UP WITH THE CURTAIN!
The extraordinary history of the Oldham Coliseum
The current Coliseum Theatre sits in a tiny back street off the busy Lancashire to Yorkshire road. I say ‘current’ theatre because the building started life in the town centre where the busy ‘Tommyfield Market’ stands today. In 1885 Oldham was visited by a Mr Myers who instructed local builder, and Mayor’s son, Thomas Whittaker to construct a round wooden theatre as a home for his touring circus. Circus was the latest craze - Wild West shows fronted by legends like Buffalo Bill and produced by firms such as Barnum and Bailey had just crossed the Atlantic to huge success and so small-time regional producers attempted to jump on the wagon. Mr Myers was doing just that – he called his show ‘The Grand American Circus’ but they’d probably been no further west than Ormskirk.
When the work on the building was finished Myers couldn’t come up with the funds to pay for it so Whittaker found himself the owner of the circus. Amazingly, with no experience to speak of, he decided to have a go at running it as a commercial venture – and even more amazingly, he had a success on his hands. The first shows were themed events – Chinese Festivals, recreations of Dick Turpin’s ride to York and so forth. A couple of years later and the council decided that they wanted the site in order to build a market hall so Whittaker moved the Colloseum (as the name was then spelt) further down the hill – plank by plank. The market, ‘Tommyfield’, bears testament through its name to the fact that Tommy Whittaker owned the land.
So, down in Fairbottom Street, on the site of a disused colliery, the new theatre was opened to great publicity. The theatre was made of wood but by now new fire regulations were being brought in and so Whittaker was forced to prove that his 3,000 seat venue wasn’t a fire risk. He invited the Oldham Fire Brigade to try and set light to it – they tried, it didn’t burn and so he was allowed to open to the public. Over the next 50 years or so the theatre played host to variety, musicals, pantomimes, circus and film. Charlie Chaplin is rumoured to have made a visit although actual written records and hard to find – the great Stan Laurel definitely did appear however, as a child actor in the pantomime ‘Sleeping Beauty’ alongside Wee Georgie Wood. By the 1930’s business was suffering from both the depression and the growth in the popularity of cinemas – a great many were opening up in the small town and in 1932 the theatre went bust and closed its doors.
Many in the town campaigned to keep live theatre and in 1938 they opened the Oldham Repertory Club in the former Temperance Hall in the street behind what is now called the ‘Coliseum’. They employed a professional team of actors and a professional director (a young Oldhamer called Dora Broadbent (now known as Dora Bryan) was one of them). Such was their success that in 1939 they leased the old Coliseum and moved the company in there – performing a different play every week.
During the war years the venue was used by companies who were forced to leave London such as the Old Vic, Ballet Rambert and Sadler’s Wells. The Coliseum company also gained a reputation for launching the careers of famous actors – Mollie Sugden (‘Are You Being Served?’), Alan Rothwell (‘Coronation Street’), Anna Wing (‘EastEnders’) and Bernard Cribbins amongst them. In 1947 the theatre caught the national headlines when an actor playing the title role in the often-fated play ‘Macbeth’ was accidentally stabbed on stage and later died. His ghost is said to haunt the theatre to this day.
In the late 50s when television was becoming a widely watched form of entertainment the theatre found itself a popular calling place for casting directors looking for new stars – many of the cast of ‘Coronation Street’ were discovered this way. In fact, William Roache, who was cast as Ken Barlow in 1960 had only just completed his first leading pantomime role at the Coliseum, as he told me: “I was cast as Robin Hood – and there I was in Lincoln green, with the tights, boots and a hat with a feather in it. We had a chorus of little girls – a horn sounded and they cried, “It’s Robin! It’s Robin!” as I came heroically down a staircase, centre stage. On the opening night, I made my entrance at the top of the stairs. I threw my arms back in greeting. The orchestra swelled. Then I tripped and bumped all the way down on my bottom! I never did panto gain.”
By the 60s the theatre was feeling the effects of the growth in the popularity of television and was forced to adapt. Smoking was banned from the auditorium, the building was extended and productions started to go out on tour. The strain of producing a different play each week was also causing problems as people now saw the technical achievements of TV studios night after night and they demanded an improving product. The actors had traditionally performed one play at night whilst rehearsing the following week’s production during the day. Under the direction of Carl Paulsen, a man not known for holding his own counsel, the pressure was increased – Carl’s standards were high.
“If he wasn’t happy about something you soon knew it!” actor John Jardine says. “I remember being on stage during a rehearsal when he called the props girl onto the stage. She was stood there holding a tray of props and he said something about not wanting props of such poor quality on his stage and he pushed the tray up in the air – everything fell onto the stage and smashed. What he didn’t know was that they’d all been borrowed from his house!”
At the end of the decade they were forced to make financial savings too – by making productions fortnightly rather than weekly. During the following decade they moved to monthly productions and the invited back many former company members – people like Patricia Phoenix (Corrie’s Elsie Tanner) in a bid to boost the box office takings. For a while it worked and the Coliseum seemed to be back on an even keel but gradually things began to slide again and the 80s were particularly turbulent times as the theatre struggled to maintain full houses and keep the doors from closing.
During the 90s the theatre became a charity and funding was sought form various national and regional agencies. Today the theatre continues to thrive and provides a rich diet of new and established writing using both the 580 seat main house and the smaller 60 seat studio theatre. Although not strictly a repertory theatre any more in that the company of actors largely changes for each production, Oldhamers are still rightly proud of the town’s ‘Rep’ – as I’m sure it will always be known.
• Film stars Ralph Fiennes and Minnie Driver have both appeared at the Coliseum.
• The theatre ghost is an actor who was stabbed on stage in 1947.
• Jean Alexander (Hilda Ogden) once worked in the theatre’s wardrobe department.
• Amongst other famous names to have worked there: Roy Barraclough, Jean Fergusson, Barbara Knox, Kathy Staff, Sarah Lancashire, Anne Kirkbride and Steve Halliwell.
• The late Dame Thora Hird enjoyed a huge success at the Coliseum with the comedy ‘Saturday Night at the Crown’. It was during this run that a booker from Blackpool signed the show for what would prove a record-breaking summer season and subsequent West End run.
• Oldhamer Eric Sykes claims that without a chance to shine on the Coliseum stage he would have continued working in the mills.
• The West End hit ‘Marlene’ starring Sian Phillips began life at the Coliseum.
Text copyright of the author.
|Picture copyright ITV|