Fifty years ago this week, Blackfriars Theatre and Arts Centre, in Boston, played host to the most significant opening night in its history ... its own.
The Spain Lane venue opened its doors to the public for the first time on October 11, 1966, with a performance of A. W. Pinero’s The Magistrate by the Lincoln Theatre Company.
It followed a five-year fundraising drive to convert a decaying, former Dominican Friary into ‘a Little Theatre for Boston’ (as it was billed at the time of the appeal’s launch in September 1961).
The theatre was opened by Nigel Abercrombie, secretary general of the arts council, in what The Standard described as a ‘memorable, colourful and exciting event which should be recorded in the annals of Boston as one of the really important occasions in the borough’s history’.
The paper continued: “It marked the consummation of five years of initiative, anxiety, hope and effort. It has given the town a delightful little theatre, acoustically excellent, with a raked floor, together with good lighting, decorations, heating, and fine stage.
“More than that it has brought back to the fullness of life from the very jaws of extinction the beautiful remains of a 13th century friary.”
“To those people of foresight and initiative, Boston will always owe a debt of gratitude. All this could not have been achieved without the willing co-operation of many dozens of organisations and many hundreds of people.”Mr C. L. Hoffrock Griffiths, chairman of the Blackfriars Trust, when the theatre opened
Speaking on the evening, Mr C. L. Hoffrock Griffiths, chairman of the Blackfriars Trust, said: “It is for tonight that countless people in Boston and district have lived and worked over the past few years.
“To those people of foresight and initiative, Boston will always owe a debt of gratitude. All this could not have been achieved without the willing co-operation of many dozens of organisations and many hundreds of people.”
The journey to the opening of Blackfriars can be traced back to 1933 when the Boston Preservation Trust formed and purchased a number of properties of architectural note in Boston, including the former friary that would become Blackfriars’ home.
On September 1, 1961, The Standard carried an appeal to turn the friary into a theatre. The Blackfriars Trust, which had been set up to promote the scheme, hoped to raise £15,000 to meet the initial capital cost of the project. The Standard noted, however, the idea of converting the friary into a theatre had been long-held, with the Boston Preservation Trust having commissioned plans for such a project as far back as 1937.
Blackfriars’ opening night in 1966 saw tribute being paid to a number of key figures in its development. They included three Alans – Alan Blakeley, who inspired the project, Alan Meldrum, the architect, and Alan Champion, the chairman of the Blackfriars appeal, and Miss F. Elsey, who, as The Standard wrote, ‘although aged more than 70, gave up her cottage in Spain Court to provide adequate dressing room accommodation for the theatre’.
Blackfriars almost faced its final curtain in 2008 when it was announced, amid financial pressures, it was to close.
However, in opposition to the plans, a group of the theatre’s supporters formed the Blackfriars Action Group (pictured) and won control of the theatre, seeing it re-open after a short closure.
Among that group was Stuart Bull, Blackfriars’ current chairman, who made reference to this period when asked for his thoughts on the venue turning 50.
He said: “I am honoured to be chairman at the time of this milestone in Blackfriars’ history. The good people of Boston raised Blackfriars from a ruin in the 1960s and their foresight and confidence in the future was remarkable. I am pleased to have had a small part in turning the centre’s fortunes around following its closure in 2008, and can say that we are in an improved position.
“We have renovated about 50 per cent of the seats in the auditorium which are now much more comfortable and have plenty of legroom. We have started on a programme of repairs and renewals which will continue as funds allow. We are run almost entirely by volunteers and would welcome new people coming to join us, whatever their skills. We are here to serve the Boston community and would love to hear what people want to see in their local theatre and arts centre.”
Blackfriars has no record of the acts to have played the theatre since it opened, but those behind the venue offered a list of notable names to have graced the Spain Lane stage in the past 10-15 years.
The Bay City Rollers, Henry Blofield (Test Match Special cricket commentator), Gabrielle Bradshaw (artist, known to viewers of Hartbeat) Paul Daniels (magician), Darren Day (actor, singer and TV presenter) Richard Digance (comedian and folk singer), The Fortunes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Rob Grant (Red Dwarf co-creator), Mike Harding (singer), Bruce Jones (actor, best known for his role as Les Battersby in Coronation Street), Paul Jones (former Manfred Mann singer and current BBC Radio 2 presenter) George Melly (jazz and blues singer), Cerys Matthews (Catatonia singer and BBC Radio Six Music presenter) Sarah Millican (comedian), Zoot Money (vocalist, keyboardist and bandleader), Tom O’Connor (comedian, TV presenter and actor), Sunny Ormonde (actress in the Archers), Nicholas Parsons (radio and TV presenter and actor), Gervase Phinn (author and educator), Robert Powell (actor), Alan Price (original keyboardist for The Animals), Alexei Sayle (comedian), The Searchers, Showaddywaddy, Sid and Rebecca from Cbeebies, Lisa Stansfield (singer/songwriter), Sooty and Sweep (children’s TV stars), Alvin Stardust (pop star).
If there are any others you would like us to add to the list, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Names so far received (courtesy of Steve Grist, former Blackfriars stage manager) are: Diana Dors, Reginald Bosinquet (newsreader), Patrick Moore, David Jacobs, Brian Johnston (Down Your Way - BBC Radio 4), Ronnie Scott, Humphrey Littleton, The Cambridge Buskers, Angus Deyton (Cambridge footlights), Tony Capstick (comedian), George Chisholm (trombonist).