Set back from the Golden Mile, whose sand-blasted buildings break the winds that sweep in from the Irish Sea with the fury of banshees, the Grand Theatre has weathered much in its 125 years. In many ways, the peak and ebb of its fortunes serve as a barometer for the vicissitudes of Blackpool itself.
Built in the first swell of the town’s swagger, the brief put by Penwortham-born entrepreneur Thomas Sergenson to Frank Matcham, the pre-eminent playhouse designer of his day, was to conceive “the best, prettiest and cosiest theatre possible”.
Seen today, restored anew and clad in the blue and gold of a peak season summer’s day, The Grand continues to make good on that ambition. Modelled in the baroque style, its interior is a kind of indoor illuminations. Its paint and plasterwork rhapsodies are finely judged – intoxicatingly detailed without ever resorting to the excesses of camp.
Although the full significance of Matcham’s design was lost when the original plans were water-damaged, much can still be deciphered by the modern eye. Busts of Shakespeare and Handel look on from balcony height, the playwright keeping a watchful eye on the audience, the composer paying attention to the conduct of the orchestra pit. The proscenium arch, meanwhile, is garlanded by 12 blooms, each representing the month in which they come into full flower.
Among Matcham’s structural innovations is the cantilevered design of the balconies. Their weight borne by iron beams that echo those of Blackpool’s three piers, no supporting pillars obscure the audience’s view of the stage.
Aptly, it opened with great éclat; a production of Hamlet, no less, for which the programmes were printed on pure silk and perfumed with the now-lost fragrance, decanted by a local chemist, of Tower Bouquet.
The Grand and Blackpool were then at their height, looking towards the stars rather than pandering to the gutter. The town had led the world in its introduction of electric street lighting throughout the centre and, if the theatre’s productions weren’t quite so ground-breaking as its architecture (at least not until the blackout of the West End saw it stand in for national premieres), they were of a quality that could bear comparison with the best.
The world-famous appeared on its raked stage, from Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtree in those early days, through Gracie Fields’ six summer seasons and the likes of Alec Guinness and James Mason during the London Blitz.
By the beginning of the 1970s, however, its fate hung in the balance. Visitor numbers to the town were in decline, lured by the exotic reliability of package holiday fair weather, and so too were audiences, accustomed to the light entertainment available at the flick of a switch from at least two of the nation’s three television channels.
Its then owners, E.M.I., planned to tear down its time-worn beauty, replacing its classical glamour with the transient banality of a Littlewoods store. That it was saved owed something to its Grade II * listing, itself a tribute to the foresight of Jeffrey Finestone of The Victorian Society, and much to the love, determination and hard labour of The Friends of The Grand. The latter were supported financially both by the town and the Arts Council.
It is the Friends, locals for the most part, although they have counted Ken Dodd and Leslie Crowther among their patrons, who have continued to nurture The Grand, since its second act commenced – as its first – with a production of Shakespeare. The theatre reopened in 1981 with The Merchant of Venice, starring Timothy West and Prunella Scales.
That it continues to stand in beauty amid the misnamed ‘fun’ pubs and the family-unfriendly back streets is a testament to the best of Blackpool as it was. That it aspires to flourish is, perhaps, an early blossoming of what Blackpool will be again – at the front, rather than merely on it.
Main Image: courtesy Blackpool Grand, © SeanConboy.com