This weekend marks 140 years since Leeds Grand Theatre first opened its doors. Chris Bond looks back at the venue’s fascinating past and its enduring popularity.
Alan Bennett once told me in an interview how he remembered watching Laurence Olivier visibly shaking on stage with nerves during a performance at Leeds Grand Theatre.
There are two noteworthy things about this. Firstly, it shows that even the greatest actors can suffer from stage fright, and secondly it’s a reminder that some of the biggest names of stage and screen have passed through the doors of this venerable theatre over the years.
This weekend Leeds Grand, or the Grand Old Lady of Leeds as the theatre is sometimes affectionately called, will be 140 years old and the anniversary is being celebrated over the next two weeks starting on Sunday with a pop-up photographic exhibition at Victoria Gate in the city, followed by a red carpet event in collaboration with the Broadway musical, Jersey Boys.
Leeds Grand is at the heart of the city’s cultural life and has been for many years. People have met there and fallen in love there and it remains one of the most prestigious theatres in the North of England.
Its origins also have a royal connection. The theatre was built in 1878, reportedly following an off-the-cuff remark by Prince Albert that Leeds needed a good theatre as “nothing was more calculated to promote culture and raise the tone of the people”.
The Grand was designed during a backlash against the so-called “common” entertainment of the music halls, yet it was felt there was still big enough demand to sustain the opening of the Empire and Theatre Royal.
From his Grand Tour of Europe, architect’s assistant James Robertson Watson returned with sketches of theatre interiors in Italy, France and Germany, presented them to his boss, George Corson, and the eclectic Grand emerged.
They adapted Romanesque and Gothic motifs and the church-like echoes helped underline that this was a respectable place of entertainment.
It then took 13 months to complete at a cost of £62,000 – the scheme also included six shops, Assembly Rooms, a supper room and large cellars.
The theatre itself (now a Grade II* listed building) was described at the time as being “ahead of its time” and “probably the finest of its size in Britain.”
A treasured playbill survives from the Grand’s opening night on November 18, 1878. It includes a sharp reminder about traffic arrangements around the theatre. “Carriages to be ordered each night for 10.45, and coachmen to set down with their horses’ heads towards North Street, and to take up facing Briggate. These regulations will be strictly enforced by the authorities.”
The opening play starred actor-manager and playwright Wilson Barrett. “He had his own theatre company and was commissioned to open the venue and the very first production was Much Ado About Nothing,” says Ian Sime, the theatre’s general manager.
“It was the largest theatre in the area and at the time a lot of theatres were built close to railway stations to bring audiences into Leeds and make it easy to take them back home again. But also a lot of the sets used to be brought in by train and then horse-drawn carriage.”
Back then a box cost two guineas, and it was a shilling to stand in the pits.
Later they became stalls with benches, and until the 1920s “packers” were employed, aggressive characters who were specialists in the art of maximising seating capacity through pushing and shoving.
The Victorians demanded spectacle from their shows and the Grand’s complex stage machinery was designed to deliver it with a series of traps and bridges which could be used for elaborate transformation scenes.
The architects had picked it up going cheap at an auction in Edinburgh from a theatre which had gone bust.
The Yorkshire Post’s drama critic, who watched a melodrama called Claudian in May 1884, wrote: “The mechanical arrangements of the earthquake scene are very striking.” The earthquake had “flung down temples and palaces, marble columns and sculptured monuments in a chaos and havoc of destruction”.
Many of the brightest stars made their way to Leeds, including Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Irving and Lily Langtry. But it was panto which made the serious money.
The panto crowds outside the theatre were so dense they held up the horse trams.
Its popularity continued into the new century. During the First World War it, like the nearby City Varieties, was used as a recruiting venue to encourage young men to sign up.
Productions continued to be staged during the Second World War. “There would be an announcement made if there any air raids and people had the option of leaving or going to the cellars underneath the theatre which were converted into air raid shelters,” says Sime.
After the war the Grand continued to attract big plays. “We were one of the first places to show The Mousetrap before it went to the West End.” This was back in 1952 when Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim were among the original cast.
Over the years the theatre has played host to such stellar names as Laurence Olivier, Margot Fonteyn, Peter O’Toole, Sean Connery, Julie Andrews, Peter Ustinov and, more recently, Peter Kay and Sting.
“We have a visitors book which dates back to 1945 and has got many of the great show business names. There’s Morecambe and Wise, Bruce Forsyth and Noel Coward.
“It’s always been that kind of venue, the premier receiving house in Yorkshire,” says Sime.
“The Grand has long been home to opera and ballet and back in the 1950s the likes of D’Oyly Carte and Sadler’s Wells would come here on a regular basis.”
By contrast, though, the 60s was a period of greater uncertainty. “People were finding new kinds of entertainment, with TV in particular, and a lot of theatres did close.”
Thankfully Leeds Grand escaped such a fate and in recent decades it has benefitted from the resurgence in popularity of big musical shows.
“It’s still a successful working theatre so it’s far from a museum and it’s a venue that is busy throughout the year. It has productions for all tastes and all occasions – we’ve had big shows playing here before going to the West End, and we’ve also had some of the big Broadway shows here in Yorkshire.”
It’s also a home for Opera North and Northern Ballet and continues to stage new productions and high-profile premieres. “Gary Barlow and Tim Firth opened Calendar Girls The Musical here and we worked with Kay Mellor for Fat Friends The Musical, and earlier this year we had Sting here with his musical,” adds Sime.
“People have taken the Grand Theatre to their heart and it’s seen as Yorkshire’s answer to the London Palladium because it is a great home of entertainment for ordinary people.
“Our dear friend Ken Dodd turned round to me once and said, ‘young man, you put on entertainment at this theatre.’ And coming from him that was a wonderful compliment.” It certainly was.
For more information visit www.leedsgrandtheatre.com. Patrons of Leeds Grand are being encouraged to share their stories on social media tagging @grandtheatreLS1 and using the hashtag #LeedsGrandAt140 or by emailing email@example.com.