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‘The Lively Old lady’

Hugh Ashley has known the Bournemouth Pavilion for more than fifty years and has written a history of it. He tells its story.

Bournemouth Pavilion

A rare photograph which shows the Concert Hall’s original glass chandeliers. It was taken soon after the opening of the Pavilion.

Loved and loathed, the Bournemouth Pavilion reaches the grand age of eighty this month. When opened in 1929, here was one of the finest entertainment buildings in the land. So wonderful was it that every national newspaper featured it; the Daily Telegraph described the new complex as giving ‘the impression of a balanced, square-looking structure’ with ‘a seemliness and dignity which Bournemouth will observe with quiet satisfaction’. The centre had been 87 years in the making following years of argument, disagreement and pre-planning since 1842 – who says that local government has changed! – but the foundation stone was laid on 23 September 1925 and when the building did finally open, there was a whole host of amenities and activities for locals and holidaymakers.

The opening of the new wonder Pavilion on 19 March 1929 was one of the greatest events the town had witnessed. Residents lined the streets of Holdenhurst Road, Old Christchurch Road and Bourne Avenue to welcome the Duke of Gloucester, the first-ever member of Royalty to travel by public train. Hundreds of brightly coloured flags and blue, yellow and green artificial flowers hung from buildings and lamp standards. It was a truly memorable day, highlighted by glorious sunshine. In his opening speech, the Duke announced: ‘I have the utmost pleasure formally to declare this building open for the use of the public, and I express the hope very sincerely that it may prove a great advantage to the inhabitants of Bournemouth and visitors.’ (He then annoyed many Bournemouth folk by leaving the ceremony to attend another function in Christchurch!)

Bournemouth Pavilion

An early photograph of the Tea Room, now the Ballroom, with its Art Deco dome

The Art Deco Pavilion cost the rate-payers of Bournemouth £250,000, about £11 million in today’s world, but they got a good deal. The interior combined elegance and comfort, with a magnificent Concert Hall and a beautiful Tea Room featuring a sprung dance floor and magnificent sea views; the Concert Hall, which we now call the Theatre, is exactly square and provided a performance centre for the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, forerunner of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It incorporated a magnificent Compton concert organ, the 1862 pipes being stacked behind two curved chambers on either side of the proscenium arch – still giving concerts each week to this day. The auditorium seated about 1700 people, with additional ‘promenade’ space around the back of the cantilevered balcony, which had a rubber-tiled floor so that those walking could move silently. The Tea Room, which is now the Ballroom, was the finest on the south coast – and is still one of the biggest ballrooms in the country. Both these structures were designed in gentle Art Deco style and painted in warm and relaxing pastel shades of pink and terracotta with gilt ornamentation. The Concert Hall was lit by intricate glass chandeliers, removed during World War 2 in case of accident.

A 1930's photo of the fountain,Bournemouth Pavilion

A 1930s photo of the fountain in the forecourt, its dancing waters (pumped from the sea) colourfully lit

Behind the Concert Hall were two lounges in which to sit, relax, read and hold conversation; these were demolished in a stage re-build in 1934 and replaced by a larger room, which is currently called the Phoebe Bar. Underneath the Tea Room were two large restaurants, First-class and Popular, and these have over the years been through various stages of change, including a lively period in the 1960s and 1970s as the Ocean Room, where drink, dance and entertainment were the order of the day. During World War 2 the Popular Restaurant was a Government-run ‘British Restaurant’, where diners could buy a good and nourishing lunch for 2/6d. Both these rooms have been closed for many years but will soon re-emerge as the new South West Dance Centre. Also under the ballroom was a small hall, known as the Lucullus Room, a high-class and expensive restaurant, still operating but only for private parties. The West Terrace, an open area for people to stroll, taking in the sea air and enjoying the aromas of the gardens below, was covered with a ghastly 1970s extension, totally ruining the aesthetics of the building. This was demolished in 2007 to allow the Terrace to return to its original glory.

Unknown to most, there are seven floors of storage, kitchens, and staff rooms between the back of the stage and the Ballroom, including extensive cellars built well into the sandy base of the hillside. There are 660 steps throughout the building, which is larger than Wells Cathedral, and the ducting for the heating system was wide enough to drive a car along. The initial heating system was controlled by steam, allowing hot water to be pumped to the extensive kitchens, including a full-scale bakery, for cleaning. Sea water was pumped from a chamber underneath the west corridor and used not only for the heating system but for filling the fountain in the forecourt, for running the waterfall in the gardens and for cleaning Westover Road and other streets. Another claim to fame was ‘the largest Soda Fountain on the South Coast fitted to the Tea Room’.

Right from the very beginning, the complex brought all the top stars of stage, screen and – later – television. The opening concert boasted Stanley Holloway, one of the era’s greatest singer-comedians, and in the first few years, great names such as Paul Robeson and John McCormack captivated audiences. Big bands like Jack Payne and Jack Hylton played here, and the composer Sergei Rachmaninov gave an afternoon piano recital. Some shows made history; when actor Matheson Lang played The Wandering Jew in 1936, he paused the show so that the audience could hear the broadcast abdication speech of King Edward VIII. Sybil Thorndike, later a Dame, appeared in the play Six Men of Dorset, and Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. On the lighter side, variety shows were glistening with names such as Nosmo King, Billy Cotton and Ted Ray. Max Miller, the notoriously filthy comedian, had the curtain rung down on him because his jokes were unsuitable for Bournemouth people.

the Ballroom, Bournemouth Pavilion

An example of the versatility of the Ballroom, here being used for a trade union conference

After a short closure when war broke out in 1939, the Concert Hall returned to full-time entertainment, featuring such stars as pianist Myra Hess, and actors like Robertson Hare and Jessie Matthews. More history was created in 1940 during the Labour Party Conference when the delegates agreed to power-share with the Conservatives if Neville Chamberlain were replaced with Winston Churchill. So it is arguable that the whole course of World War 2 was decided at the Bournemouth Pavilion!

Kathleen Ferrier made an early career appearance at the Tea Room when she sang with composer Irving Berlin, Edmund Hockridge sang in a concert with the Royal Canadian Air Force Band, and Robert Helpmann and Beryl Gray graced the stage with the Sadlers Wells Ballet.

Over the years which followed, many very big names continued to flood into the building – Stewart Granger, Richard Attenborough, Richard Todd and Sean Connery appeared, and in its heyday, during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there would be up to eight weeks of pantomime every year, and eighteen weeks of summer season, all with the star names of the day, including Al Read, Dora Bryan, Bob Monkhouse, Ken Dodd, Joan Regan, Alma Cogan, Bruce Forsyth, Des O’Connor…. Some shows remained ever popular, with the Black and White Minstrels filling the theatre for hundreds of performances over several years. The pantomimes have always been of extreme importance and – apart from two years, once when the theatre was undergoing structural repairs in 1960 and again when the Council decided to cancel the show in 1983 – there has been a show every Christmas since 1934. In 1957 Max Wall caused much public outcry because of his ‘rudeness’ on stage – but he still filled the theatre! Later years have brought many stars from the television world.
Nowadays, the changing world of theatre means that the Pavilion runs a sequence of one-night shows, interspersed with the resilient pantomime and longer runs of West End shows. In 2008, when Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat played for the summer season, more than 35,000 people came through the foyer in just three weeks, and Starlight Express in 2007 brought a similar number. Who says the theatre is dead!

The Ballroom has provided regular dancing through the years, as well as hosting exhibitions and conferences. Tony Blackburn began his musical career here with a group called The Ravers, and other stars to have appeared include The Who, David Bowie, and Manfred Mann. Eileen Fowler with her exercise classes, political raconteur Ann Widdecombe, boxing and wrestling have also featured.

A scene from last summer's highly successful Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Bournemouth Pavilion

A scene from last summer’s highly successful Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

As to the future, redevelopment plans are a harbinger of even greater things to come, with a dance studio and total refurbishment. Long may the Bournemouth Pavilion reign as the lively old lady of entertainment in Bournemouth.

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