It was two weeks before the first national COVID-19 lockdown came into force. In March 2020, Cheshire-based brothers Anthony and Edward Prophet took over The Bowdon Rooms in Altrincham.
Now, following a year of renovation and upgrades, the Grade II listed venue is set to become a new jewel in the North West’s entertainment crown, relaunching in the summer as soon as restrictions have been sufficiently lifted.
The past year has presented many challenges for the theatre community. While I’m secure in the knowledge that working with my sister would be, um, problematic, a familial professional relationship doesn’t seem to have been an issue for the Prophet brothers.
“So far, so good,” says Anthony with a laugh. “We seem to achieve a lot more than stereotypical sibling relationships suggest. We’ve worked successfully together for years on various projects and hospitality events. One man’s strength is another man’s weakness, and I think we complement one another really well. This just felt like the right move for us and the next big stage in our career.”
The brothers, who were brought up in Sale, have a wealth of experience when it comes to leading creative teams. Even so, as Anthony admits, launching a new live venue in 2021 is a pretty bold move.
“We’re aware of the potential risks, but we have to come out of COVID-19 with ambition, realistic optimism and confidence that the show will go on to some extent.”
He adds: “Our location means that people in the area won’t have to travel far or get trains or trams in order to enjoy world class acts. We can only hope people will want to go back to some form of normality.”
This last point is a major one. If infection rates continue to fall and restrictions continue to ease, will the public feel ready to carry on where they left off? Or will people remain wary for some time to come?
“We’re fully aware that people are going to be more concerned than they might previously have been,” says Anthony. “It’s important that they feel safe. But we can only do our best and follow the advice that we’re given. We have extraction systems and sanitisers and will make sure that we maintain a safe, clean, non-threatening environment within the options available to us.”
Public safety is never out of the spotlight and it’s not just a topic related to the pandemic. Ensuring that audience members are able to get to and from a performance without incident is also something that Anthony is keenly aware of.
“For years, venues have had to maintain social responsibility and we must continue to do that as best as possible. Working within the local authorities and town centre partnerships is important.
“The purple flag scheme [an accreditation process which affords status for town and city centres that meet or surpass the standards of excellence in managing the evening and night time economy] is another great initiative where venues get a reputation and rating on things like accessibility of taxis and other factors that indicate a safe and enjoyable night out. It all adds to helping make the area safe and we very much want to part of that.”
Anthony’s enthusiasm to reinvigorate the venue is obvious. But why this space in particular?
“We put a show on [at The Bowdon Rooms] a number of years ago,” he explains. “We thought that the venue was fabulous with a stunning history. It just needed some love and reconfiguration to bring it back to life. We told the leaseholders that we’d be interested in taking over the venue if they ever decided to move onto other projects and, just 12 months later, a deal was struck.
“The pandemic has been such a grey cloud over our industry, but it’s given us the time to bring the venue back to its former glory as an entertainment centre. All the public space has been refurbished and upgraded and, when we finally open the doors this summer, we hope that the public will be impressed by what we’ve done.”
One of the trickiest aspects in the lead up to the relaunch is programming. As an all-round entertainment venue, content possibilities are broad. But this doesn’t come without its challenges.
“For obvious reasons the initial programming has been done as and when we can fit into people’s tour dates. But going forward, we’re aiming for content that offers diversity to the majority of people in the area and the North West. We’re trying to encompass variety and great entertainment to suit everyone, including comedy, music and an element of theatre. We want to attract the right level of A-list stars and touring shows that suit the venue.”
Dating back to 1903, The Bowdon Rooms boasts Edwardian architecture and more than 125 years of history and grandeur. The venue is also a fully licensed wedding location and offers four conference and event spaces, including an intimate lounge area and an impressive ballroom. It will also host exercise and theatre classes and a choir for people with dementia.
With so much time and emotion poured into the relaunch on top of the return of audiences following lockdown, is Anthony anticipating an emotional opening night?
“Very much so. We did an online broadcast recently and it was the first time we’d heard a live musician in over a year, which was a big deal. Although we’ll be pre-occupied with the practical elements, our first night is bound to be emotional for us as proprietors and also for the audience as this might be the first time they’ve been out for well over a year. It’s going to be a unique night.”
One of the big-ticket events that Anthony is particularly excited about is a series of gala dinners featuring the likes of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Sir Lenny Henry and Brian Blessed.
“These VIP experiences offer people access to performers in a much more exclusive environment. When you arrive, you feel that you’re at a red carpet, five-star affair. The guests will talk and wax lyrical about their careers, take questions and be available for pictures.”
It’s a varied opening programme and I push Anthony to list a few highlights, which is a request that he finds a bit tricky.
“They’re all highlights on their own way,” he says. “I’m excited about the range of iconic music acts lined up such as Big Country, Odyssey, The Christians, The Real Thing and Toploader. Another show to watch out for is Elton John: It’s a Little Bit Funny, written by Chris Burgess and performed by Manchester’s Martin Kaye. It’s a fantastic show about what happens when a superfan bumps into their hero and gets to spend the evening with him.”
Main image: Anthony and Edward Prophet, The Bowdon Rooms in Altrincham.