When the bitter wind blows from the sea, the gaps in the ornate doors of the Morecambe Winter Gardens make an eerie singing noise, like a ghost of the music that once filled the spectacular Victorian auditorium in northwest England.
“That’s what we must do here,” says Vanessa Toulmin, the chair of the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust, “fill this whole place with music again, that’s what it was built for.”
The theatre once had elaborate stage machinery, but it closed in 1977, many feared forever. For years the Winter Gardens has instead topped the bill on the Theatres Trust’s at-risk list, but a small band of skilled volunteers is now hauling the battered building back to life.
When Laurence Olivier’s performance in The Entertainer was filmed there in 1960, the theatre stood for the decay of a whole world of seaside entertainment
The roll call of the Lancashire resort’s glory days is melancholy: the two piers were lost to storms, an empty seafront block marks the old fairground, the Alhambra music hall is now a fishing tackle shop. The Midland Hotel survives, a sweep of seaside Art Deco restored from dereliction 12 years ago, and there are plans for a northern branch of the Eden Project, the Cornish eco-tourism attraction that houses the world’s largest indoor rainforest, but it is fair to say the town needs its beloved Winter Gardens open for performances again.
The theatre is the only survivor of a luxurious complex of bars, restaurants, a palm-filled indoor garden, seawater baths and an aquarium, where the entertainment included Miss Ada Webb reading, knitting and smoking underwater. Designed by Mangnall and Littlewood, with the famous theatre architect Frank Matcham as consultant, it opened in 1897 with 2,500 seats, a dazzle of wedding-cake plasterwork, stained glass and Burmantofts tile nymphs and cherubs, all under a spectacular vaulted ceiling.
The building changed hands repeatedly in the 20th century, and was poorly updated and maintained, its delicate cream, gold and sea green colour scheme smothered under a thick coat of Germolene pink paint. Although it gained Grade II* listed status, it sat empty and rotting, its stalls and circle seats stripped out, a gaping hole in the roof and the rest of the complex demolished around it. When Laurence Olivier’s famous performance in The Entertainer, based on the John Osborne play, was filmed there in 1960, the theatre stood for the decay of a whole world of seaside entertainment.
It could well have shared the fate of the Alhambra, but the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust now owns the building and keeps the faith. It is chaired by Toulmin, a University of Sheffield academic and expert on the history of popular entertainment whose family once ran the Winter Gardens fairground.
Toulmin estimates the cost of full restoration at £5m to £8m, but with grants for urgent roof work from Historic England, the Theatres Trust and the UK government’s Cultural Recovery Fund to get through this winter, real progress is being made. The ground floor is open for small events and guided tours, leaking gutters have been replaced and the roof has been patched up. Original seats, recovered from a closing Masonic hall, are being restored through sponsorship. Malc O’Neill, a volunteer plumber on the site—other useful volunteers include a retired cabinetmaker, an electrician and an oil rig worker who appears twice a year to abseil down cleaning the façade—is proud of new dressing rooms. “Look at that sink—running water!” he said.
Winter fundraising events have been tricky, because even on a mild day the building is bitterly cold. Crowdfunding is matching a £100,000 grant from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund, and work begins this winter on a new heating system.
“This was the Albert Hall of the North,” Toulmin says, “and that’s what we want to get back to.”