‘It was David v Goliath but we won’

Archivists at the Grand Theatre, Linda Tolson and Geoff Tolson
Archivists at the Grand Theatre, Linda Tolson and Geoff Tolson
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PLENTY of people have put in sterling work over the last four decades to ensure the Grand Theatre, with wrecking balls looming, did not meet a messy end - and to make it the great venue it is today.

But you’d be hard pressed to find many who have done as much as Geoff and Linda Tolson.

The couple both grew up in Blackpool and were regularly taken to the theatre as youngsters by their families.

They met in the 70s, when the Friends of the Grand was formed to make sure the venue wasn’t bulldozed - and they’ve been working for the good of the theatre ever since.

They are the official archivists, and on top of that give talks about the Grand and try and introduce the place to a new, younger generation.

“I wouldn’t have been able to marry anyone who wasn’t interested in theatre,” remarks Linda. “They’d have been sick of me within a few weeks.”

The same is true of Geoff, for theatre is in their blood - particularly the Grand, though that’s hardly surprising given their affiliation with the place goes back a long way.

“I saw so many great figures in great productions when I was growing up - Alistair Sim, Ian Carmichael, Moira Lister … all the big names,” said Geoff.

“They’d start shows in London but they would always take in the Grand. In those days they used to say if your show doesn’t do well in Blackpool, then pull it. It was supposed to be indicative of how it would go in the West End. It was a very important venue, and a critical audience.”

But as the popularity of the theatre declined, it became more of a struggle to get an audience, critical or not, to the Grand.

Things came to a head in 1972 when the EMI company - which a few years earlier had bought the Tower, the Winter Gardens and all the other big landmarks in the town, including the Grand - closed the theatre.

EMI wanted all the major Blackpool venues, but not a little theatre they considered unimportant. They hatched plans to demolish it.

Fortunately a smart chap at the Grand called Jeffrey Finestone realised what was coming and got the building listed. The final decision on whether or not to bulldoze still went to a public enquiry, with Geoff and Linda amongst those fighting to save the venue.

“It was a really close run thing,” recalls Linda. “On the one side, wanting it demolished, was EMI, Blackpool Council and various other barristers and solicitors. On the other side was our little group, two local solicitors and a barrister who was a friend of one of our members and represented us as a favour.

“It was David v Goliath but we won.”

The celebrations quickly died down with the realisation the theatre was still closed, and still owned by EMI.

In 1977 an agreement - EMI would refurbish the theatre, spending £200,000 on it, and give the Friends an option to purchase - as long as they didn’t oppose a bingo licence.

So bingo came to the theatre, but no plays - apart from the odd late-night performance to raise funds, with entertainers like Ken Dodd hotfooting it to the Grand straight from their show in town.

Eventually in 1980 - helped by a donation from the Arts Council - the Friends raised £250,000 to buy back the theatre.

“When we bought It, the place was filthy,” said Linda. “They had put a curtain round the gallery and when we swished it open, a load of pigeons flew out.

“So a lot of work needed doing that winter. The dressings rooms were dire. What is now a manager’s office was the only room backstage with a working plug socket. They just hadn’t done anything else. The carpets were stuck to the floor. We just opened the windows and threw everything out into Matcham Court.”

Geoff added: “We had lots of volunteers, people knew different people with different skills. We had to pay for some work - lighting and sound, and the restoration of the box office. But the basic hard graft of washing walls down and painting was done by volunteers, right through the winter.”

The reward came in March 1981 when, nine years after its doors had shut, the Grand reopened in fabulous fashion when the Old Vic company put on The Merchant of Venice, starring Timothy West and Prunella Scales.

“It was such an exciting night and we were so proud,” said Linda. “Mind you because the theatre had been empty so long, it was freezing. We all sat there with our coats on, shivering.”

The official opening took place a couple of months later, attended by Prince Charles. There was champagne and chandeliers and a further £12,000 was raised. The good times were back.

That long fight, and ultimate victory, perhaps explains why the Friends of the Grand is still going strong today, and remains a tight-knit group and loyal to the theatre.

“I remember someone saying to us the life of a volunteer is two years. But there are still people selling programmes recruited by Geoff in 1981,” added Linda.

“One lady volunteer started, then brought her daughter. Her daughter is now married with children of her own and still they come.”

With the recession biting hard it is a struggle at the moment to get bums on seats, which will ultimately decide whether the Grand thrives or struggles in years to come.

But whatever happens, no one could ever accuse Geoff and Linda of not playing their part.

They took over from Linda’s father as archivists several years ago, collecting programmes, photographs, autographs, press cuttings - anything visual. It is all carefully recorded and stored. The hope is that it will go on display in Blackpool’s Central Library at some point soon.

“I see our role as having a big educational aspect to it,” said Linda. “We got involved as children with our parents, so our role is to get today’s children involved.

“We take the theatre out to groups, we give out application forms to join Friends of the Grand - and hopefully, if the scheme to build a hub goes ahead (for which the Grand is on the brink of being awarded a £700,000 Arts Council grant), we can open a learning centre where parties of schoolchildren can come.”

One thing is certain, Geoff - who used to run a shop in Cleveleys - and former headteacher Linda will play their part in helping to spread the word about the Grand and doing their utmost to ensure a jewel in Blackpool’s crown thrives in the future.