In 1974 when it became apparent the theatre was headed for a less than glamorous future a group of six thespians got their heads together; Phil explains, 'I was employed in a solicitor's office and had worked with the Steel's funeral directors on a regular basis supplying the coroner's certificates and Stanley Steel phoned me up one day and I expected he was chasing another death certificate but he went on to tell me about the impending fate of the Theatre Royal planned for demolition' (facing a death certificate of its own!) so we arranged to go out for a drink to see what we could do about it. We were both interested in theatre and took part in armature dramatics'. Others soon joined known through a variety of connections and after months of informal discussions and meetings, The Winchester Theatre Fund was created in August 1974. The group formed a charitable trust and with the well-connected Lady Bland on the team they raised £35k to buy the theatre in 1977. In today’s money this would be a massive £300,000, (not even taking into account the rise in property values.) Phil said, 'Lady Bland had amazing connections and was able to charm money from the pockets of the likes of Lord Sainsbury and Peter Cadbury!'
When I asked Phil how they staved off Bejams to buy time to raise the funds he responded by saying, 'I think just by magic' qualifying with, 'it was a group of different professions coming together with a common goal to create a theatre for Winchester'. He adds, 'It is so important for a county town to have a theatre and we didn't have one'. A local architect formed a collective called 'Thespian Decor' which was a group of volunteers who came together to refurbish the theatre which required more than just a lick of paint as the Star cinema company had allowed the Cinema, (as it was) to become rather run down.' After a year of hard graft refurbishing it themselves in the evenings after working their usual day jobs the Theatre Royal reopened on November 1st 1978. So called ordinary individuals giving up their free time for the good of the community to save a piece of Winchester's history and provide entertainment for the civic community.
Theatre Royal what's on guide
Living close by to Phil when I was a resident of Tower Street for some 15 years, (adjacent to the Theatre Royal) I can vouch for his deep rooted pride and passion for the place. This is a story of the drive and determination of a small group who rallied, attracting support of many to see their dream to save Winchester's Theatre Royal realised and we salute them.
Photographic History of the building
In 1924, it converted to a full-time cinema which lasted for the next 50 years. It was a sad day in June 1974 for the Theatre Royal's Cinema projectionist when the Cinema closed for good, he chalked on his call board "Theatre Royal, Winchester 1914 -1974 RIP." Perhaps in the light of things to come he should have written; "The Theatre Royal is sleeping, awaiting rescue, long live the Theatre Royal." Thankfully it was rescued by the collective including Phil and the Steels, who continued to provide support for the theatre with the later refurbishment in 1999.
When it was converted from a Georgian hotel in the Edwardian period an auditorium was created and decked out with ornate baroque styled plasterwork on the circle and box fronts, and it is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful theatres in the south of England and is the only surviving cine-variety theatre in the country.
This stunning and charming theatre has great pulling power too. The theatres puts on a dynamic programme of the highest quality drama, music, dance, comedy, children’s theatre and pantomime.
Check this link for current shows to time with your visit to Designer's Town House with entertainment on your doorstep
If you’d like to visit the theatre with the most amazing back story there is no more convenient accommodation than Designer’s Town House and after the show you can dine out in a fabulous restaurant or go to a bar just steps away due to the fantastic central location.