It is a sad day at the Grand Theatre, with an era about to end.
Neil Thomson, general manager and chief executive, has shocked staff by telling them he is to stand down in the next few months.
It’s a bolt from the blue because Thomson, who celebrated his 60th birthday in September, is as synonymous with the Grand as Sir Alex Ferguson is with Manchester United.
He first got involved at the venue as a 21-year-old when the Grand was in desperate trouble because of a lack of cash and there were plans to demolish it.
Thomson was part of the Friends of the Grand group set up to make sure it wasn’t bulldozed.
Thomson, along with his father George and other theatre lovers, gave up their own time to raise funds and succeeded in saving the building - Thomson there for the glorious reopening in March 1981.
He continued to help out at the theatre, eventually realising he was spending more time there than at his own electrical business.
After completing numerous theatre and management courses, he became Technical Manager in
1992, then Deputy General Manager, Acting General Manager, and finally, in 2008, General Manager and CEO.
He project-managed all the successful improvement works to the Grade II listed theatre.
His finest hour was the restoration of the Grand’s beautiful auditorium, bringing it back to its original 1894 splendour.
But now, four decades after he first began helping out, Thomson is calling it a day to - as he puts it - let someone younger lead the way.
“I am proud of everything our hard-working team at the Theatre has achieved during the period of my watch,” said Neil, who was born in Cleveleys.
“In order to build on these achievements I think the time has come to pass the torch to a younger person.
“Having spent over half my working life at the Grand, I will never be far away, and always available to assist in any way in the future.”
Even in the last 12 months, Thomson has continued to have considerable success - the Grand recently winning National Portfolio Status from The Arts Council England, funding which is being used to develop the theatre as a regional centre of excellence for contemporary dance.
“All of us here at the Theatre and in Blackpool’s wider community owe a deep debt of gratitude to Neil,” said David Coupe, founding director and now chairman of the Grand Theatre Trust Company.
“Over the last 30 years Neil has shared with the two Theatre Boards all the joy, tribulation and challenge of operating one of Britain’s best-loved theatres on a shoestring budget.
“Neil’s contribution has been outstanding and unique and will never be forgotten.
“The Grand is such an important part of Neil’s life that I think we will see him often at the Theatre.”
Thomson was probably always destined for a career in the arts.
He was an excellent ballet dancer as a youngster, his parents met at Blackpool Tower Ballroom and his dad was chairman of the Friends of the Grand Theatre for 16 years.
“Neil wished to inform all staff of his decision face to face and for this reason the announcement was made at a special staff meeting held on Friday evening,” said Tony Stone, chair of the Theatre’s operating company.
“Having known Neil for many years in both a theatre environment and as a friend, his dedication to all that he does always exceeds expectations.
“His achievements are numerous, however his ability to secure the best in presentations at a price the Theatre can afford has never ceased to surprise me.”
Productions and companies that stick out over the years for Neil include Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint, Anthony Quayle’s Compass Theatre Company, the National Theatre’s Hiawatha, London Contemporary Dance and Bill Kenwright’s production of Dr Dolittle starring Tommy Steele.
Last word to Thomson.
“In the times we live in, it’s nice for people to have the theatre, which provides a great escapism,” he said.
“They can come and sit and watch a show for two hours and talk about it afterwards and forget everything else.”
It’s now down to someone else - to be announced later in the year - to continue his lifetime’s work.