Barry Band: A star-studded guest list at the Blackpool Grand – but no party!

1970'At the Ashton Theatre, St Annes, Cicely Courtneidge, with Roger Livesey and Ursula Jeans
1970'At the Ashton Theatre, St Annes, Cicely Courtneidge, with Roger Livesey and Ursula Jeans
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In our backwards glance at the highlight shows of the Grand Theatre’s 125 years, we’ve arrived at another big anniversary, the 50th.

The “guest list” in 1944 had plenty of famous names, but with Britain still in the grip of war it would have been unseemly to have a conspicuous birthday bash.

A young Max Wall

A young Max Wall

No doubt the Tower Company chairman, Mr Robert G Bickerstaffe, invited his directors to the boardroom on or around July 23, the date of the theatre’s opening in 1894.

Glasses would have been raised to “The Grand – here’s to the next 50 years.”

But they couldn’t have imagined that 25 years later the theatre would have new owners and would be closed in 1972.

The theatre survived through the Friends, who raised money to buy the Grand and put in six months of hard work to restore and equip the place as a working theatre.

Actress Anna Neagle and husband Herbert Wilcox  arrive at Blackpool's Squires Gate Airport in 1949 ahead of switching on the Illuminations

Actress Anna Neagle and husband Herbert Wilcox arrive at Blackpool's Squires Gate Airport in 1949 ahead of switching on the Illuminations

The main attraction of January, 1944, was a two-week annual visit by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in the popular Gilbert and Sullivan shows.

The first play of note, in February, saw the return from Broadway of Britain’s drama queen, Flora Robson, in an adaptation of Emil Zola’s “shocking” novel Therese Raquin, with the stage title of Guilty.

She would turn heavy drama into box office joy in several 40s and 50s visits.

However, it was not an individual star who was the highlight of 1944. It was a dramatic work.

Adverts for the Grand Theatre shows

Adverts for the Grand Theatre shows

The black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, by American writer Joseph Kesselring, was in its fourth year on Broadway and had played two years in London when it toured to the Grand for two weeks in April.

It was the story of two kindly Brooklyn sisters who took in lonely old gents - and bumped them off. Mary Merrall and Nellie Bowman were the deadly old dears and the play was so well received that it was rebooked for two October weeks at the Grand.

Just before the summer season, Anna Neagle took a break from filming to tour in Jane Austen’s Emma and scored a personal triumph in bringing the character to warm and vibrant life, said the Gazette.

In later years Dame Anna spoke of Emma as her 
favourite role.

The summer season revue in 1944 was We’re Coming Over, written round a wartime story of an ENSA concert party (Entertainment National Service Association) touring Allied bases in the Mediterranean. The stars were comedy duo Ethel Revnell and Gracie West, vocalist Afrique, and the legendary sand dancers Wilson, Keppel and Betty.

Very few readers will have heard of Alfred Lunt and his British wife Lynn Fontanne but there were no bigger stars on Broadway, where there is a theatre named after them.

In October 1944, their Grand Theatre visit, in Robert E. Sherwood’s war story There Shall Be No Night, followed an Aldwych Theatre run and was billed as the most brilliant play of the London season.

The most intriguing play, to us today, was Bernard Miles in his own story, They Also Serve, a comedy about the odd members of a Home Guard unit, seen at the theatre in October.

One was a veteran of the Zulu and Boer wars. Another was a pompous professional man who was the unit’s “colonel.”

Did this play inspire the creation of TV’s Dad’s Army 25 years later?

The year ended with a Christmas week of Daphne Du Maurier’s first work written for the stage.

Clive Brook and Nora Swinburne starred in The Years Between, a topical story of an Army officer, 
presumed dead, who returned from the war to find his wife had succeeded him as an MP and was about to remarry.

The play opened at Wyndham’s Theatre five weeks later and ran for 617 performances.

At the start of 1945 a Gazette writer said Blackpool drama lovers no longer needed reminding how lucky they were in seeing plays that were heading for London.

In 1945 there were nine such shows and two of them were premieres. In March, John Mills starred in Duet From Two Hands, written by his wife, Mary Hayley Bell, and in December Denholm Elliott starred in The Guinea Pig.

But the longest London run, after an October week at the Grand, was scored by Under the Counter, a comedy about the wartime black market, starring Cicely Courtneidge and directed by her husband, Jack Hulbert.

It came to Blackpool prior to two years at the Phoenix Theatre and a year’s tour of Australia. Miss Courtneidge was born in Sydney in 1893 when her mother and actor father (later producer) Robert Courtneidge were working there.

Summer season shows at the Grand were leaning to a simple variety-revue style and the theatre’s 1945 show, Hoopla, included Robb Wilton, Max Wall, Suzette Tarri, Polly Ward, Harold Berens, and Harry Lester and his Hayseeds.

We can’t close this chapter without mentioning the only time that Laurence Olivier set foot on the Grand Theatre stage.

It was on Sunday, May 6, 1945, as he rehearsed his wife Vivien Leigh, Cecil Parker and Ena Burrill for the Monday opening of Thornton Wilder’s fantasy play, The Skin of Our Teeth.

n Grand Theatre highlights will continue in a week or two.