125 years in the making - a new era dawns for Portsmouth Guildhall

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Next time you find yourself in Guildhall Square, stop and take a look up at Portsmouth Guildhall itself.

Really look at it. It’s an imposing edifice that many of us probably take for granted. But it has survived being bombed during the Second World War and weathered countless economic crises and changes in local government priorities.

Andy Grays, chief executive of Portsmouth Cultural Trust, outside the Portsmouth Guildhall.''Picture: Sarah Standing (131173-1934)

Andy Grays, chief executive of Portsmouth Cultural Trust, outside the Portsmouth Guildhall.''Picture: Sarah Standing (131173-1934)

While no longer functioning as civic offices, it is now best-known as an entertainment venue, playing host to musical stars, from The Beatles and Stones back in the ’60s to Lily Allen and Royal Blood today.

This summer, the building celebrates its 125th anniversary, and as a result of that, the Portsmouth Cultural Trust, which runs the Guildhall, has got ambitious plans to take it well into the future.

After the building was virtually destroyed in 1941, it was rebuilt and reopened by The Queen in 1959.

Andy Grays, chief executive of the trust, says: ‘What they recreated here in the 1950s was, at the time, absolutely cutting edge. In 1959 this was seen as one of the country’s great concert halls.

‘It was deemed to be acoustically perfect. It had a much larger concert hall, as the original version could take no more than about 800-900. Now you had more than 2,000 and the hall sat in a very different position in the building to how it did in the 1890s.’

As part of the celebrations, the Guildhall’s Portsmouth Room will show a series of photographs going right back to the building’s beginnings – even to the laying of the foundation stone in 1886, as pictured opposite, and its opening on August 9, 1890.

Andy says: ‘In bringing things up to date, the Guildhall does play a major part in the city’s civic position, and I suppose what we want to do is to remind everybody of its importance, not just as a concert hall but as a building.’

And with that in mind, the trust is unveiling its vision for the future in a £15m refurbishment programme, Guildhall Renaissance, which will involve an overhaul of the building’s innards and bringing it into the 21st century.

Andy says: ‘We’ve done a lot of background work with architects and consultation with people who use the venue, audience members, the council – who are the landlords – and cultural partners.

‘The bottom line is that over the next 10 years we want to upgrade the Guildhall. It is looking rather tired inside in certain places and we are functioning as one of the south coast’s main concert halls, we’re doing nearly 120 shows a year, which is as much as it’s done in many, many years.

‘But we do have to reinvent the building in some respects so it’s fit for the next 50 years.’

He adds: ‘We want to continue to work as a concert hall, but to widen the scope of events coming in. We want to create a second live venue and it’s important in this day and age that it makes more money to sustain itself.’

In recent years the arts world has had to be increasingly business-minded to counteract cuts in subsidies and grants.

Andy explains: ‘When there was more money around, say 10 years ago, it was easier to sit back and just put some concerts on, but now we have to make the building work 16-18 hours a day.’

The revamp will see the main hall increase capacity to about 3,000 and improve the building’s technical capabilities and provision, enabling the Guildhall team to put on bigger productions which at present they have to turn away.

The trust is also looking at working with local schools, colleges and the university around teaching music, as well as creating a series of educational partnerships with the likes of the New Theatre Royal, the Kings Theatre and Aspex Gallery.

And the University of Portsmouth will be closely involved with Guildhall Renaissance, with students getting in on the design and architectural aspects.

Professor Catherine Harper, dean of the faculty of creative and cultural industries at the university, says: ‘When you come in by train, the Guildhall is the first thing you see.

‘Architecturally it’s a really impressive building, and I think we forget that because we’re so familiar with it.

‘To get behind the building and developing its contemporary potential is a big opportunity.

‘Portsmouth is going places. I’m so impressed even that in the two years I’ve been here I’ve seen how things have come on.

‘It’s a city that’s growing in self-confidence, with things like Ben Ainslie Racing coming here and Victorious doing so well – we’re really on the map.

‘I think what Andy is proposing will really make it a flagship for the city.’


There is a wide array of events going on, with something to entertain most people this summer

August 8: The Royal Marines School of Music kick everything off with their annual concert and Beating Retreat in Guildhall Square,

August 9: Exactly 125 years after the building was first opened by King Edward VII, the guildhall will host the Funky Town Festival. Following on from the success of Flast year’s first ever Funky Town which attracted 3,000 people to Guildhall Square, this year’s event will be held inside the building. It will again be brimming with activities, including the Bonkers Balloon Show, spellbinding children’s shows with Mimika Theatre, circus skills, street art and dance, workshops for parents and children – from digital illustration and prints to soap making, a Makers Market and a range of art exhibitions.

August 10-14: Working with Parkwood Community Leisure, the Guildhall will be jam-packed with sports activities to keep the whole family entertained and healthy during the summer holidays. Activities will include giant inflatable air hockey and football, a sailing simulator, mini tennis, gymnastics, circus, everything from tap to street dance, table tennis and much more.

There will also be plenty of live music.

On August 13, PCT has collaborated with a dynamic group of young people from the Portsmouth Schools Music Festival to present Tomorrow’s Music Today as part of their Get Into Music programme.

August 14: Portsmouth Scene Promotion presents The Response plus support

August 15: Portsmouth Scene Presents: Ben Brooks, Jamin with Steve plus support

August 16: Portsmouth Scene Promotions: Live in the Harlequin, Lunch Edition

August 20: Guitar lovers will be delighted to hear that Gordon Giltrap will return to the Guildhall after his previous sold-out performance. Enjoy an intimate evening of cabaret and dinner in the Live Lounge café with one of the most innovative acoustic guitarists in the UK today.

August 22: It Must Be Madness present the ultimate nutty tribute band.

August 22: The Vintage Car Fest and historical celebration from 10am to 4pm is sure to be a highlight.

Held in the car park behind the Guildhall there will be live music, bars and alfresco lounging on hay bales. Inside the building visitors will be able to enjoy the Portsmouth Music Experience exhibition (Access All Areas), live Skiffle performances as well as talks on the history of Portsmouth and of course, the Guildhall.

Ongoing throughout: Exhibitions will include Rock Shots, covering 50 years of music photography in Portsmouth, the Pie & Vinyl Poster exhibition and a Conan Doyle exhibition with a sports twist. The Portsmouth Room will also host a selection of archive images of the Guildhall from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I Was There!

As part of Guildhall 125, the cultural trust has teamed up with Strong Island, with support from Arts Council England, for the I Was There! project.

It aims to collect as many memories of special musical performances at the Guildhall, past and present, as possible.

Were you in the audience at that unique show with your favourite band, on stage for the first time, or perhaps part of the team that made it all happen?

They want to hear about it.

As well as collecting memories they’ll be asking people to send in photos of themselves with treasured mementos from these special moments, whether it’s a drumstick, guitar pick, setlist, poster, ticket, album or even something more unusual.

Photos can be sent in via email or social media or at special I Was There open days at the Guildhall throughout August, when they’ll also be filming short interviews.

These memories, photos and interviews will ve shared with everyone via social media, building a picture of all of the special experiences at Portsmouth Guildhall throughout its long musical history.

Strong Island will be at the Guildhall to receive any contributions and videoing people’s stories between 1pm and 5pm on Sunday August 9, and Saturday 15, 22 and 29.

Please send your memories and photo contributions to paul@strong-island.co.uk or to Twitter at @portsmouthghall and Facebook, using #IWasThereGuildhall

Musical history

If John Lennon is looking sheepish in the photo to the right there, he had good reason.

It was taken the night the The Beatles had to cancel their concert at Portsmouth Guildhall, scheduled for November 12, 1963, after Paul McCartney – just about visible hiding behind his bandmate – came down with gastric flu.

Fortunately the Fab Four were able to reschedule and honoured the date on December 3 that same year.

But they are not the only musical legends to have graced the Guildhall’s stage down the decades. The Rolling Stones played two nights there in February, 1964.

And Pink Floyd debuted their entire Dark Side of the Moon album at the venue in January, 1972 – a year before it was released.

The venue continues to attract the big names today.

Recently Lily Allen played there, as did Brit rock stars du jour, Royal Blood.

Last year Mick Jones returned to his hometown of Portsmouth with his mega-selling band Foreigner, and became the first inductee into the venue’s newly-created Hall of Fame.

And in the months to come there is an impressive roster of names from the past five decades of popular music – from folkster Donovan to crooner Bryan Ferry via heavy metal gods Judas Priest and reggae stars UB40.

The history of music in the city, and the important role the Guildhall has played in that, is on show at Access All Areas, a permanent exhibition in the venue.