2006: BLACKPOOL GRAND THEATRE (Architect Frank Matcham, 1894)
How can any theatre know what the public wants? The Grand certainly does not know, but we can, and should, know what we want to give the public. If we base our audience development policy on presenting what we think the public wants that policy is bound to be sterile. This is only trying to follow a trend instead of acting upon its judgement. We should not always book shows merely because they have been successful on a previous occasion, or because they meet the strategic objectives of outside bodies. Many factors come into play, but the art of the theatre is paramount.
A good theatre tries to be in advance of the public as much as it can. How could it be otherwise? However, as a touring house we have only a certain amount of influence in selecting the shows, from what is available on the touring circuit. I try to find a successful and continuous combination of drama, ballet, opera, musicals, classical concerts, variety, music hall, revue, and other light entertainment. Audience tastes change: what might have been a stable Blackpool public in the 1990s has become more choosey, with more choices of entertainment at other theatres in the North West such as the Lowry in Salford, let alone other media and diversions.
Since the advent of the National Lottery and the construction of several large new theatres, there has been an oversupply of theatres in relation to good productions. There are often not enough good, popular attractions to fill the touring circuit of large theatres like the Grand for every week of the year. It is competitive to attract the best shows at the time we want them and at the price we can afford. We are a big theatre with a smaller population base than most No. 1 theatres in the large cities. It is doubly challenging because the Grand is a managed as a standalone theatre, unlike the theatres run through the circuits of Ambassador Theatre Group and Live Nation. Nevertheless, we are a much more exciting programming proposition than, say, Manchester Palace Theatre or Liverpool Empire because managing the Grand is more about being attuned to Blackpool and Lancashire culture than the London-programmed syndicated theatres can ever be part of their regional communities.
The public taste is represented by the Grand Theatre board of directors and, because of our running on a shoestring budget with no large public subsidy for 25 years we have developed a strong business sense to balance with our social objectives as a non-profit theatre management. And the board has a large influence on everything at this theatre. The Grand is a fantastically intimate space for every kind of live theatre; this is our advantage. We try to take the pulse of the Blackpool public, through the Friends and the volunteers and by meeting, greeting and listening to our theatregoers of all ages.
A good relationship between the Grand Theatre and the production companies is always vital. For drama, my predecessor Peter Cutchie had affinities with the excellent Hull Truck, Ian Dickens Productions and Compass Theatre Company of Sheffield. We continue a very good relationship with UK Productions, purveyors of pantomimes and musicals such as their forthcoming Beauty and the Beast and Dick Whittington. A successful theatre must develop its rich diet of companies and producers from time to time. Hence, I have introduced Barrie Rutter and Northern Broadsides to Blackpool in The School for Scandal, Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III and, for autumn 2006, they will be back with two more productions. We had not presented Shakespeare for some years, so it seemed important to redress the omission of classical drama, and we have also had superb productions of The Comedy of Errors from Bell Shakespeare Company of Sydney and, for other classical work, Tartuffe from the Watermill Theatre. Who knows what the future will bring?”
When I first ventured into a theatre I was too young to remember its architecture: it was the magic of the transformation scene in Cinderella that haunted me for days. However, I remember being aware of the atmosphere created by crushed velvet and marble as I was led out of the back of the rear stalls of the London Palladium. At the Grand, I am more agog at the cherubs, sweeping curves of indirect light and plaster troughs of the three circles that dive towards the proscenium than I was at my first pantomime. As every performer will vouch, the visual and acoustic qualities of the auditorium, including its furnishings, light and intimacy, are a secret influence upon the success of their performing on this stage.
It’s sometimes instructive to witness a production in a modern theatre in the south of England, before it comes to Blackpool. The difference in actors’ tone at the Grand is palpable. It’s also to do with the openness of northern audiences. The other contribution to atmosphere is the prevailing friendliness of our box office, bars and front of house staff and, of course, the volunteers of the Friends of the Grand. Their welcome and service is indeed that of a ‘Personality Playhouse’. I was thrilled for them all when the Grand received the award of Entertainment Venue of the Year, 2005, from Blackpool Tourism.
Blackpool is a glamorous show town that was built on entertainment, amusement and amazement. This continues today, with the stylish ice shows and magic at the Pleasure Beach, the acrobatics and thrills of the Tower Circus, the opulent spell of the Tower Ballroom, the phenomenal Blackpool Illuminations and the burlesque performances at Funny Girls. During the holiday season from June to October, the Grand Theatre is part of this carnival of extravagant, popular theatre of hedonistic delights.
Blackpool has always been a very important part of British culture. Yet the town has mysteriously slipped from the sights of many cultural entrepreneurs and condescending critics. This year we have been acknowledged as the National Theatre of Variety. There’s new life in the glamour of show business yet.
The Stage Door is the gateway to the magical world behind the scenes. Your bonafides are examined by Trevor Shaw, the Stage Door Keeper. He offers a warm greeting to, among others, strolling thespians, technicians, wardrobe mistresses and stage managers, and when required he can be a face of thunder to Stage Door Johnnies!
I often think he has the best job at the Grand Theatre. A soul of discretion, he hears all the gossip and intrigue from visiting artistes whilst offering a sympathetic ear and hospitality. With our house managers Stephen Williams and Robbie Pendlebury, Trevor points artistes in the direction of essential post-performance recreation.
Theatre is a live event in which the actors are in the presence of the audience, and at the Grand Theatre our most significant function stems from the chemistry of the actor-audience relationship. The experience of being present with the performer is more important than anything else.
By comparison, no matter how involved we might be with the characters in a film, we are always in the presence of an image, not a person. In a multi-media world, live theatre becomes even more special. But we are also in the presence of other audience members. Eye-contact is made with other patrons and this adds to the electricity that is generated when the stage and auditorium become one space. At the Grand Theatre, because of architect Frank Matcham’s intimate horseshoe layout of circles and private boxes, with no one of 1,100 patrons further than 70 feet from the stage, it not only means we are in the presence of the performers and the fellow audience, it also means that the performers are in our presence, conscious of us and addressing us directly. In Variety performances especially, this leads to spontaneous emotion. This is unpredictable from performance to performance.
When the curtain goes up, the Grand Theatre becomes a sacred space. We bring people together in a secular community ceremony where the performers are the latter-day priests, with theatregoers participating in their own special Holy Communion! The Grand Theatre might be said to be the procathedral of Blackpool.
The Grand Theatre was refurbished in 2007, with new livery and reproductions of authentic Victorian theatre chairs. This scheme was developed and commissioned during Paul Iles' second term as manager.
Within one square a thousand heads are laid
So close, that all of heads, the roome seems made.
- Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl, (c. 1607-1610), Act I, Scene II.
Some playbills and brochures from this period:
But the theatre's curving tiers should form your favourite hunting ground: here you are sure to find the richest returns, be your wish for lover or playmate, a one-night stand or a permanent affair. OVID, c.24BC.
from an e-newsletter, March 2006
Welcome to our new website: we hope you find it useful, not only for information about future attractions at the Grand Theatre, but also as a resource for all matters theatrical in Blackpool, past, present and future. In our sister-site, we host details of the National Theatre of Variety at the Grand Theatre.
At the February inauguration performance of the National Theatre of Variety, A Cavalcade of Variety, we unveiled the graphic ‘emblem’ for this exciting new project. Rather than commission a logo (at great expense), which all too often appear bland, corporatist and anti-theatrical, I chose an evocative painting of two performers standing on stage before the curtain. It is the epitome of the Variety artiste: a fusion of metaphor with reality, tinged with a glow of nostalgia. These two performers might be comedians, comic singers, dancers, or clowns: but like all Variety artistes they have nothing but themselves, a sketch, a song and a backcloth.
But who are they, and what are they performing?
The artistes are Alfred Lester as Oliver Bing and George Robey as Lucifer Bing in The Bing Boys are Here, ‘a picture of London life in seven panels’. This was a revue adapted from the French by George Grosssmith and Fred Thompson, with lyrics by Clifford Grey, and music by Nat D Ayre. It performed at the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties, London, 19th April 1916, for a run of 378 performances. (The Alhambra Theatre of Varieties, built 1883, demolished 1936, was in Leicester Square, on the site of the present Odeon Cinema).
The Bing Boys are Here was a song and dance show, or revue. This form of popular theatre form descends from 1830 and, strictly speaking, differs from Variety by having chorus girls, show girls and boys, producers, directors, and a show title. On the other hand, Variety (which dates from 1880) had a succession of acts which, inavriably, did not at any time appear together on stage, and had no title save the generic, such as Legends of Comedy at the Grand Theatre in 2005, or The Two O’Clock Show at the Grand in the forthcoming summer matinees of 2006. Classification of Variety forms is a complex hierarchy: one latter-day commentator, Michael Kilgarriff, in a letter to The Stage newspaper on 23 March 2006, refers to our use of the image on the programme cover as ‘careless’, because The Bing Boys are Here was a ‘musical comedy’. But this form of music and dance show, now called musicals, although also having chorus girls, show girls and boys and a title, has scenes linked cohesively by a story or ‘book’. Robey himself called it a revue.
Comedian Sir George Robey CBE [George Edward Wade] (1869-1954) was known as the ‘Prime Minister of Mirth’, and ‘The Darling of the Halls’, working in music hall, variety, musical comedy, pantomime and revue. Unlike many performers in light entertainment today, he was also an accomplished actor in ‘straight’ theatre roles. He first performed at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, in a single matinee performance in 1905, later bringing his revue Bits and Pieces here in 1927. Robey introduced a great number of highly popular ‘humorous, discursive songs and caricatures’ to the public, including ‘The Simple Pimple’, ‘Pinky Ponky Poo’, ‘My Hat’s a Brown ’Un’, and ‘The Weekly Chronic’. The Bing Boys are Here was Robey’s first revue.
Alfred Lester (1894-1925) was a classical actor who was engaged by the famous entrepreneur Sir Alfred Butt in 1905, for the Variety and music hall stages, giving monologues and sketches such as ‘The Scene Shifter’, ‘A Restaurant Episode’ and ‘The Amateur Hairdresser’.
The chromolithograph adopted for the National Theatre of Variety is a much admired poster by David Allen & Sons Limited, published 1916. It shows George Robey (right) in his stock attire of bowler hat and cane, red nose and bushy eyebrows. It was reproduced in The Era Almanac, 1917. (The Era was an in-depth weekly newspaper about the theatre, published from 1837 to 1939, corresponding to The Stage newspaper from 1880).
I admire this ‘painting’ as one of the all-time best examples of inspirational theatre advertising. Print, and this new website, magnifies the good effects of importing visual arts into the theatre. And surely nothing more exposes the commercial necessity and motivation behind the art of the theatre than a good poster design. Good design allows us to hawk our wares, whether those of individual artistes, theatre productions or the Grand Theatre as an organisation. We do this in many forms – as colourful brochures, posters, t-shirt decorations, coffee mugs and postcards, to name a few. Plus ça change: the Grand Theatre’s new ecommerce, website and other marketing ventures were fully anticipated by the Edwardian Variety theatre!
Note: at a meeting of the board of directors, one of the trustees upbraided me for choosing an image of two men holding hands, which, he said, promoted the Grand Theatre as a theatre of homosexuals.