From glitterballs to mothballs – an offstage rummage through four and a half decades of Preston Guild Hall.
There are two architectural abominations in the heart of the city of Preston. One is Crystal House, on the eastern edge of the market square, which although toned-down from its initial flashbulb cube by its latest renovation, is not and never will be, a patch on the glorious Victorian Gothic Town Hall that it supplanted. The other is the much-troubled and currently mothballed Guild Hall.
When the Guild Hall landed – late – in 1972 its modern structural profile blasted incongruity in the faces of the splendid nineteenth century neo-classical magnificence of the Harris Museum, and the Sessions House (Grades 1 & 2 listed respectively), sited opposite it.
It is an entertainment complex housing two main auditoria in addition to smaller spaces and commercial and administrative accommodation. It was intended as a portal to other worlds, metaphorically speaking, but despite that, its resemblance to an iconic spaceship that blasted off weekly to boldly split infinitives is surely coincidental.
Commissioned as a civic-run venue to supersede the ageing Public Hall (the frontage of which is now the Corn Exchange public bar), it arrived late due to industrial action by building workers. It was intended to be ready for the Preston Guild celebrations of September 1972 but did not host events until November of that year, with its official opening at noon on 10th May 1973, when civic dignitaries joined the public in the perplexing challenge of finding the way in.
In fact, there are several entrances, though not all have always been available. The chief way was via an escalator from the ground floor shopping arcade, and it was also possible to access the main mezzanine via a bridge from the brutalist bus station car park, or by scrambling ant-like up the frontal concrete steps to find half-glazed doors tucked in architectural armpits along the flanks.
The less-than-obvious ingress was one of the reasons cited for its less-than profitable financial profile, and while that awkwardness was made worse when the spacious box office was removed from the Lancaster Road elevation, it is unlikely that the reason was a significant factor in what is now nearly half a century of red balance sheets.
Money, money money
Its commercial history is a captain’s log of loss. Its construction costs eventually topped two million plus £380,000 for the land. It continuously required propping up from Council coffers, and the most recent news of its fiscal standing is that the private company that bought it for £1 in 2014 owes £4.5 million to various businesses and individuals.
It is a facility that has always struggled to break even. Despite hosting a galaxy of stars over the years it had the misfortune to arrive just as the provincial tour bus was leaving. Within a decade of its opening big names stopped playing what they then regarded as small venues. The large space initially known as the Lockley Grand Hall, held 2000 with the adjacent Charter Theatre seating just under 800.
The main stages hosted a startling playbill of showbiz stars, especially during the initial phase. These included ABBA, David Bowie, Dave Brubeck, Linda Carter (Wonder Woman on TV, singing with the Johnny Harris Orchestra), Johnny Cash, Petula Clark, Leonard Cohen, Billy Connolly, Bing Crosby, Culture Club, Ken Dodd, Duke Ellington, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the Everly Brothers, David Essex, Bob Hope, The Jackson Five, Elton John, Tom Jones, The Kinks, Lulu, Vera Lynn, Meatloaf, Morecambe & Wise, Gene Pitney, The Police, Queen, The Red Amy of Russia, Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Rod Stewart & the Faces, Wings with Paul McCartney, and Led Zeppelin. For a much more extensive – though not comprehensive – list see page 111 of David Hindle’s book Twice Nightly.
Hindle also schedules some of the sport, TV and radio events including Come Dancing (before it was strictly done) Friday Night is Music Night and the World Snooker Championships.
The Liverpool Philharmonic supplied a series of concerts each year for many years.
Initially the Charter Theatre witnessed a string of nationally known performers in plays and other theatrical works. The opening drama performance Murder by Numbers in November 1973 starred Richard Todd (Guy Gibson in The Dam Busters film) and William Roach (Ken Barlow from Coronation Street) was a keen early supporter. Christmas pantomimes have featured ‘names’ as wide ranging as Norman Vaughan (comedian & face of the Roses grow on you TV advert), the ubiquitous Sam Kydd (240 films plus over 1000 TV dramas) and Neighbours’ Guy Pierce. In more recent days it has seen masterclass performances by such contemporary luminaries as Steven Berkoff.
Preston Film Society used the theatre for cinematic projections often showing more select movies than the standards on offer at the nearby ABC or Odeon cinemas. Preston Opera and Preston Musical Comedy Society were just two of the non-professional stalwart companies to regularly use the theatre.
Take a chance on me
My own association with the venue kicked off in February 1973 with a gig that permanently shaped my cultural perspective when a friend persuaded me to accompany him to see the Strawbs. It was the height of their UK popularity and all 2000 seats in the Grand Hall were taken. I’ve seen many performances in the four and a half decades since, comprising of music, theatre and stand-up comedy, but my deeper understanding of, and sympathy for, this old starship only really flourished when I stepped on the other side of the proscenium arch and began to stage productions there.
In June 1985 the graduates of Fulwood Drama Workshop – my first foray into teaching Drama evening classes – coagulated into Spare Parts Theatre Company and presented Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. Some twenty actors hit the boards, many of them for the first time. As well as directing and producing the show, I played the narrator delivering the First Voice text. It all went very well – it was a multi-tasking wrangle the like of which I never risked again, but through which I learned just how user-friendly the Charter stage was.
An actor has to work painstakingly to reach the rear seats with the unaided voice, but the performance space feels emotionally kind, and much more intimate than it appears when viewed from the auditorium. The manager at the time was Mike Lister, a former cinema manager, and he said he was sticking his neck out to risk this performance by an unproven producer with a largely novice cast. We chanced just two performances, after which Spare Parts had a small profit and Mike retained the link between head and shoulders.
The following year I returned with an original script The Sherlock Holmes Solution, which was very well received, and the year after that with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which – justifiably – was not. Regardless of the exhilarations and disappointments of those shows, the appreciation of the venue from a producer’s point of view never wavered. The Charter Theatre is a good venue.
Throughout the 1980s I witnessed several shows by local producers working on a similar basis, with Preston-based Chilling Tales‘ 1985 Gothic dichotomous unification of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde always sticking in the mind for demonstrating the simply exploited yet extensively entertaining possibilities of the space. One of their helmsmen, Preston actor John Hickey, launched the first Preston Theatre Festival and demonstrated the potential of the smaller spaces in the Guild Hall complex. Two of my shows featured in the festivals Checkout and Workout, both with Spare Parts.
One of the features of the Charter that was often overlooked, and hence under-used, was that the dress circle need not be opened and the rear stalls could be curtained off, the combined effect of which shrank the auditorium from nearly 800 to just over 300 resulting in what was more or less a studio theatre ambience. In addition, the orchestra pit could be raised to stage level bringing the playing surface much closer to the paying public. If that configuration was adopted more adventurous work attracting more select spectators could be housed in more conducive conditions.
That kind of adjustment could mean more work for the resident stage crew, not only in making the mechanical modifications, but also in ensuring the extended stage was properly lit, so such requests could meet with a degree of moaning. Such groans were usually emitted with good grace, if seasoned with some sarcasm. It should be recorded, that my experiences of working with the stage crew, technical staff and vast majority of front of house and management, were highly positive. It was only at the very end that things became a little tetchy . . . but it seems I was not alone in experiencing that, as the recently published list of creditors bears out.
The backstage area is fairly well designed. The stage left wing is very narrow and contains all the fly tower ropes while stage right is more spacious with lift and hoist access to the loading bay below.
My return to the boards high above Ward’s End came about curiously in 1995 when a former protégé turned producer, Neil Gornall, asked me to perform a one-man play about war to accompany his own performance and that of playwright, actor and Preston College lecturer Derek Martin. War Stories produced by 1994 Theatre Company, was a theatrical triptych of tales set prior to, during, and after the Second World War, with my contribution being a compression of a three-hander entitled Siren. I played a United States’ airman and his two female correspondents – one American and one English. No costume changes were involved and I sometimes switched roles line by line using physical theatre techniques. One of my students commented that my gender-swapping performance was so persuasive that he was convinced I had breasts. He should see me now.
For nearly a decade my productions were sited elsewhere but in June 2003 a sequence began that would last for eight years with an appendix and two progeny six years after that. Each summer Preston College staged successful musical productions in the Charter, and the Creative Arts faculty at Cardinal Newman College decided we should do the same. In order to promote our first venture, we used the local press to help us gather the memories of nightclubbers who had frequented the infamous Top Rank in Preston in the 1960s. As luck would have it the person then managing the Guild Hall, Allan Baker, had started his career as a bouncer at the Top Rank. He had no hesitation in taking our booking, and told me that actually the Guild Hall was obliged to provide its performance facilities for local use under the terms of its agreement with the Town Council.
Letters and phone calls flooded in and Top Rank Groovy remains one of my favourite shows of all. I was dubious about attracting a sizeable audience and hence only booked one night: 26th June 2003. The theatre was packed and in addition to excellent performances by the students, extra fizz arose because a lot of the audience had investment in the material being presented as they had provided the research. Hence the atmosphere was supreme.
In 2004 we returned with a sequel Gudbye t’Glam also set in Preston but this time with seventies songs, and the trio was topped off in 2005 with Raiders of the Dirty Dance showcasing eighties numbers.
In 2006 we continued the local theme but moved along the Ribble estuary to the Fylde coast for Dancing with Vettriano a double-barrelled discharge of nuptials and nostalgia split between two periods: the contemporary and the 1930s. This was the most stylish of my productions largely due to the costume and choreography teams.
2007 marked the thirtieth anniversary of Newman College with an original futuristic fantasy The Banned Wagon in which half the musical numbers were composed by students.
Blackpool Zoo was the setting for Primate Change in 2008. In this musical only two roles were human, with all the others being apes or monkeys. In 2009 we made heaven a place on earth with Angelus and the following year we heralded the forthcoming civic celebrations with Once Upon a Preston Guild.
There then followed a six-year gap, while we got to grips with new facilities on the campus, but in 2016 we decided to return and staged another personal favourite: Game of Gnomes. After that my colleagues took the reins with Lee Johnson scripting and directing Fylde Under C in 2017 and Flowers of Manhattan in 2018.
Alarm bells began to ring.
Firstly, in February 2017 I decided it was time for a personal swansong and took the uneasy theatre company, which had played several smaller venues, to the Guild Hall. The show Tempest Tossed, would not warrant one of the main spaces so – after a little hesitancy on the part of the GH – I booked the Lancaster Suite, a small space I had last seen used during John Hickey’s Theatre Festival. The show went well enough, but it took an inordinately long time, and a certain amount of administrative arm-wrenching, to get our financial dues from the venue. We were lucky, it seems.
I was also dismayed earlier this year when I learned that my successors at Cardinal Newman had assessed the situation at the Guild Hall and switched venues for their major production. That proved to be a very wise decision.
Stories started appearing in the local press of monies owed to Bill Kenwright’s company and others. In May of this year the venue went into liquidation. Working out what went wrong is a complex consideration for other times and other commentators. Running theatres is never simple, always financially fraught, and as with all things theatrical, there is often more to it than meets the eye.
Sound and Vision
Adding together the cumulative audiences and the total casts of the fourteen shows that I staged at the Guild Hall the number of people involved exceeds seven thousand. That’s evaporated small beer in the grand scale of things, but when it is added to into the mix with all the other local producers, some of whom are mentioned above, and many of whom will be able to claim much higher participation and many more productions, there is an awful lot of local folk who have celebrated Preston-made live performance at the Guild Hall. This local creation of culture is often overlooked, but it should not be. Locally produced art is like local fruit and veg. It may not always conform to the standards of national and international producers, but it can be just as nourishing.
The Guild Hall is now back under local authority control. The starship remains grounded. Let’s hope it lifts off again soon.
 Hindle, Twice Nightly, Carnegie, 1995, p107
 For a list of all those owed money see: everyone-owed-money-by-preston-guild-hall-ltd-listed
 ISBN: 1-85936-072-6
 See Swinging with the Singing Butler
For more on The Sherlock Holmes Solution production see Spare Parts from Sherlock
Some of the stars who appeared in the golden years of the Guild Hall also appear in:
Strictly Done Dancing
Eighteen former celebrities step out one more time.
A glittering selection of historical personalities are given another chance to dance. They have one more opportunity to show the world what their lives meant, but first they must meet their allotted partners and work out their routines.
What will Fred make of Marilyn?
What will Eric’s partner think of it so far?
Will Stephen’s routine be out of this world?
Who will dance with Diana?
Will there be a winner?
Available from: Strictly Done Dancing paperback
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