There is a grand Victorian theatre house where Laurel and Hardy once performed, Nina Simone sang and the Beatles made their first radio recording. If it were in Stratford-Upon-Avon or central London, the rich paintwork and red plush seats and upholstery might have been restored by now. But the Hippodrome is in Hulme, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Greater Manchester. Appropriately enough, it specialised in melodrama. Now its decrepit exterior, belies the drama
and atmosphere of its balconies and stage. Tony Wright, who runs the not-for-profit enterprise, Youth Village, is its champion. He’s managed to get the current private owner to allow local art students to work in it. But for now it remains just another faded gem, a landmark of history and culture, crumbling in one of our cities.
I met Tony, watched the film he’d made about it, and heard the story of the Hulme Hippodrome a couple of weeks ago at the Theatres’ Trust conference, which I was chairing. About 300 people who love and run theatres came to share their stories and their challenges. Griff Rhys Jones, whose personal commitment to saving and restoring
the Hackney Empire, is well known, made an impassioned plea for government ministers and civil servants to start acknowledging the central role of culture in regenerating urban life. The government, he pointed out, has been keener to push a purely retail solution. Its consultant Mary Portas is currently rolling into selected towns like Margate, promising to revive the high street with her special boutique-brand of advice. She has a TV crew in tow,
with shopkeepers required to sign strict contracts in return for the bestowing of her magic touch.
But when the shops, no matter how well window-dressed, close, the high street is abandoned to the binge drinkers and the late night revellers.
When the government issued its film policy paper earlier this year, it showed a similar missed opportunity. Consultant Lord Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellowes had room for the gimmick of paying for new screens in village halls; a kind of Village Screen Preservation Society. But there was no mention of reopening any of the many grand cinema houses
around the country, preserved under heritage orders, which could, like theatres, so easily become cornerstones of newly-revived town centres, large and small.
Local authorities have, of course, been burned by grand civic plans that went wrong. Think of the white elephants of lottery fund capital grants in the 1990s and 2000s: The Public in Bromwich (a building you originally had to pay to enter) or the Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield; both now “re-purposed”.
Fran Toms, Manchester City Council’s Head of Culture, came with illustrations of how Urbis –its fancy urban design museum – was being “re-purposed” after it failed to attract visitors, into a National Football Museum. As the conference was themed
around “sustainability” she had much to show about eco-friendly design and energy saving. But the waste of resources that went into Urbis was not really acknowledged. It’s well documented, though, in Owen Hatherley’s angry architectural guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain. What all these cases have in common though, is that they were pushed through top down, by councils trying to make landmarks, not bottom up by theatre companies who knew their business and had a real stake in making the project work.
It soon become clear that what makes a “sustainable” theatre is only partly about green-design. “Sustainability” means showing that theatres can and should be at the forefront of civic life. Northern Stage has put effort into taking a theatre festival out on to the streets of
Gateshead, to attract and engage a wider audience. In Cardiff, Chapter has deliberately encouraged locals to use the theatre’s café as an all-day destination, though that has created some friction with those unhappy at the influx of prams.
The Greenock Arts Guild is turning an old relic of the Scottish town’s lost maritime industry, into The Beacon. Through one of their fund raisers, who suffers from clinical depression, came the inspiration to provide jobs in the theatre, as a social enterprise, for young local people, who have the same condition. And all these places rely ultimately on the passion and commitment of the people who work in them.
An architect, who helped redesign the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, showed how they laid the old wooden stage floorboards into the new foyer. “You might be walking where Olivier once walked,” he smiled. You can’t put a monetary value on the atmosphere evoked by such design. But it is enriching to know it. The floorboards of the Hulme Hippodrome seem as worthy of preserving. The Theatres Trust website lists dozens of similar landmarks. Imagine if we were allowed to share in and revive their glory?
This piece first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.
Theatres Trust website – online resource of buildings round the country
The Hulme Hippodrome history and photos