With 13,000 plus friends on Facebook favouring its retention, support from beyond the Tameside boundaries and celebrities, Tameside Hippodrome must have had a fighting chance of being saved.

It wasn’t to be.

History accounted for nothing the day when Tameside Hippodrome was given its last rites. Despite having graced the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ken Dodd and The Chuckle Brothers, hard nosed capitalism gave way, prompting its demolition.  So, what went wrong?

Some may blame The Chuckle Brothers but it would be unfair to use Rotherham’s best known double act as scapegoats. Many of us would be quick to blame its demise on the council. In one way we should be grateful to them for saving the theatre in 1975, ending a 12 year gap in live theatre provision in Ashton since the Theatre Royal’s demise. On the other hand, the dithering over the £3million bill made alternative development seem more attractive. This would have been chicken feed if they were able to attract professional acts – and use the proposed Metrolink extension to its advantage.

Some could blame developers’ apathy towards running the theatre as part and parcel of the credit crunch. Can you tell me how many theatres actually make a profit? You might be able to count them on one hand, which explains how even Conservative-run councils manage theatres up and down the country as well as Labour and Liberal Democrat run municipalities. The ‘private good, public bad’ mantra does not seem to translate to the stage door, hence their apathy and little return for their investment.

As well as safety work, Tameside Hippodrome’s existing building would need internal refurbishment within the auditorium. Compared with numerous theatres that I have visited, I (6′ tall overweight male who cannot keep still at times) found the legroom at both the circle and the stalls knee-crunchingly tight. Without marring the sightlines towards the stage, increasing the tread depths to (ideally 750mm) would have made for a more comfortable theatre-going experience. It may have reduced the capacity from 1250 seats to around 900, and reduced the ratio between toilet facilities and seating.

Though the bars and booking office were well kept in its latter years, the auditorium wasn’t the only part of the building in need of tender loving care. For example, the circle toilets, though clean, were in need of refurbishment. The front exit doors on the wings of the stalls led out to two dimly lit side streets, which did nothing for personal security. On my last visit, the sound decks were in need of replacement – and were (based on my visits between March 2007 – March 2008) problematic for over a year. During that same period, heating was non-existent (then again it could have been the ghost or my favoured seat in the circle being nearer the clouds).

As well as the dimly lit streets, car parking was an issue. Nearby (unmanned) facilities included spaces around Williamson Street and Katherine Street. Ashton is deprived of secure car parking facilities with the exception of multi-storey car parks in the Ladysmith and Arcades shopping centres (and even these are not open 24 hours a day). How many worried about their cars whilst enjoying a good tribute act?

For public transport, the theatre was well positioned for bus and rail stations. Ashton has for several years been well served by buses to the centre of Manchester before and after deregulation. Cheap evening fares by rail are more attractive than their bus equivalent. However, the perambulation from theatre to the bus station or Charlestown railway station was hardly conducive to pedestrians in the evenings. Worse, what if the show finished before the last bus left? A taxi company’s telephone link would have been a nice gesture in the reception area.

The simple reason was the money required was non-existent. Falling attendances conspired against this which also had an effect on the acts who came to Oldham Road. Under Live Nation, the theatre was also underused for long periods. For then it seemed like an embarrassing relative at the wedding reception, compared with its more illustrious peers in the centre of Manchester, London and Birmingham. This also reduced the awareness of the theatre to its locals and anyone else within an hour’s drive. There was also little variation of the circuit’s acts which led to tedium and the perception of Groundhog Day among potential theatregoers.

Coincidental with the above factors was the decline of Ashton as a ‘must visit’ destination for a night out. Recent incidents have swayed wannabe visitors towards the bright lights of ‘StalyVegas’ and Manchester. Since 2002, Ashton’s position as a ‘night out’ destination have fallen rapidly out of favour with pubs closing well before the imposition of the smoking ban. For instance, the former Yates’ Wine Lodge has been closed since 2008 following a fire; the former Pitt and Nelson (The Bedroom) has been sold and split for mixed-use development. Where would theatregoers call before or after the show? To the pub of course. If they don’t feel safe having a pint near the theatre, you’ve lost a regular theatregoer.

Tameside Hippodrome (1904 – 2008)

  • Opened as the Empire Hippodrome, 1904 as a theatre;
  • Reopened and refurbished as a cinema (The Empire), 1928;
  • Acquired by ABC, 1960: Empire moniker dropped, 1969;
  • Closed as cinema, 1973, for proposed conversion to bingo hall;
  • Reopened as theatre and cinema in 1975 by Tameside MBC as the Tameside Theatre;
  • Leased in 1992 to Apollo Leisure (then renamed Tameside Hippodrome);
  • Closed 31st March 2008, after returning to municipal control on expiration of Live Nation [Apollo’s successors];
  • (At time of writing, 2009) awaiting possible demolition.

Where Next:
1. For the optimists

With the consensus leaning towards demolition, this would leave the Tameside area (along with Wigan and Rochdale) as being deprived of professional theatre. Though the Manchester theatres, Stockport Plaza and Oldham Coliseum are a short distance away, there is nothing more gratifying than seeing a top act in your own backyard. It has been suggested by Tameside MBC that provision for first class theatre would be incorporated within new schools under construction in the borough. This is a welcome development in theory, in that state of the art sound and lighting systems could be provided. In practice, may be less so.

The centre of Ashton-under-Lyne has the advantage of excellent road, rail and bus links with most parts of the Tameside area. Assuming theatre provision was devolved from Ashton to two schools within the borough, transport provision may be patchier. If for example the proposed New Charter Academy had a theatre around Hurst, bus users from almost anywhere in Tameside would have to change at Ashton bus station. Parking within the school grounds could be more limited.

The move itself is not without precedent. I could recall Tameside College’s efforts in providing a theatre around 1997. Entitled ‘The Courtyard Theatre’, it was mooted as a middle ground between amateur dramatic and professional productions. It floundered.

As the 1904 theatre building is awaiting demolition, wouldn’t it had been a wiser option to start afresh with a new building on the same site? Is the cost too prohibitive?

Perhaps a new town for Tameside’s contribution to professional theatre could be an answer. Over the last two years I have seen concerts at Hyde’s recently refurbished Town Hall. Each one was well attended with an appreciative audience. From past experience I’ve found the Festival Theatre an atmospheric venue for amateur productions, again with an appreciative audience. Should the baton be passed to Hyde?

I would like to see the Theatre Royal in Hyde refurbished and renovated. I feel that sufficient funding from public and private purses could make the Corporation Street theatre a venue to match The Plaza or the Oldham Coliseum. To all intents, the Theatre Royal was purpose built for theatrical production and had the longest stage in the borough. Hyde is also well connected by road, rail and bus with the rest of Tameside, plus Stockport and Manchester areas. As for pubs and parking (nearby ASDA store for instance), the Theatre Royal is perfectly placed.

2. For the pessimists/realists/conspiracy theorists/cynics

On the other hand, the scenario by 2010/2011 may not match the optimistic scenario which I would most like to see take place. I fear that Tameside Hippodrome would be replaced by something of less value to the town such as a car park or shopping precinct extension. The former seems (at least to me) a likely option, making up the shortfall of parking spaces created by a northern section of Ashton bypass.

It wouldn’t surprise me if developers were sniffing around for retail space. Ashton, unlike some towns of comparable size lacks sufficient retail space for large stores. Since the loss of Woolworths, Ashton only has Next, New Look, Marks and Spencer and a large JD Sports outlet. The rest of the large retail space in Ashton is out of town on Snipe Retail Park and Ashton Moss.

Accommodating theatres in new schools may not be as successful as hoped. The edge of town locations could deter public transport users, missing out a sizeable potential audience. Though the theatres may command some loyalty among parents of schoolchildren, this I feel may be less so with anyone otherwise. At least with Tameside Hippodrome it was in the centre of Ashton rather than the edge of town.

Finally

Since the closure of Tameside Hippodrome, I have since enjoyed visiting other theatres in the Greater Manchester area and much further afield. However, I do miss travelling less than 2 miles from home to see a live professional act.

I was present during the theatre’s last theatrical production on the 30th March 2008. There was enough energy from the stage performers calling for the retention of this theatre but it was all in vain. It seemed as if in its twilight years that the theatre wasn’t appreciated. It had similar acts each year, lacked investment, and was closed for long periods at a time between shows. Result: lack of awareness of the theatre’s activities and dwindling attendances.

Any good size borough or unitary authority needs an outlet for professional theatre. Tameside is no exception and will be for the poorer without. Demolishing rather than restoring Tameside Hippodrome is not the best way to go this – unless credible alternatives like restoring the Theatre Royal in Hyde are considered.

S.V., 14th September 2009.

One thought on “The (Not So) Mysterious Death of a Provincial Theatre

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