Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1974)

The history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre moves into febrile territory now as we look at 1973 and 1974 and a very public dispute over two conflicting theatre projects in Scarborough.

On one side, Alan Ayckbourn and the Library Theatre company and, on the other, a plan to re-open a well-known local landmark. What resulted made the headlines and saw Alan threaten to leave the town for good.

1973 – 1974: Rivalries by Simon Murgatroyd

During 1973, the Library Theatre in Scarborough was enjoying huge success thanks to the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s classic work The Norman Conquests.

The full houses packed with the summer holiday crowds believed the fact that begin the scenes things were not running as smoothly. For despite the company’s success and almost two decades in the town, its future was precarious as ever.

There was a desperate need for a new home for the company and pressure to find one was not only internal but also, increasingly, coming from external figures. Amidst all this the company unwittingly found itself embroiled in a conflict which made national news headlines and became a point of much local contention.

The Library Theatre circa 1974 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The argument which developed during 1973 and 1974 was based around Scarborough’s former Royal Operas House theatre and an overly-ambitious attempt to breathe new life into the recently closed building.

All that remains of the Opera House now is the name of the casino built on its former site, but the actual theatre opened in 1908 on the site of a former building, the Charles Adnams Grand Circus, founded in 1876.

In 1908, the original building was demolished aside from the outer walls and cast iron columns within and rebuilt and re-opened as the New Hippodrome.

From the start, it was a venue for both live performance and film and was renamed twice to the Opera House & Hippodrome in 1910 and later the Grand Opera House in 1914. From 1947, it was predominantly used as a repertory and receiving theatre until it was closed in 1971.

Interest in re-opening the theatre emerged soon afterwards and in 1972 a campaign was launched to save the Opera House; concurrently, Alan Ayckbourn and Scarborough Theatre Trust were actively searching for a new home for the company given the limitations of the Library Theatre – essentially a couple of rooms on the first floor of the public library adapted into a theatre space for approximately 40 weeks a year.

The suggestion of a rival theatre project – then the Save The Opera House Society which later became the Opera House Preservation Society – generated much unease within Scarborough Theatre Trust as the minutes from a meeting on 12 November 1972 show.

“Secretary reported that the Theatre [Opera House] was on the open market and agents were asking £50,000 (or offer) as it was a Listed Building. He continued and informed the meeting of another interested party trying to create enthusiasm in the town to save the building. Secretary reported he was attending their meetings out of curiosity and would report back to the Trust.”

It all sounds very clandestine!

But there was a serious issue here. Scarborough Theatre Trust has been fundraising for a new home for the company for the past five years. Despite no success in finding a suitable venue, it was feared a rival theatre bid might derail the Trust’s work.

“One view expressed was that this Society might launch an Appeal for money which could seriously affect our own Appeal.”

A prediction which proved correct when a report about the Opera House was given to Scarborough Theatre Trust in March 1973.

“I think we should now regard the PRESERVATION SOCIETY as OPPOSITION. We know very little about their intentions except they are buying the OPERA HOUSE and are to launch an appeal for Funds in May of this year.”

Of most concern was the news the Society hoped to become a Theatre Trust to pursue similar grants as Scarborough Theatre Trust. That news even prompted the consideration whether the Trust itself should buy the Opera House; which was not feasible as due to its Listed status, the proscenium arch and layout inside was protected – not much use for a company founded on theatre-in-the-round.

The Royal Opera House on its re-opening in June 1976 (© Len Gazzard, courtesy of Cinema Treasures)

It was not until 1974 that the worst fears of the Trust were confirmed though, when in September both the Trust and Society applied to Scarborough Borough Council for a grant towards a new theatre; in a closed meeting the Council was recommended to only consider the Trust’s application and to ignore the Opera House request.

At the same time, the Opera House Preservation Society contacted Scarborough Theatre Trust suggesting the two groups work together, but the Trust was quick to point out two theatres could not prosper in Scarborough nor was the Trust interested in a proscenium arch theatre.

That there was now seen to be an actual rivalry between the two projects is evident from newspaper reports at the time with the Scarborough Evening News noting in October that the town council had ignored the Society’s grant application.

“Scarborough Theatre Trust, it seems, is now laps ahead of the Opera House Preservation Society in the race to put on year-round live theatre in Scarborough.”

It was at this point though that matters took an interesting turn. During a town council meeting, it had been proposed that the Library Theatre be part of a proposed – but never realised – extension to the Library taking over the former Christ Church (now the home of the Iceland store on Vernon Road).

This was news to the Libraries Committee – a County Council based committee which earlier in the year had taken over running Scarborough Library from the town level. A key member of the committee was County Councillor Erkki Lahteela, described by the newspaper as ‘a prime mover and indefatigable worker in the fight to save the Opera House’ – who was reported as saying.

“We have never indicated that the Library Theatre should have a place in any extension.”

Conflict of interest, anyone?

This appears to have been the keystone moment in all that followers. At this point, the Preservation Society had until January 1975 – less than three months – to secure £30,000 to buy the lease of the Opera House. And they were not leaving without a fight.

The Trust was asked again – and again declined – to meet the Preservation Society and reconsider its position. At approximately the same time, the Trust applied for a 40 week season for the Library Theatre; it appears to have been assumed this would largely be a formality based on previous year’s experiences when the Town Council licensed the theatre annually to the Trust.

Except everything was different now the Country Council controlled the Library.

On 23 November, the Scarborough Evening News reported North Yorkshire County Libraries Committee had turned down the application more than two to one when County Councillor Lahteela “spearheaded opposition to the Library Theatre proposal” suggesting the theatre’s presence would “take facilities away from organisations” in the town.

Given his position as Chairman of the Preservation Society, it seems incredible that Councillor Lahteela would have been allowed to be involved in such a critical decision for another theatre.

The Scarborough Evening News headline (© The Scarborough News)

The Library Theatre’s Artistic Director, Alan Ayckbourn, was enraged by the decision and wrote a full-page article for the Scarborough Evening News on 25 November 1974 – headlined “Ayckbourn says he will quit if Library Theatre is refused a longer season” – in which he both threatened to quit the town and also leapt into the Opera House fray.

“Nobody can have been unaware of the so-called dispute between the Opera House Preservation Society and the Scarborough Theatre Trust. I say so-called because, to date, there has been little or no comment made by the Scarborough Theatre Trust itself concerning the issue… It is with great reluctance that I feel I have to comment on the projected Opera House scheme at all. Speaking as one who relies for his living upon keeping theatres open, it would never be my wish to close one unless I felt, as in the case of the Opera House, that the building itself was so archaic in size, so uneconomical to run, and so lacking in any worthwhile features as a theatre.”

During the course of the article, he tore into the lack of realistic financial planning for running the theatre, wondering where the £75,000 a year needed to run such a venue was going to come from without subsidy.

Aware that the Preservation Society had made public its belief that the Trust should join forces with them to restore the Opera House, Alan neatly turned it on its head, whilst striking a defiant tone.

“I would like to reverse the invitation and ask them to join us. We, after all, have been proven to work, have a considerable national reputation and are already, within the limits of our grant, economically afloat. I would happily accept all the funds so far raised by the Opera House, purchase and demolish their outmoded playhouse, and build in its place a sensible scaled theatre that Scarborough could enjoy and afford to run.”

Given the Listed Building situation, this was almost pure provocation by Alan and he concluded by noting that there was scarcely a country in the world where a theatre had produced what had originated in Scarborough and that, if the Library did not change its mind, he would quit the theatre and Scarborough.

With the entire company behind him and also threatening to quit the town, Alan was called into a crisis setting with Scarborough Town Council whilst Councillor Lahteela’s continued to defend his decision purely on his desire to protect the Library’s facilities.

Just to add fuel to the fire, Hull Arts Centre made an offer to house the Library Theatre company; interestingly the Arts Centre would later become the Spring Street Theatre, home of Hull Truck Theatre.

The argument received extensive television and newspaper coverage with both parties going on the record in extensive interviews, which saw Alan at one point note: “I feel hurt, naturally, that our application for a 40-week season was rejected on such flimsy pretexts, and after 17 years I would have thought the town would be more supportive for theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough.”

On the 28 November, the media reported the Opera House Preservation Society had offered a 50-50 administrative split with Scarborough Theatre Trust if it immediately invested £15,000 to help obtain the lease for the Opera House and the two organisations amalgamated their funds and efforts.

Judging from the reports it is difficult to say whether the Preservation Society was attempting to be as provocative as Alan or was actually just clueless, given its suggestion there was no necessity for theatre-in-the- round in any new theatre development as “Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are performed in the West End in proscenium arch-type theatre not as theatre-in-the-round.”

As would be seen later, it was – in all probability – actually a desperate play for money by the Society, which was not quite in the financial position it had painted itself as – having previously suggested there was at least £15,000 in the coffers.

December came with several more letters to the Trust inviting them to join thePreservation Society’s scheme, at which point Alan agreed to meet the Society – though for what purpose is not clear given there was so little common ground between the two.

Alan Ayckbourn in the Library Theatre during 1974 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Alan later reported back the meeting had produced nothing of value and that “he had found it difficult to convince them that the aims of the two associations were totally separate.”

Time for the Preservation Society was running out – as it was for its figurehead. Scarborough Borough Council made a request to the County Council for a special meeting regarding the Library Committee’s decision and members of the council publicly accused the County Council of being out of touch with the people of Scarborough and that there was overwhelming support for Alan Ayckbourn and the Library Theatre.

With the conflict now being reported in the national press and his actions as both councillor and chairman of the Society being portrayed in a less than positive light, The Stage reported on 5 December 1974 that Councillor Lahteela had resigned as chairman of the Preservation Society. However, rather than leaving gracefully, he made a public statement which which was reported nationally due to the rather extraordinary declaration that neither he nor any other county council- lors had realised “how famous Alan Ayckbourn was.” It is not recorded what his fellow councillors thought of this sweeping statement, but it was perhaps not the most tacit comment.

In context, in 1974 alone Alan had equalled the record for the most plays simultaneously playing in the West End, had had his first Broadway success, had been featured in a self-titled documentary on BBC2 and was a constant presence in the region’s newspapers. This was before even considering the playwright and the Library Theatre’s 19 year relationship with the town.

In the wake of that, North Yorkshire County Council agreed to the extension of a 40 week season, but with the understanding that this would be the company’s final year at the Library and they would vacate the building by January 1976.

As for the Opera House Preservation Society, the deadline of 10 January was reached and it was revealed that despite all the sound and fury, the fund-raising efforts had amounted to nothing. It was reported the Society had not even reached £500 of the £30,000 target!

Later that year, local businessman Don Robinson – whose company Millet Investments had bought the Opera House for £22,500 in 1973 and were behind the purchase offer to the Preservation Society – began restoring and refurbishing what would be called the Royal Opera House. The purchase and restoration was put at more than £175,000 – far in excess of the £10,000 quoted by the Society at one point which would be all that was needed to restore the venue!

It re-opened on 16 June 1976 with the production Carry On Laughing although, true to Alan’s prediction, it was not able to survive as a theatre and it later became a cinema with the occasional live performance.

Its final film was the blockbuster Batman in 1995, after which it closed down and was, sadly, essentially left to rot. The entire building was demolished in 2004 and the Opera House Casino built on its site.

The Library Theatre ran until summer 1976, at which point the company moved into former Westwood County Modern School building beneath Valley Bridge, which – as the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round – became its new home for the next 20 years.

You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s relationship with the Stephen Joseph Theatre at the playwright’s official website by clicking here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder. Thanks to the Theatres Trust for background information on the Royal Opera House.

These articles were first published in the Circular – the e-publication for the SJT Circle supporters’ organisation. During these difficult times for theatres, the SJT Circle is a great way of helping to support the theatre and further details can be found here.

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