I’ve never been able to understand why the borough of Doncaster has ignored its dark, neglected but intact Grand Theatre.
Built in 1899 within sight of Doncaster railway station to the designs of John Priestley Briggs (1869–1944), a pupil of Frank Matcham’s, it’s bolted on to the overwhelming Frenchgate Centre (built as the Arndale Centre, 1967), with the dual-carriageway inner relief road clipping the corner of its stage tower.
Most sources credit as joint architect Mr J W Chapman, the owner and lessee of the Old Theatre on Doncaster Market Place, who according to The ERA of April 1st 1899 “designed the whole of the arrangements, and personally drew the plans, which were passed by the Doncaster Corporation”.
Chapman’s specification made the Grand a thoroughly modern theatre, electrically lit using its own generator, heated by a low-pressure hot water system, with a sprinkler system for firefighting. All eight dressing rooms were fitted with hot and cold running water.
The auditorium has three levels, originally the orchestra stalls and pit, the dress circle and above that a balcony and gallery. The two boxes face into the auditorium and are not practical.
The original terra-cotta, cream and gold decorative scheme was executed by Deans of Birmingham.
The 26-foot proscenium is squarely proportioned, with brackets in the upper corners. The stage itself is 70ft wide, 32ft deep and 50ft high.
The roll-call of performers at the Grand runs from Charlie Chaplin to Ken Dodd and Morecambe & Wise, and includes such Yorkshire favourites as Albert Modley, Sandy Powell and Frank Randle.
It was where Julie Andrews’ debut took place when Ted and Barbara Andrews played in the December 1935 pantomime and carried their two-month-old daughter Julie onstage.
The Doncaster Grand was one of the variety theatres featured in BBC broadcasts in 1930s. Live theatre timing was not as tight as broadcasting schedules, so the outside-broadcast unit had to carry whatever came on while they were live on air: at Doncaster they got Florrie Forde, a paper-tearing act – and a troupe of jugglers.
The Grand was taken over by the Essoldo cinema chain in 1944 and it eventually closed in 1958. It operated as a Mecca bingo club from 1961 to 1990. In 1994, while under threat of demolition, it was listed Grade II.
The Friends of the Doncaster Grand Theatre have campaigned ever since for the restoration of the building, which now belongs to Lambert Smith Hampton, the owner of the adjacent Frenchgate Shopping Centre.
Doncaster Borough Council, meanwhile, has opened Cast, its performance venue “where you can watch incredible shows, share creative ideas and be inspired” – “a key driver for the creative industries and evening economy”: http://castindoncaster.com. It takes a moment to work out why it’s called Cast.
Faced with an intransigent owner and a council facing in a different direction, it must be difficult for the Friends to maintain momentum in their campaign to find the Grand a place in the town’s creative industries: http://friendsofthegrandtheatre.co.uk.
There are urban-explorer reports on the Grand at http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php/66786-The-Grand-Theatre-Doncaster-Nov-2011 and http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php/66941-Grand-Theatre-Doncaster-December-2011.