Fascinating peek into the archives of much-loved Lancashire theatre

This week marks the centenary of a dramatic institution with a rich theatrical history in Lancashire, as Ellie Singleton reports

Lancaster Footlights production of Quality Street in 1921
Lancaster Footlights production of Quality Street in 1921

In the 1890s, amateur dramatic societies had begun presenting plays which they performed in venues such as mechanics institutes, working men’s clubs and churches.

There were not many societies at the time and amateur theatre as we know it today only really came into its own with the coming of popular playwrights such as Henrik Gibson, William Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.

An example is Shaw’s play Pygmalion (later to become the musical My Fair Lady). At that time, these popular plays were not generally performed by commercial theatres and as a result in 1919, the British Drama League was formed to act as a focus for the nation’s amateur theatre.

Lancaster Footlights production of The Strange Case of Blondie White in 1950

Lancaster Footlights was set up on May 10, 1920 with 67 members as a branch of this league and rapidly grew to 241 members by the end of the year.

The pictures published here show some of the plays performed over the next 30 years and reflect the changing tastes for plays over the years. Lancaster’s Grand Theatre was taken over by the Hippodrome (Lancaster) Ltd in 1931 which converted it into a combined cinema and theatre. Cinema was very popular and over the next 20 years the theatre changed hands twice, first to Union Cinemas and then to ABC Cinemas.

However, by 1949, public tastes had changed and ABC found it was making losses at the Grand and asked the city if they would like to buy it. They declined. As a result, ABC closed the theatre and put it up for sale on the open market. The four major local amateur societies which existed at the time – Footlights, LADOS, Red Rose and Vale of Lune – formed a joint committee with the aim of purchasing the theatre to avoid it being lost as a theatre and sold for conversion to other uses, but the committee was unable to find an agreed way forward to buy it.

With a 48-hour deadline given by ABC for a decision nearly up, members of Footlights decided to act on their own and raised £7,000 between them and bought it in early 1951.

Lancaster Footlights production of The Late Christopher Bean in 1935

Since then, Footlights has had two purposes, putting on plays and running Lancaster’s “proper theatre”, as comedian Al Murray calls it, providing amateur groups and professionals with an historic venue in which to perform.

In 1951, the theatre was in a very run down state and as Footlights had very little money, several fund-raising appeals were set up over the following years. The first was between 1979 and 1986 which paid for the re-upholstering and repositioning of the seats in the circle, a new staircase in the attached cottages and the fitting of automatic opening vents in the fly tower roof as part of the early fire protection arrangements.

The second appeal between 1986 and 1993 funded several items: a new main curtain; motorisation of the safety curtain; installation of a comprehensive fire detection system; a new box office; toilets down the steps from the main foyer; and a new coffee bar in the foyer and the alcohol bar on the mezzanine level.

In 1995, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts funded the adapted toilet and ramp. Since then, Footlights has used the money from its activities to continue the improvements to produce the theatre locals now enjoy.

Lancaster Footlights production of Macbeth in 1926

Following the purchase, throughout the improvements, plays continued to be produced and some examples of the more recent productions are pictured here.

It is sad that the theatre has to be closed on the 100th anniversary of Footlights, but public safety always comes first.

Despite the setback, the Grand remains optimistic and looks forward with enthusiasm to when they are allowed to resume performances. They are in the process of rescheduling many of the acts to ensure there is an attractive programme ready to go when the time arrives.