Great Yarmouth’s sleeping beauty theatre

TODAY, a question mark hangs over the future of Great Yarmouth’s Regent which closed as a bingo hall in December. But the fact it still survives at all is down to a campaign staged 30 years ago, and the Mercury took a leading role, as Tony Mallion, its chief reporter at the time, explains.

IT is a sleeping beauty, ready to be reawakened and once more to welcome eager audiences to it’s preserved stage, dressing rooms and ornate architecture. But it’s fate is unknown with owners Mecca pulling out of Great Yarmouth.

However, it is safe from demolition.

The story began in the spring of 1982 with the then owners EMI announcing the Regent was no longer viable and would close at the end of that summer. The group also owned the ABC – originally called the Regal and later renamed the Canon – which dominated the site opposite BhS, operating as both a cinema and working theatre. Indeed by the end of the decade the ABC had also been bulldozed.

But the 1,650 seat Regent was – and still is – a magnificent place of real character. It was built by Frederick Cooper, the local cinema magnate responsible for many local picture palaces, including the Norwich Regent on Prince of Wales Road, long since turned into a nightclub.

For Great Yarmouth he created in 1914 something described as “an Edwardian gem” and hailed by the national body, the Theatres Trust as being “worthy of special attention”.

Architect Francis Burdett Ward was said to have drawn inspiration from London’s Drury Lane for the classical interior, rich in plaster detail, complete with a stage, fly tower and dressing rooms which made it suitable for films and live variety shows. The shape of the auditorium was heavily influenced by the dominant cinema style of the period and most of its life was devoted to the movies.

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In the early 1950s the stage and ornate proscenium arch were covered with a wooden surround in order to accommodate a Cinemascope screen.

A scheme to turn the Regent into a two-screen multiplex never came to fruition so in 1982 it was virtually preserved intact. When the closure was announced the local councils were quick to step in to try and protect the building, something which, as chief reporter, I heard about. And that week – May 7 1982 – we were short of a front page lead.

Editor Peter Ware agreed to let me loose on the Save the Regent story.

The main champion was Pat Page, Yarmouth’s first conservation officer, a visionary pioneer who is still active in the town long after his retirement. He was the one who said of the Regent: “It’s a dream – it’s an Edwardian extravaganza.”

There was also keen support from the county’s conservation architect, Colin Jeffries, who said the building was “one of the best surviving of its kind” and from the local branch of the Cinema Theatre Association whose local representative was Anglia TV editor Stephen Peart, author of a masterly book, The Picture Houses of East Anglia.

With little time to spare I nipped round to see Pat Page and borrow the photographs he had of the interior, the original stage and the exterior with its glass canopy.

Next stop was the Regent itself where manager Les Elmes showed me what was hidden behind the vast silver screen. Like the Marie Celeste there was the dusty stage, unused for years, the proscenium and even a clock set in its arch. There were, and still are, dressing rooms and a scene dock out the back.

But 30 years ago, the department of the environment wasn’t interested in putting a preservation order on a 20th century building. Giving it official listing status would have protected its fabric. The only answer was to build up a strong case which the Mercury did with crusading zeal and plenty of column inches.

We were helped by former mayor and Nelson ward councillor Harry Miller, a professional musician and theatre lover who, a decade before had successfully campaigned to save St George’s Church from demolition so it could become an arts centre – something which eventually happened in 1974.

Harry felt the Regent needed the support of household names and he enlisted two theatre lovers, Ken Dodd and Roy Hudd. Indeed he went backstage at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, where Hudd was appearing as Bud Flanagan, to request his help. Both obliged.

“If the Regent disappears, it would not only be a tragedy, it would be short-sighted in the extreme,” said Hudd.

At that time I was also the local correspondent for The Stage newspaper, so it was easy to give this story plenty of national coverage. Our sister paper, the EDP joined in, and I willingly wrote articles and editorials, anything to make the case and keep the story going, as a folder of yellowing cuttings proves.

Despite fears this would drag on for months we must have finally prodded the Whitehall conscience because in less than five months on October 29 1982 the banner headline announced “Regent Fans Rejoice – Yarmouth’s Edwardian gem wins battle to be listed.”

Grade II listed status was granted, the building could not be altered in any way without planning consent. Hooray! Naturally we urged the council to consider buying the Regent and provide the town with a large red plush and gold multi-purpose civic theatre. But the council then – as now – was committed to the newly established St George’s Arts Centre. It also owned both the Wellington Pier Theatre and Gorleston Pavilion.

There were other theatres still open, including the ABC, and Peter Jay had bought both the Hippodrome and the Royal Aquarium to add to his family’s venues. He didn’t want another.

But we weren’t downhearted. A local businessman stepped forward to buy the Regent and turn it into a bingo hall, something which would not spoil it but would preserve it in aspic jelly, a sleeping beauty which could one day be awakened to its proper use. There were then, and have been since, many examples of this happening – London’s Lyceum, for almost half a century a Mecca dance hall, was brought back to life (and now houses the long running Lion King); Sheffield Lyceum, Blackpool’s Grand, Manchester Opera House are all among those rescued and restored to their rightful role.

Once more in 2012 the Regent is available and the opportunity is there. Thirty years on some things never change and the spotlight is once again on St George’s as it emerges from its second major restoration to finally become the versatile arts centre it began to become back in 1974.

And it can be argued we have both the Lowestoft Marina and the Theatre Royal on our doorsteps combined with the entertainment offered at the smaller Gorleston Pavilion and, before too long, St George’s.

Restoring the Regent may seem like the impossible dream, and would cost millions but stranger things have happened.