Category Archives: Fun Palaces: the history and architecture of the entertainment industry

Super cinema

Plaza Cinema, Stockport

One of the most enjoyable residential leisure-learning weekends I’ve ever had the pleasure to lead was ‘Dream Palaces:  an introduction to cinema architecture’ in November 2004 for the now-closed and much-lamented Wedgwood Memorial College at Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent.

The College was blessed with a cosy atmosphere, an eclectic selection of subjects for study, staff who alike knew the regular students and welcomed newcomers, and home cooking.

The centrepiece of my two-day programme of talks, videos and slide presentations was a half-day trip to visit the Plaza Cinema, Stockport, a magnificent example of an early-Thirties super-cinema, designed by William Thornley and a near twin of his Regal, Altrincham, which opened in 1931 and burnt down in 1956.

The Plaza is unusual in that it’s built into a cliff, its façade facing Mersey Square, once the gathering place for the town’s trams and buses.  Much of the 1,800-seat auditorium is practically underground.  In an evacuation, some members of the audience go upstairs to the emergency exits rather than down.

The interior displays an eclectic mixture of Egyptian, classical, Moorish and Art Deco features of unusual richness:  the original decorative scheme was dominated by the burnished silver dome, lit by a Holophane system of 6,000 variable coloured lights. 

The three-manual, eleven-rank Compton organ, like its sister at the Regal, Altrincham, was built to the specification of Norman Cocker, deputy organist at Manchester Cathedral, and was the very first Compton organ to have an illuminated console.

The Plaza opened in on Friday October 6th 1932, showing Laurel and Hardy in Jailbirds and Jessie Matthews in Out of the Blue.  Its prominent central site protected it from increased competition in its early years and from the inexorable decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s, even though its nearest large competitors belonged to national first-release circuits. 

It was bought by the Mecca Group in 1965, and after initial opposition from Stockport Borough Council a replacement bingo club opened on February 6th 1967.  The stage machinery was removed in 1989 to increase the bingo playing-area, and for a time the café operated as a night-club. Because the building was used as a bingo club until 1998 the auditorium was never subdivided, and its intact interior was in sufficiently good condition to merit Grade II listing.

Even before the closure of the bingo operation, an active campaign for preservation led to the founding of the Friends of the Plaza, an energetic group of volunteers supporting the Stockport Plaza Trust, whose campaign, in turn backed by Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, English Heritage and the National Trust, has provided the town with a venue for live performances, recitals and films.

The Trust took possession in March 2000.  Six months later the listing was upgraded to II*, and on October 7th 2000 the building returned to public use.

In 2009, the Plaza closed for a comprehensive £3,200,000 refurbishment, and reopened on 11th December the same year with a cine/variety show, similar to its original 1932 opening show, featuring Gold Diggers of 1933, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Towed in a Hole, soprano Marilyn Hill-Smith leading a tribute to Gracie Fields with the Plaza Orchestra, and Richard Hills playing the Compton organ.

When my Wedgwood Memorial College group visited a month before Christmas 2004, after a behind-the-scenes tour we joined an audience for Holiday Inn, the film for which Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’, together with a period newsreel, Pearl & Dean advertisements, the Compton organ, the lady with the ice-cream tray and, at the very end, we all stood up for The Queen.

There could hardly a better prelude to Christmas – all in the cause of adult continuing education. 

Learning should be fun.

Sad end for the Wakefield Regal

Wakefield Regal/ABC/Cannon Cinema, West Yorkshire (June 2021)

Though Wakefield can be justifiably proud of the preservation and continued flourishing of the Theatre Royal, its best surviving cinema building has come to a sticky end.

The Regal Cinema at the junction of Kirkgate and Sun Lane was opened on December 9th 1935 by the Associated British Picture Corporation. 

It was designed by ABC’s house architect, William R Glen, in the instantly recognisable modern style that most people know as Art Deco.  To the left of the corner entrance, the walls swept in a graceful curve following the alignment of Sun Lane.

The interior had the characteristics of thirties design – bold curves, concealed lighting and a 43-foot wide proscenium framing what in those days was a standard Academy-ratio screen. 

In fact, though it only seated 1,594 at the outset – mid-range in comparison with other contemporary urban cinemas – the stage was 26 feet deep, providing space for major drama or dance productions.

Its later history was similar to many other town cinemas – rebranded as ABC in 1962, tripled by inserting two small screens in the stalls under the balcony in 1976, sold to the Cannon group in 1986.  It closed in 1997, shortly after a major Cineworld multiplex opened in the town.

A covenant requiring the building to remain in cinema use inhibited any possibility of adaptive re-use.

The building rotted while proposals to convert it into flats in 2007 or to demolish it to make way for a new apartment building in 2013 came to nothing. 

Urban explorers in 2007 found that the basement was flooded and the front stalls were under eighteen inches of water:  Report – – Wakefield ABC – Regal cinema 13/12/07 | Theatres and Cinemas | 28DaysLater.co.uk

Eventually Wakefield Borough Council bought it in 2020, in desperation that a fine building which had become an eyesore would before long become a hazard.

A rearguard action by an energetic Friends group, supported by the Cinema Theatre Association, tried unsuccessfully to convince the Council there was any future for the building or its façade, but a “non-obtrusive structural survey” concluded that demolition would be safer before it began to fall down.  

In June 2021 the Council resolved to flatten it to create a temporary “green space” until a replacement structure, designed to “celebrate” Glen’s 1930s design, could be built.

Bijou opera house

Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, West Yorkshire

Ken Dodd used to say that you could immediately tell a Frank Matcham theatre simply by walking on to the stage and speaking quietly.  You’d be audible at the back of the gallery without difficulty.

Frank Matcham’s smallest surviving theatre is the Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, for many years known as the Opera House and now as the Theatre Royal.

It stands on the site of an earlier Theatre Royal, which had been built in 1776 for the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson (1739-1803). 

Under his management John Kemble performed in Wakefield in 1778 and 1788 and Sarah Siddons in 1786; in the following generation Charles Kemble acted at the Theatre Royal in 1807 and Edmund Kean in 1819.

The old theatre went into gradual decline through the middle of the nineteenth century, and in 1871 became a beer house and music hall, licensed by John Brooke, the landlord of the Black Horse pub. 

In 1883 it was revived as the Royal Opera House by Benjamin Sherwood, but was denied a licence nine years later because of the condition of the building.

The replacement theatre was built in 1894 in nine months flat at a cost of £13,000 to Matcham’s designs and opened on October 15th that year. 

After the failure of Benjamin Sherwood’s marriage in 1900 his wife Fanny and their children took over the theatre as Sherwood & Co. 

In the early 1950s their family sold it for £20,000 to Solomon Sheckman, owner of the Essoldo chain of cinemas.  He installed a wide screen for Cinemascope in 1954 and operated it solely as a cinema until he leased it as a bingo hall in 1966. 

It passed to Ladbrokes and was listed Grade II in 1979.  

When Ladbrokes announced its closure in 1980 the Wakefield Theatre Trust, led by Rodney (latterly Sir Rodney) Walker, began a campaign to bring live theatre back to the town.

The restoration involved –

  • renewing the stage house
  • strengthening the grid and installing a new counterweight system for flying
  • re-raking the stalls and lower circle floors
  • reinstating the front-of-house canopy
  • removing the projection box

The building is Grade II* listed, largely on the strength of the quality of the auditorium decoration by De Jong of London – bombé balcony fronts, foliage, fruit and flowers on the lower balcony and paired dolphins in waves on the upper circle.  The original colour-scheme was gold and blue.  The proscenium is intact, and the ceiling has eight decorative medallions of the Muses, reinstated by Kate Lyons, who placed the ninth muse in the central panel of the dress circle front. 

It reopened with a gala show on March 16th 1986.  Arthur Starkie, who co-ordinated the theatre’s centenary celebrations, founded the Frank Matcham Society at the Theatre Royal in 1994.

The Trust acquired the adjacent street-corner site to create a new entrance and bar.  Further grants in 1995, 2002 and 2012 enabled improvements to the auditorium.

The theatre has gained prestige from the appointment as creative director of the playwright John Godber in 2011.  He was born locally, at Upton, and taught drama at the nearby Bretton Hall College.  His breakthrough play, Bouncers (1977) has become a perennial favourite, and his John Godber Company is resident at the Theatre Royal.

I first saw Bouncers at the Wakefield Theatre Royal.  The play is performed by four male actors in black tie, who play the bouncers, the stroppy youths who have to be chucked out and the girls dancing round their handbags.  John Godber portrays the bitter-sweet lives of the men who spend their Saturday nights dealing with the clients who create so much noise, aggression and vomit.

At the end of the night, walking out of the theatre on to Westgate was like stepping into the play.

New cinema history

Former Odeon Cinema, Flat Street, Sheffield (1993)

It pleases me to have books on my bookshelf that were written by people I know.

I met Sam Manning at the 2015 Picture House Revival weekend that Hand Of created to relaunch the Abbeydale Picture Palace as a cinema after it had been closed for forty years.

Sam was at the time doing postgraduate research into cinema-going in Sheffield and Belfast between 1945 and 1965, and asked me to contribute an oral-history interview to his PhD thesis.

That research is now published as Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom:  decades of decline, 1945-65 (University of London Press 2020), and I couldn’t resist buying a paperback edition. You can preview it as a .pdf file at https://humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/book/cinema-going.

I’ve never been to Belfast, so that aspect of his writing was new territory for me, but the Sheffield sections relate to my childhood memories and my more recent local-history research.

Sam writes as part of the “new cinema history” movement [https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137337016_7], which seeks to place the contemporary experience of going to the pictures in the wider context of social history in the first sixty-five years of the twentieth century.

This extends the ubiquitous nostalgia accounts of the generation that knew or worked in cinemas until the 1960s and the analyses of cinema architecture, the business history of the industry and the endless literature of films and film-makers that have appeared in recent decades.

On the local level, I learned a great deal because Sam has done the legwork of surveying the surviving archives of individual cinemas against city-wide data from local newspapers, government and industry records and oral-history evidence.

He revises the long-held view that suburban cinema-going was killed by the advent of television.  There were other significant factors in play – increasing affluence, flight from inner-city slums to new housing estates and the rise of a generation of young people who thought they’d invented “teenage”, the generation commemorated in Cliff Richard’s hit ‘The Young Ones’ (1962).

He also explains a counterintuitive feature of Sheffield’s post-war cinema history, the building on Flat Street of one of the few post-war Odeon cinemas, later followed by a luxurious ABC on Angel Street.

In the 1930s, when three major chains – Odeon, Gaumont and ABC – dominated the national industry, Sheffield’s cinemas were largely owned by local companies.  Gaumont British Theatres took over the Regent in 1929, two years after it opened, and in 1931 ABC leased the Hippodrome, a variety theatre dating back to 1907, which they gave up in 1948.  Neither invested in the sort of super-cinema that is the villain of the piece in the film The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).

The Odeon chain leased a site at the junction of Flat Street and Norfolk Street in 1933, and after a five-year delay the architects Harry Weedon and W Calder Robson designed a 2,326-seat cinema, four shops and a three-storey office block.  Construction began in March 1939 and quickly came to a halt at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The post-war realignment of Sheffield’s proposed inner ring road, later known as Arundel Gate, meant redesigning the Odeon on a smaller footprint. 

When building restrictions were removed in 1954 the pre-war steelwork was dismantled and the new cinema, without the intended shops and offices, was built to a completely fresh design by Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant.

This design featured a 55-foot screen and seated 2,319 – 1,505 in the stalls and 814 in the balcony. Lighting in the auditorium was by three rows of fittings hanging close to the ceiling and from concealed lights in the two decorative panels each side of the proscenium.  Sheffield had seen nothing like it before.

The new Odeon opened on July 16th 1956 with the newly-released Kenneth More feature-film Reach for the Sky, attended by the Deputy Lord Mayor, Ald Joseph Curtis, the managing director of the Rank Organisation, John Davis, and his wife, film star Dinah Sheridan, accompanied by the Dagenham Girl Pipers, state trumpeters from the York & Lancaster Regiment and a contingent of service personnel from RAF Norton.

In November 1958 the Odeon was equipped to show Todd-AO wide-screen films with stereophonic sound so that it could specialise in long runs of blockbuster movies. 

By the mid-1960s, cinema-going habits had changed radically.  The Sound of Music on first release ran from October 3rd 1965 until February 1967.  It was immediately followed by Khartoum (1966). 

For a short period of slightly less than two years, there were four high-quality 70mm screens in the city.  The new ABC had a 60ft screen from its opening on May 18th 1961.  The 70ft screen at the Gaumont was first used on July 23rd 1969 and the smaller screen at Gaumont 2 followed in October of the same year.

The Odeon closed on June 5th 1971 at the end of a further fourteen-month run of The Sound of Music and reopened in September of the same year as a Top Rank bingo hall, later rebranded as Mecca.

The Gaumont closed on November 7th 1985, followed by the ABC on July 28th 1988.  Both buildings were demolished.

Happy resort

Felixstowe, Suffolk

Over years of driving into East Anglia I have only associated Felixstowe with processions of container trucks hammering down the A14.

When I stayed at the Woodbridge Station Guest House I took the train to Ipswich and then on to Felixstowe to a happy surprise.  “Felix” is, after all, Latin for “happy”.

The mouth of the River Orwell has been strategically important, both for trade and defence, since Roman times at least, and grew markedly after the arrival of the railway in 1877 and the opening of the port in 1886.

The passenger train-service now terminates at the latest of the town’s three stations, Felixstowe Town (1898), which was built in response to an upturn in tourism after the 1891 visit of Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858-1921), Queen Victoria’s great-niece and the wife of Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

The walk down Hamilton Road, now partly pedestrianised, leads to a clifftop view of the Pier (1905;  rebuilt 2017) [http://www.felixstowe-pier.co.uk], with the cranes of the distant docks to the right, and the promenade to the left.

On the way, you pass the former Ritz Cinema (1937;  still operating as the Palace) [http://www.palacecinemafelixstowe.com].

The seafront is dotted with opulent former hotels, of which the Felix Hotel (1903) is the most prominent.  This is where Princess Victoria and her family stayed in 1901 and, coincidentally, where Wallis Simpson took rooms while her divorce took place in nearby Ipswich in 1936.  (This was the occasion of the legendary American newspaper headline “KING’S MOLL RENO’D IN WOLSEY’S HOME TOWN.”)  The Felix closed in 1952 and became the headquarters of the fertiliser company Fisons Ltd for thirty years.  It is now, predictably, converted to apartments.

Landguard Fort [http://www.landguard.com] introduces visitors to the long history of Felixstowe’s defences.  This was the location of the last opposed invasion of England in 1677, and four of the original seven Martello towers in the town survive.

I had a typical seaside lunch, fish and chips at Fish Dish [http://www.myfishdish.co.uk].  When I told the guy behind the till that the place reminded me of Whitby he smiled and said he’d trained and worked at Whitby for thirteen years before setting up in Essex.

The pleasures of Felixstowe are simple.  On a sunny day you can sit on a promenade bench and watch vast container ships, loaded to capacity, making their way out of the port at surprising speed.

And, because Ipswich is a significant rail hub, you can visit Felixstowe from far afield without using a car.

Castello con un teatro annesso

Castello di Meleto, Tuscany, Italy: theatre

One of the delights of my Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] was a life-enhancing visit to the Castello di Meleto [http://www.castellomeleto.it/eng/castle/castle.php].

This is an intriguing place, a medieval hill-top castle documented from 1256 and for centuries owned by the Ricasoli-Firidolfi family, who sold up only in 1968.  The interiors, on the ground floor at least, are entirely baroque, with an unrestored patina of faded splendour.

We were treated to a cookery demonstration by the chef, Elena, who spoke only Italian, translated (or perhaps explicated) by the hostess Geraldine, who extolled the quality of the Castle’s extra virgin olive oil, which we were invited to smell and taste.

We were shown how to make an Italian stew, which seemed to me exactly how I would make an English stew with Italian ingredients. 

The pasta-making demonstration was more entertaining, and a great deal of pasta was passed hand to hand around the group. 

We were invited out for antipasti on the terrace, where a classical wing of the house (with a medieval turret on the end) faces a flat lawn and a wall, from where expanses of hillside vineyards are visible. 

No sooner had we wandered outside than a misty rain began to fall, and within ten minutes the waitresses shifted the antipasti back into the castle and a loud clap of thunder heralded a downpour that lasted no more than half an hour.

We tucked into the antipasti indoors while Geraldine gave lectures first on the Castle’s white wine and then on the rosé, all the time pouring wine into everyone’s glasses and interrupting her flow with “I’ll fetch another bottle.”  There was no sniffing or spitting.  This was a straightforward invitation to get trollied.

We weren’t formally shown the downstairs rooms, but instead trotted off to the cellars which are tricked out with barrels and racks of bottles.

Geraldine took us from the cellars to a surprise – a tiny, intact private theatre, dated 1741, complete with perspective scenery and a balcony.  I can find nothing of any significance about it online, and I’ve never come across it in the theatre-history literature. 

Indeed, I wonder if its provenance and history have been seriously researched.  It is at any rate a great rarity. 

A three-course dinner followed, liberally lubricated with red chianti and a dessert wine.  I sat back from the conversation and watched the sunset through the trees outside the window. 

Then predictably, “pat,…like the catastrophe in the old comedy”, came the buying opportunity.  My fellow guests queued up to buy bottles of wine and olive oil, while I sat in an armchair and watched.

Eventually we began the journey back, of which the first seventy minutes were simply a succession of hairpin bends and a few small villages.  We joined the motorway south of Florence, and it took another three-quarters of an hour to reach our hotel in Montecatini Terme.

I reflected on the considerable appeal of the Castillo di Meleto.  It’s now owned by a joint-stock company and you can stay there, at rates which are high but not outrageous.  However, it’s so remote that it would be impractical to go anywhere:  it’s simply a place to enjoy, with extensive gardens, an infinity pool and a restaurant down the drive for lunch and dinner:   https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.castellomeleto.it/&prev=search.

Organ transplant

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: fly-tower (2017)

Before Christmas I was the live act at the launch of photographer Darren O’Brien’s new book about the Sharrow Vale area of Sheffield:  https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/news/people/new-book-uncovers-hidden-charms-sheffields-sharrow-vale-community-1325708.

The launch took place in the fly tower of the Abbeydale Picture House, and Darren asked me to explain to his guests the history of this unique piece of cinema heritage.

The Grade II listed Abbeydale Picture House was always a gem among Sheffield’s suburban cinemas, and thanks to a succession of sympathetic owners it’s survived to entertain new generations of patrons nearly a hundred years after its opening.

One of six Sheffield cinemas to open in 1920, its original proprietors were local businessmen, led by a professional cinema exhibitor, seeking to capitalise on the demand for entertainment after the First World War.

They hedged their bets by instructing the architect, Pascal J Steinlet, to build a full-scale theatre fly tower, enabling the cinema screen to be flown out of the way of stage performances, and to use the sloping site to include a ballroom and billiard hall beneath the auditorium and stage, with a café to serve cinema patrons.

The directors considered that moving pictures alone might not generate enough trade, and when post-war inflation ate into their original budget of £50,000 they changed plans and installed an organ by the Sheffield firm Brindley & Co.

Because Pascal Steinlet had not been briefed to include an organ chamber, the instrument stood immediately behind the screen, centre stage, making it impossible to use the stage and dressing rooms for performances.

Anxious to generate income, they opened the cinema as soon as they could, on December 20th 1920.  The Lord Mayor, Alderman Wardley, attended the first film-performance, a costume romance, The Call of the Road, starring Victor McLaglen.

Their fear that film alone would not support the company proved correct.  In June 1921 the original board was replaced by the directors of the Star Cinema, Ecclesall Road, who quickly took out debentures to complete the café, ballroom and billiard hall before the end of the year.

In 1928, probably as a response to the imminent arrival of talking pictures, the organ was moved to the back of the stage, where it was barely audible, to make way for cine-variety performances, which continued until the first sound film, Janet Gaynor in Sunny Side Up, played on March 10th 1930.

The organ continued in use until 1940, and the last organist, Douglas Scott, complained that “the volume was poor, due to the fact that the organ chambers were placed as far back as possible on the stage and…at least 20% of the sound went through the stage roof.  The screen and tabs took their toll of sound and when the safety curtain was lowered nothing could be heard in the theatre.”

There’s evidence for this on the back wall of the fly tower, where two rows of holes for the joists of the stage floor are visible, the higher row showing a clear gap where after 1928 the organ would have stood on the original stage floor.  The position of the organ meant that only the downstage half of the stage was usable, so presumably the rake was increased to maintain the sight-lines Pascal Steinlet had intended.

I hope that when the building is comprehensively restored the stage floor will be reinstated so that it can be used for performances.

But I’d think twice about reinstating an organ.

Darren O’Brien’s book Sharrow Vale and the Antiques Quarter (History Press 2019) is available from https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/sharrow-vale-and-the-antiques-quarter/9780750989329.

Park Palace Ponies

Park Palace Ponies (the former Park Palace Cinema), Dingle, Liverpool

The Park Palace Theatre in Toxteth was built for James Kiernan, a Liverpool theatre proprietor and designed by J H Havelock-Sutton, a Liverpool architect.

The auditorium is a simple rectangle, with the balcony (now removed) around three sides.  There were two boxes (also now gone), decorated with tall oval bevelled mirrors and lit with brass gas brackets.  Corinthian pilasters with acanthus-leaf bases flank the proscenium and support a broken pediment.  The proscenium is thirty feet wide.  Backstage there were four dressing rooms but no fly-tower.

Some accounts mention a gallery, and the Royal Arms mounted above the proscenium following a visit by King Edward VII in 1903, but there is no present-day evidence of either.

The original audience capacity was 1,100 (600 in the pit and stalls, 500 in the balcony) and it opened on December 4th 1893 as a variety theatre.

Though it retained its music-hall licence, the building was used as a cinema from 1905.  For a time the Sheffield cinema impresario Jasper Redfern ran it, and the Weisker Brothers took it over and renamed it the Kinematodrome in 1910.  

In 1911, Peter Dunn acquired it and ran it as cine-variety for nearly twenty years.  During the 1920s there was a seven-piece orchestra.  The variety acts and the orchestra ceased abruptly with the introduction of sound movies on January 8th 1930.  By then the capacity had reduced to 961. 

After Peter Dunn’s death in 1934, the proprietor was Miss Sheila Dunn, presumably his daughter.

The final film show – Russ Tamblyn in The Young Guns and John Payne in Hold Back the Night – took place on March 11th 1959. 

After its demise as a cinema the Park Palace was successively used as a factory, a chemist’s shop and a store for motor-vehicle spares.  For a period from 1984 it became the Mill Street Chapel. 

Subsequently the building was largely left to deteriorate. 

It was briefly revived as a performance space in 2008, and was once used as a location for the Channel 4 soap-opera Hollyoaks, but from 2010 onwards it was advertised to let. 

It remained unused until 2017, when Keith Hackett and his daughter, Bridget Griffin, set up Park Palace Ponies, to provide a riding school aimed at local children under ten, bringing them the benefits of spending time with horses and the perception that horse-riding isn’t only for the affluent.  Hundreds of children from south-central Liverpool (defined as postcodes L8, L17 and L18) have since taken part in riding lessons at the Palace:  http://www.parkpalaceponies.com

The community benefits of this scheme are palpable, and not confined to the children and their families.  The horses graze at the local allotments, where their manure is much appreciated.

Park Palace Ponies is included in the itinerary of the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022).  For further details of the tour, please click here.

Montecatini Terme

Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tettuccio Spa

Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tettuccio Spa

I’d never have found my way to Monticatini Terme if I hadn’t booked a Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] which was based in the excellent Hotel Francia & Quirinale [https://www.franciaequirinale.it/en], providing four-star quality with individuality and amenity, meticulously efficient service, an elegant lobby, a spacious lounge with many settees and a grand piano and an equally spacious restaurant with a separate area for private parties.

Two minutes’ walk from the hotel is the Parco delle Terme, which contains the spa from which the town takes its modern name, strongly reminiscent of Buxton or Harrogate and utterly enjoyable:  https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.termemontecatini.it/&prev=search.  Open courtyards with columned arcades open one into another, with fountains and an apsidal concert stage for music.

Baths on this site are documented back to 1201, and were reported by the Montecatini physician Ugolino Simoni in 1417.  In modern times the spa was developed by Grand Duke Peter Leopold, who sponsored the construction of the Bagno Regio (1773), the Terme Leopoldine (1775) and the Terme Tettuccio (1779).

The heyday of the resort was the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Though some parts are in need of restoration they evoke the time when the composer Verdi lived in the town, with such neighbours as Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Beniamino Gigli and Luigi Pirandello.

A series of elaborate marble counters offers a variety of waters through labelled taps:  Rinfresco, which “promotes the elimination of waste through the renal pathways and restores lost salts in sports training”, was the only water that was actually flowing and for lack of a cup I couldn’t drink any of it.  It wasn’t very warm.  Behind the counters a series of tiled pictures show the ages of man, voluptuously suggesting how water improves health at every age.

I had lunch – smoked salmon and remarkably tasty white bread accompanied by a litre of aqua naturale – in the high, domed, dignified Caffè Le Terme, far too grand to be called a café in any language but Italian.  On a very hot day the air conditioning was natural and effective – huge doors wide open on three sides of the high-ceilinged room.

Elsewhere in the park from the main complex are other spa buildings, the Terme Torretta (1904), the Terme Excelsior (1907) and the Terme Tamerici (1911).

At the edge of the park, I booked a table for dinner at the Profumo Garden Bistrot [https://www.thefork.it/ristorante/profumo-garden-bistrot/307299?cc=18174-54f] and later enjoyed a superlative five-course meal in an open-air setting, as the hot day cooled to warm and the sun dipped lower in the sky.  Perfect.

Opera on tap

Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells was a staid and respectable spa town, not over-supplied with theatres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mrs Sarah Baker’s Tunbridge Wells Theatre, opened in the Pantiles in 1802, was used as a theatre for about fifty years and then converted into a Corn Exchange which still exists.

In the decade when the borough became Royal Tunbridge Wells, thanks to the merry monarch, King Edward VII, the Opera House was promoted by Mr J Jarvis and opened in 1902.

It was designed by John Priestly Briggs (1869-1944) who among much else built the Grand Theatre, Doncaster (1899, with J W Chapman).

The splendid Baroque exterior includes a range of shops on three sides and a balcony above the entrance leading out of the dress circle bar.  The central dome was originally surmounted by a nude statue of Mercury which was removed after the First World War.

The intimate auditorium, originally seating 1,100, is lavishly decorated with a dress circle and  balcony , and a central saucer dome above the stalls.

The proscenium is 28 feet wide and the stage is 32 feet deep, with a grid 44 feet high.  The proscenium arch has brackets in the upper corners and is surmounted by relief figures representing Music and Drama.

The eccentric local landowner John Christie (1882-1962) reopened the Opera House as a cinema in 1925.  He had taken over the organ-builder William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd in 1923, and installed an ambitious five-manual organ with pipework located on stage and the console in the enlarged orchestra pit.

He produced a wide range of shows, including musical comedy and Gilbert & Sullivan, before he set up his own celebrated opera house on his nearby estate at Glyndebourne:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/glyndebourne-the-love-story-that-started-it-all.

The organ was sold to a New Zealand buyer in 1929 but the stage remained in use for annual amateur operatic performances from 1932 to 1966.

The history of the building after John Christie’s time is conventional – refurbished in 1931, bomb-damaged but repaired and reopened in 1949, taken over by Essoldo in 1954.

In 1966 the local council refused a bingo licence and listed it Grade II.  After a couple of years of controversy, the final film-show (Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons) took place on February 3rd 1968, and the Opera House reopened as a bingo club in July the same year.

The bingo club, successively operated by Essoldo, Ladbrokes, Top Rank and Cascade, eventually closed in 1995, and after a public campaign to prevent demolition, the Opera House was taken over by the J D Wetherspoon chain in 1996 and adapted as a public house that can be used for opera one day each year.

J D Wetherspoon has an outstanding reputation for transforming redundant historic buildings into enjoyable places to eat and drink.  By combining business acumen with sensitivity to the localities in which it trades, the company enables heritage structures to earn their keep and bring enjoyment to customers.

At the Tunbridge Wells Opera House the seating remains in the dress circle and, unused, in the gallery.  The boxes are practical but cramped, and the stained glass panels in the doors to each box and the vestibule at the back of the dress circle are restored.  The stage house retains its fly floors and bridge, and the original lighting board and the counterweights for the house tabs remain in situ.

Though there’s nothing scheduled in the calendar at the time of writing, it’s easy to set up an alert for the next Tunbridge Wells opera experience:  https://www.ents24.com/tunbridge-wells-events/wetherspoon-opera-house-pub.

And in the meantime, any day of the week, breakfast to suppertime, anyone can walk in and enjoy a complete Edwardian auditorium with good pub food, beverages and a wide range of drinks at very reasonable prices.