How a volunteer army played their part in saving Blackpool’s Grand Theatre

Readers who have been following the story of the closure of the Grand Theatre in 1972 were left in the dark last week.

Saturday, 13th March 2021, 3:45 pm

The theatre stayed dark and grimy for nearly five years, even though the Friends of the Grand won their 1973 challenge to the Tower Company’s bid to demolish the building.

The Tower Company and its parent group, EMI, didn’t want it and the council thought a new store would be better than an old theatre.

This was in spite of the opinion of the planning inspector, who heard the Friends’ appeal against demolition at the April, 1973, local inquiry, at the Town Hall.

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Prunella Scales and Timothy West at the re-opening of The Grand Theatre in Blackpool. Picture: John Lomas
Prunella Scales and Timothy West at the re-opening of The Grand Theatre in Blackpool. Picture: John Lomas

He said: “The Grand Theatre could be successfully run by a theatre trust or the Corporation (the council) as a combined civic and commercial theatre, adopting the same methods that have been successful in other seaside resorts.”

Our time line of events didn’t move until EMI ended the stand-off in 1976 by sending one of their directors, Peter Smith, to Blackpool to make things happen.

After four years of waiting and wondering, a new Grand Theatre chapter began. The Friends agreed not to oppose EMI’s plan to refurbish and reopen the Grand for bingo, in the hope the theatre could one day be purchased.

After EMI’s lavish £200,000 refurb, the Grand reopened in July 1977, with two token weeks of theatre prior to it becoming a bingo hall.

The Grand Theatre hand over on September 30, 1980. From left, John Shedwick (Grand Theatre Manager), Coronation Street star Violet Carson and Grand Theatre Trust Secretary Sam Lee raise a glass

The campaigners of the Friends had been allowed to book a touring play, Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, starring Dora Bryan and Dawn Addams, for the week beginning July 27 and followed it with a week of the touring musical Godspell.

A deal made with the newly formed Grand Theatre Trust also allowed them to stage ten Friday night late shows each year as the Friends began fund-raising for an eventual £350,000 purchase of the Grand.

However, all did not go well. The fund-raising made many Gazette stories, but after two years only £150,000 had been raised.

In the autumn of 1979 officers of the theatre trust went to London to see Lord Delfont, the EMI boss. He offered to reduce the price to £250,000 if the trust could sign by June 30 the following year.

It was ironic that the purchase was only made possible by Blackpool Borough Council, whose majority group had been so hostile to the thought of saving the theatre a few years earlier.

Attitudes had changed. The council gave the trust £50,000 from the civic lottery and a similar sum in the form of an interest-free loan.

On June 30, 1980, the theatre trust paid a deposit of £25,000 and the balance of £225,000 at the end of September.

The trust took possession of the Grand on October 1 and there followed five months of hard work by many volunteers to prepare the theatre for the Grand reopening on March 23, 1981.

It was nine years and five months since the Grand’s closure.

The opening show starred Timothy West and Prunella Scales in the Old Vic Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice but the formal reopening was by Prince Charles when he attended a star-studded Royal Performance on May 29.

The recent Grand articles have been a time line of events from the 1960s to the 1972 closure to the reopening 40 years ago and not a list of who was who and who did what. There were scores of them, all happy to have been part of it.