Saved from demolition

The New Theatre Royal in what was then Commercial Road (now Guildhall Walk) in its heyday.
The New Theatre Royal in what was then Commercial Road (now Guildhall Walk) in its heyday.

THIS WEEK IN 1993: ‘Despicable’ attack on Armistice Day

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There has been news of the extensive rebuild at the rear of the New Theatre Royal in The News recently, but I wonder if you know that in the 1960s there were plans to try to get the theatre demolished?

The theatre closed in 1956, although it was opened occasionally for amateur performances. From 1960 there was also wrestling and bingo.

When demolition was first mooted two sides fought for and against it. One side said ‘it was a fine example of Victorian architecture’ while the other claimed it was ‘no more than a rubbishy old building’.

There was also a debate about whether the city needed two theatres.

In 1966 a developer proposed the demolition and construction of a 200-bed hotel. It was debated and rejected by the council. The developer appealed, but in the interim the council slapped a building preservation order on it.

Two years passed with the council’s development and estates committee voting to preserve the theatre.

The News posed a question asking readers whether a civic theatre was wanted. Fifty-one per cent said yes with women and those under 35 strongly in favour of retaining it. Men aged over 35 seemed to be very much against preserving it.

There was a lively debate at a council meeting and a motion to keep the theatre was narrowly approved.

A public inquiry before a ministry inspector in 1971 led to rejection of the demolition plan.

This led, of course, to the council having a building that was decaying and although the conservation lobby had saved the building there was little cash for its upkeep. The owners were unwilling or unable to maintain the building. So what was to be done?

Various uses were put forward but in the end its future was just as uncertain as it had been at the beginning of the debate.

In 1971 Ken Russell used the theatre to film The Boyfriend starring Twiggy, Georgina Hale and Barbara Windsor. It was to prove the theatre’s final professional performance for many years.

A year later, children playing under the stage set off fireworks which led to the whole of the rear of the theatre burning down. It was only the safety curtain’s ropes being burned through, thus making it drop, that saved the main auditorium.

Again demolition was proposed but again it was rejected and three years later volunteers entered what was left of the theatre. They did what they could to rebuild the theatre and, with modern funding, we see what we have today.

On a personal note, I am glad it was saved as my mother, then Mary Sutton who had a singing voice like Dianna Durbin, often sang on the stage especially during the war when leading an audience of hundreds of sailors in singalongs.