Barry Band: The electric tale of lighting up Blackpool’s theatres

Opera House Blackpool seen from Abingdon Street in 1908 with the original arched entrance to the Empress Ballroom in the centre of the Empress Buildings on Church Street
Opera House Blackpool seen from Abingdon Street in 1908 with the original arched entrance to the Empress Ballroom in the centre of the Empress Buildings on Church Street

Imagine sitting in a theatre that is illuminated by gas. It would be dim by today’s standards. How dim? Would we recognise the actors? How did the lighting man spread enough light on the stage?

Was there a trick of focusing light by the use of reflectors?

The Grand Theatre, Blackpool,'picture from The Grand archives

The Grand Theatre, Blackpool,'picture from The Grand archives

Questions, questions.

Maybe the limitation of gas lighting was the reason so many Gothic dramas were written. Ideal for a half-lit stage.

But you can bet the actors enunciated perfectly.

Not like some modern television drama, filmed in half light with mumbled dialogue.

Frank Matcham

Frank Matcham

Blackpool’s early theatres were lit by gas, of course. But ads in the Gazette of the 1870s and 80s reveal that they only opened for a short summer season, when there was natural light.

It’s probably the reason architects like Thomas Mitchell, who designed Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, used so much overhead glass, to make the most of natural light.

Ten years later, in 1888, there were plans for two theatres to be built in the resort.

Britain’s first electric theatre is believed to have been the Savoy, in London, opened in 1881.

Dr William Henry Cocker

Dr William Henry Cocker

Would Blackpool also “go electric”?

The first to announce a new theatre project was Thomas Sergenson, who had been leasing two Blackpool theatres since 1881.

They were the Theatre Royal in Talbot Square (later the Tivoli Cinema and now an empty site) and the Prince of Wales, which stood on the Central Promenade site of today’s Poundland.

On Friday, June 1, 1888, The Gazette reported that drawings were ready for Thomas Sergenson’s proposed Grand Theatre on the Church Street site he had purchased a year earlier.

The report said: “The building will be entirely lighted by electricity so that no risk by fire will be incurred by the use of gas.”

Sergenson’s plan stirred the Winter Gardens Company into action.

Their general manager, William Holland, had supported a suggestion that the company should build a theatre, to complement the Pavilion concert hall.

And on June 8, The Gazette reported on an extraordinary general meeting of shareholders, where there was disagreement.

Within weeks a postal ballot of all shareholders approved the building of the first Opera House.

The chairman since 1880, Dr William Henry Cocker, resigned in protest.

On October 26, 1888, The Gazette reported the contract to build the Opera House had been let.

The report said: “The fittings for the illumination of the theatre are so arranged as to be available for either gas or the electric light.”

There was lots of detail about fireproof staircases and plaster-work and “the theatre may be said to bristle with exits”.

Meanwhile, Thomas Sergenson had decided not to get involved in a race to build a theatre.

He built five shops on the Church Street frontage and used the rest of the site for an annual summer season circus, while continuing to operate the Theatre Royal and the Prince of Wales on a summer seasonal basis.

But back to the Opera House.

On Friday, May 31, 1889, two weeks before it opened, a party was held for 300 workmen and contractors.

Among the speakers was John Coulson, a sub-contractor, who explained why the Winter Gardens directors had chosen to have illumination by gas.

“There had been so much science applied to gas, of late, that if anyone would go through the theatre and inspect the arrangements, they would be greatly pleased,” he said.

But four years later, the Winter Gardens directors had to review the situation.

Thomas Sergenson had not given up his Grand Theatre ambitions.

He had plans ready by Frank Matcham to start building at the end of the 1893 season.

Knowing that the Grand would be lit by electricity, the Winter Gardens made the switch.

On February 23, 1894, five months before the Grand Theatre’s July 23 opening, the Gardens’ ad in the Gazette stated: “The whole of the Winter Gardens, including Her Majesty’s Opera House, is now brilliantly illuminated by the Electric Light, and the buildings throughout are heated with the most perfect system of Hot Water Apparatus, rendering the whole establishment exceedingly comfortable in any state of the weather.”

So the Opera House was the first Blackpool theatre to be lit by electricity. When the electric Grand Theatre and Opera House (its original name) opened in July, the future had really arrived.

Aren’t we lucky the two original electric palaces have survived?

However, all theatre stage lighting might now be under threat from an new EU ruling, designed to reduce theatres’ carbon footprints. If the EU draft regulation The Energy Directorate’s Eco-Design Working Plan is confirmed, in 2020, virtually all stage lighting equipment used in British theatre and the entertainment industry could be rendered obsolete – and the lamps which create the light would be unobtainable. No entertainment lighting equipment currently exists to meet the new power requirement.