and hence the walls are ‘papered with people’ arranged in tiers of shallow boxes, rather than a traditional stalls, circle, upper circle layout. In miniature, this was Billingham’s contemporary response to La Scala, Milan. The atmosphere makes it one of the few modern theatres preferred by artists. The Forum was the first major example of a combined arts and sport building and is also significant for this reason. It inspired the design of many other civic theatres, such as The Eden Court Theatre, Inverness and The Forum at Wythenshawe in Manchester. Your theatre is one of the few examples of distinguished late-twentieth-century architecture; it must be properly assessed on architectural, historical and functional terms before any decisions are made.
The Forum gives Billingham a sense of identity and particular character. In its first years, it housed a repertory company and shows created here performed in London’s West End and at the Edinburgh International Festival. This auditorium and stage have continued to be especially popular and successful; the theatre is selling over 120,000 tickets annually – one of the highest occupancies for a theatre of this size anywhere in Britain. There are too few examples of truly popular touring theatres for The Forum to be demolished and not replaced. It is run economically and programmed with great flair, dedication and, above all, with recognition of the financial realities of theatrical management – by Riverside Leisure Promotions and a dedicated staff led by Derek Cooper. It is one of only two British provincial touring theatres under private stand-alone management. It works in partnership with the Council and it costs your local authority only about £350,000 per annum plus £100,000 for fabric maintenance; this is one of the lowest local authority subsidies in British theatre and is something they should be proud of.
There have been circumstances where The Theatres Trust accepts that the public interest is served by the demolition of an existing theatre, but this has only, and will continue to be, in cases where either there is no demand, and no foreseeable demand for a theatre, or where demolition will enable the construction of a replacement theatre which is at least as good, if not better than the existing one. The Theatres Trust is boggled that Stockton Borough Council wish to sell the Forum to be a supermarket, and use the revenue generated to replace this theatre with a new sports facility containing VERY limited performance facilities. This is wholly inadequate. We are critical of the Council’s consultation document dated February 2002, which we feel is not worded or constructed in a manner which allows proper debate of these proposed new facilities. Under a sub-heading of ‘performing arts’ the document says that a ‘flexible area would be created to host theatrical and other performances and workshops’, but no detailed information is given. It appears that what is planned is a new ice rink which could be covered over (and so not available for simultaneous use with the ice rink) and a ‘smaller area with spectator facilities’. Neither of these would be a proper theatre, certainly neither could have unique use in planning terms and neither would have the potential to inspire, amaze or create the feeling of intimacy, amazement and involvement essential to a good theatre of any size. The Theatres Trust is far from convinced that the Council has correctly identified any specific new type of performance space required, and we do not believe these could be provided by a covered-over ice rink or a smaller area. As far as the costs are concerned, we appreciate that selling the site of The Forum is a simple method of raising capital, but we suggest that the results will be disastrous. Why is a supermarket to be the substitute for a vibrant and social cultural focus that the Forum Theatre is to the heart of Billingham?
The Forum Theatre is an outstanding building, with a very attractive and comfortable auditorium which was widely admired at the time of its opening in 1967 and still is today. It was fitted out to a high standard, much greater than that normally achieved by municipal theatres. This was partly possible because of the investment made by ICI, not something which is never likely to be repeated. The Forum is valuable as a record of local industrial success and patronage, in addition to its other merits.
The Theatres Trust appreciates that Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council’s remit for the arts extends beyond The Forum, and that in particular the future of the Arc at Stockton is a current concern. Our belief is that The Forum is intrinsically a much better theatre building than the mothballed Arc, and that it would be very short-sighted to sacrifice The Forum on the basis that it is partially replaced by the Arc. The Arc is an unsuitable venue for the touring productions which currently perform here, and was never intended to be.
So far, our responses to the Council’s consultation document have been perfunctorily dismissed, and our attempts to hold a meeting on site with interested parties have sp far been unfruitful. We are concerned that our opposition to the proposals to demolish The Forum has not been given due weight, and that plans will prove short-sighted and deeply misguided. The Theatres Trust vehemently opposes demolition of the Billingham Forum. If these proposals proceed, you will be sacrificing the best thing that Billingham has going for it, for the sake of a short-term injection of cash which will be used to build inferior facilities in a less appropriate location.
I wonder what the poet Les Freeman would be thinking about tonight’s meeting. In 1960, when the old Stockton Empire Theatre (that was known as The Castle Theatre when built in 1908) still stood, he wrote this poem, A Theatre Dies: Stockton Empire:
Once, on this very floor
Ellen Terry may have stood.
Once, through that very door
may have sounded loud and long
the shattering applause
of a cheering, glittering throng.
Once, on those very stairs
a princess may have waited
for her prince. Now, who cares?
See how old the curtains grow,
see how dull the seats become;
see the gaslights flicker low
then come to life again.
Look, someone's in a golden box,
and listen to a sweet refrain.
There is gaiety and laughter;
there is smoke and senseless noise;
there is excitement, as after
a star has sung her part.
But stop. For these memories
are tugging at my heart.
For the theatre is empty now.
There is no-one here at all.
The theatre is empty now
and though it's hard to say,
this lovely theatre's empty,
this theatre's had its day.
But a theatre is a living thing;
and they just let it die:
a sordid and a piteous death,
and few will wipe an eye.
Yet I do weep, yes weep for you,
for you are worth much more
than to provide foundation
for some cheap department store.
Now the dealers and the auction men,
the curious and the rest
are here to rob you openly
of what you wore the best.
For a pound go the footlights,
another gets the bar.
For a shilling goes the paybox seat
and nothing can mar
this furious spate of buying
‘til the last curtain falls
and little men in aprons
start ripping up the stalls.
The Empire Theatre closed in 1961, and was eventually demolished in 1969. By then, of course, the far-sighted Development Committee under Councillor Harry Davies had opened The Forum. Are you going to allow his successors to tear this theatre down?