Theatre of dreams
From a dilapidated ruin, Wimborne’s Tivoli Theatre has become a vibrant, successful entertainment venue. John Newth has visited it.
Published in December ’09
The 1930s were the heyday of the ‘movies’, and it was in 1936 that Wimborne acquired its own cinema in the form of the Tivoli in West Borough. Before that date, other buildings in the town had been used for showing films, including the Masonic Hall in the Cornmarket and the Victoria Hall, now incorporated into the King’s Head Hotel.
The projectionist for some of those films was Mr A S Prince, and it was he who saw the commercial opportunity and built the Tivoli. It was designed as a theatre as well as a cinema, with a stage and orchestra pit but, oddly, with no dressing rooms and only a limited capacity to ‘fly in’ scenery. The property Mr Prince bought on which to build his cinema was Borough House, a Georgian townhouse; its garden was sacrificed to create the auditorium (a 400-year-old cedar tree stood just about where the stage is today), but the elegant frontage was preserved and still survives as a listed structure.
Like virtually every other small-town cinema, the original Tivoli was killed off by television. Its audiences dwindled and it closed in 1979, to be bought by Dorset CC as part of a road improvement scheme. For the next fourteen years it lay empty as the road scheme was shelved and various futures for the building were proposed. What is now the coffee shop was a gunsmiths, and shot-marks on the rear wall of the theatre show how it was used as a testing range.
In the early 1990s, a prominent Wimborne businessman and former Mayor, Malcolm Angel, decided to take matters into his own hands and formed the Friends of the Tivoli. His intention was to raise awareness of the building’s potential, as well as funds for its preservation and, if possible, its re-opening. By this time the building was in a pretty dreadful state, with holes in the roof and fungus growing on the interior walls. Even such dilapidation was not an obstacle to the determined and imaginative Friends: they persuaded Dorset CC to let them have the building at a peppercorn rent and Wimborne TC to contribute towards the repair of the roof, they salvaged the seats from a cinema in Amesbury to replace those which had deteriorated beyond repair, and on 23 November 1993 the Tivoli re-opened to bring films and live theatre to the people of Wimborne again.
It was an immediate success story, with a balanced programme film and live shows, including stars of the calibre of Keith Michell, Val Doonican, Hannah Gordon and Lennie Henry. Yet the stage also hosted local schools and groups in its role as a theatre at the heart of the community. Malcolm Angel, who was managing the operation and helping the volunteers who did almost all the day-to-day work, was himself a volunteer. In the late 1990s a trust was formed and Wendy Frewer was appointed as a paid part-time administrator. By 2002, Malcolm Angel was suffering from ill-health, caused partly by his efforts at the theatre, and the trustees put an advertisement in The Stage for a full-time paid manager.
One of those who saw the advertisement was Charlie North Lewis, who had been educated at Forres in Swanage and at Milton Abbey. Only recently had he visited Dorset again after a gap of 27 years, but he and his wife had set their hearts on living in the county. One of the passions of his life was old theatres and cinemas, so the job was perfect for him. Happily, his experience was also perfect for the job: from being an actor, a drummer in various bands and a sound engineer, he had moved on to running the merchandising on major tours in Britain and abroad and to managing theatres and other entertainment venues, including a lengthy spell in Canada. On his return to the UK in 1997 he worked for BAFTA until he saw the Tivoli advertisement in The Stage.
‘I fell in love with the Tivoli the first time I saw it,’ remembers Charlie, ‘and I had a great respect for what had been achieved. They were now looking to move forward and I thought that if they had got this far, they must be doing something right.’ This perfect marriage was followed by a happy honeymoon, in which the first three acts that Charlie booked were all sell-outs: Chris Farlowe, Helen Shapiro and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (who cooked a goose on stage). The Christmas show had traditionally been an amateur production, but for 2002 Charlie booked the professional company, Jake’s Ladder, whose Scrooge easily beat all previous figures for a Christmas show.
There was an inevitable dip in 2003 and Charlie found himself under fire, both directly and from those who preferred to conduct a whispering campaign behind his back. Charlie’s forceful character and uncompromising opinions on the direction the Tivoli should be taking were not well received by all. ‘I knew that what I was doing was right and took the view that they had hired me to run the place and must let me run it,’ he says. He remembers with gratitude the support he received at that difficult time from people like Malcolm Angel and Alan Breakwell, chairman of the trustees, some of their colleagues on the trust board, and members of his management team like Wendy Frewer and Andy Day.
The picture improved in the autumn of 2003 and the Christmas show again beat all records. In 2004, Charlie achieved his greatest coup up to that point when Jack Dee played the Tivoli. Charlie is in sole day-to-day control of what is put on at the theatre. It is a challenging job, and not as straightforward as it might appear. ‘One tends to think of Wimborne as conservative,’ he explains, ‘and it is true that the most popular films are likely to be British, possibly period costume dramas, and probably starring names like Helen Mirren, Judi Dench or Hugh Grant. But old-time music hall doesn’t work commercially on the whole, and some more cutting-edge acts have done surprisingly well.’
It helps that the Tivoli draws a large proportion of its audience for live shows from well beyond the town boundaries. As well as visitors from reasonably nearby places like Salisbury, Yeovil or Southampton, it is not unknown for fans of a particular artist to come down from London, see the show on Friday night and stay for the rest of the weekend. It enables Charlie to take some risks in his programming and the trustees are wise enough to allow him to do so. ‘If your programming is bland and you try to please everyone all of the time, you’ll fail,’ he says.
However, the Tivoli is a business, and exciting programming that makes a loss is of no use to it. As Charlie North Lewis puts it, ‘It’s all about money and my first priority is to put bums on seats.’ For example, he accepts that it is part of the Tivoli’s role to provide a venue for local amateur groups, but it has to be on a commercial basis: ‘If you’re not good enough to sell enough seats to pay for the hire of the theatre, that’s your problem, not mine’ is his blunt view that has not endeared him to everyone. But he is unrepentant: ‘I’m here to make money and if I don’t make money, this place will close.’
There is no comparison with somewhere like Poole’s Lighthouse, which receives regular local authority grants. East Dorset DC will give the Tivoli ad hoc discretionary grants towards specific capital projects, but all the operating costs must be met out of revenue. ‘Our volunteers are wonderful,’ enthuses Charlie North Lewis, ‘and we literally couldn’t run the Tivoli without them. But you can’t assume that they will always want to do it. For example, manning the box office can be stressful and it’s a lot to ask people to do that for nothing. For us to operate to our full potential, which we deserve to be able to do in view of our track record of bringing people to the town and raising the profile of East Dorset, we should receive a regular grant. There are other projects in the town that are funded because they’ve always been funded, and that’s a bone of contention for me.’
Happily, 2008 was the Tivoli’s most financially successful year to date, but its case for more local authority funding remains strong. As far as its future programme is concerned, one of Charlie North Lewis’s proudest moments in the last seven years was when he presented Charlie Watts with Ben Waters and his band. Now his ambition is to see the Rolling Stones appear on the Tivoli stage. Don’t bet against it.