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The Old Vic Theatre, King Street, Bristol

Formerly - The Theatre Royal

See also - The Theatre Royal, Park Row, Bristol

Bristol Index

A Google StreetView image of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre - Click to Interact

Above - A Google StreetView image of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre - Click to Interact

The prologue spoken at the opening of the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1766The original 1766 Frontage of the Theatre Royal, Bristol - From a Programme for 'The Truth' at the Theatre Royal on April the 12th 1915. The Grade I Listed Old Vic Theatre in King Street, Bristol was originally built by Thomas Patey and opened as the Theatre Royal with a production of the play 'Conscious Lovers' on the 30th of May 1766.

Right - The original 1766 Frontage of the Theatre Royal, Bristol - From a Programme for 'The Truth' at the Theatre Royal on April the 12th 1915.

This was preceded by a prologue written by David Garrick and spoken by one of the Theatre's Managers, Mr. Powel (See Cutting Right). Despite many changes over the years the Theatre remains Britain's oldest working Theatre. This Theatre Royal should not be confused with the Theatre Royal, Park Row, Bristol which would later become the Prince's Theatre.

The Theatre's auditorium was reconstructed in 1881 by T. Pope, the City architect, and the well known Theatre Architect C. J. Phipps. Phipps also built Bristol's Prince's Theatres. At this time the stage was also reduced by five feet in depth from the front and is said to have been modeled on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane's auditorium of the time. However, the Bristol Theatre Royal auditorium currently seats 668 whereas Drury Lane's present auditorium, remodeled in 1922, now seats nearly 2,300.

In a programme for an all star tribute matinee held at the Prince's Theatre, Bristol on the 5th of May, 1931, to celebrate the 165th birthday of the Theatre Royal (Shown Left) a brief history of the Theatre was printed saying: 'The Theatre Royal, King Street in the parish of St. Nicholas, Bristol, was erected by a company of shareholders, which was formed in the year 1761. The number of shareholders was 48, of £100 shares.

The auditorium of the Theatre Royal, King Street, Bristol in 1942 - From an article in the Illustrated London NewsThe Theatre Royal was opened on the 30th of May, 1766, by David Garrick under the management of Messrs Powell, Arthur, and Clarke. At the opening there was a great opposition by the sect called the Quakers, and a threat was held out that the Act of 1737 should be put in operation by which any person acting in an unlicensed place was liable to be imprisoned as a rogue and a vagabond.

Left - The auditorium of the Theatre Royal, King Street, Bristol in 1942 - From an article in the Illustrated London News

This was got over on the opening night by the manager giving a "concert of music" and a comedy entitled "The Conscious Lovers," and a farce entitled "The Miller of Marshfield." A prologue and epilogue was written by David Garrick, who pronounced the Theatre to be the most complete for its dimensions in Europe. The proceeds of the first performance was £63, and was given to the Bristol Infirmary. It was not till 1778 that a patent was granted by King (George the Third) to legalise the Theatre, a privilege for which £275 had to be paid.

A programme for an all star tribute matinee held at the Prince's Theatre, Bristol on the 5th of May, 1931, to celebrate the 165th birthday of the Theatre Royal - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)The Theatre Royal is the oldest in the Kingdom, and probably the only one in which such stars as Shuter, Young, Quick, Siddons, the Kembles, the Keans, and Macready appeared. In more recent times its boards have been graced by George Melville, Helen Fawcit, Miss Bateman, Marie Wilton (Mrs Bancroft), Madge Robertson, (Mrs Kendal), HenrietteaHoson (Mrs. Labouchere), Kate and Ellen Terry, Charles Coglan, Arthur Stirling, Arthur Wood, Fosbrooke, the Rignolds. It was here in the sixties that the late Henry Irving (Sir Henry Irving) who was a clerk in a merchant's office in Bridewell Streetr (Budgett & Co.), applied for his first engagement, one not being vacant.

Right - A programme for an all star tribute matinee held at the Prince's Theatre, Bristol on the 5th of May, 1931, to celebrate the 165th birthday of the Theatre Royal - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)

The Company leaving the Theatre Royal went to Sunderland, where one of the leading men was taken ill, and a telegram brought Henry Irving, who made his first appearance on any stage. The Theatre Royal, Bristol, was then worked by stock companies and was under the management of Macready followed by Mr. and Mrs. James Henry Chute (Macready's daughter), and the success of these actors and actresses on the London stage caused the Theatre Royal, King Street, to be reckoned as amongst the best schools for actors in England. The Theatre was leased in December, 1924, by Milton Bode, Robert Courtneidge and Douglas Millar, who in May, 1925, purchased the freehold.'

The above text in quotes was printed in a programme for an all star tribute matinee held at the Prince's Theatre, Bristol on the 5th of May, 1931, to celebrate the 165th birthday of the Theatre Royal - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)

A sketch of he facade of the Theatre Royal, King Street in its 1800 form - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)

Above - A sketch of he facade of the Theatre Royal, King Street in its 1800 form - Courtesy Michael Crew (Crew Archive)

Poster for a Benefit performance at the Theatre Royal, Bristol for Mr. Dobbins, the Theatre's Treasurer, on February the 27th 1857 - Click to enlarge.In 1790 alterations were carried out to the Theatre by Thomas French which consisted of raising the auditorium ceiling, relining the boxes and redecorating the Theatre. In 1800 an extra tier was added to the auditorium and the facade of the Theatre was altered by James Saunders.

Right - A Poster for a Benefit performance at the Theatre Royal, Bristol for Mr. Dobbins, the Theatre's Treasurer, on February the 27th 1857 - Click to enlarge.

In 1881 the Theatre's auditorium was again altered, this time by the well known architect C. J. Phipps, which involved reducing the stage by five foot from the front and installing Phipps Patent chairs and a star-studded ceiling with a new ventilator enclosed in heavy gilt moulding. Scenery stores and dressing rooms were also added at the rear of the Theatre at this time, and the understage machinery was overhauled and upgraded.

In 1903 the Theatre's facade was again altered, this time by W. Skinner and new dressing rooms were also added at this time, and a new fire curtain was installed along with a modified proscenium.

An article by Charles Landstone, published in the Stage Newspaper of the 4th of July 1957 and transcribed below, details how the Theatre Royal, Bristol was later 'preserved for the nation' by Herbert Farjeon in the 1930s.

How Herbert Farjeon saved the Bristol Royal
By Charles Landstone

I have recently stumbled on a file of correspondence, which, to my surprise, has revealed to me a chapter in the history of the Theatre Royal, Bristol, of which I had so far been ignorant. Herbert Farjeon, poet, dramatist, critic and wit, with a long line of actors and writers in his blood, died in 1945 at the early age of 58. He was a shy and unassuming man, of whom his intimates always spoke with tremendous warmth and affection, but he was not easily accessible to everyone. It is perhaps for that reason that the story told by these documents has so far remained in the dark.

For the re-opening of the Theatre Royal in Bristol by CEMA in 1943 Farjeon wrote a very brilliant prologue, which was spoken by Sybil Thorndike. It happened that recently I needed the right to reproduce that prologue in connection with a forthcoming publication. I contacted his widow, Mrs. Joan Farjeon, who very kindly gave her permission, but suggested that I might like to look at a file of papers which was in her possession, and which detailed her late husband's activities in regard to the Bristol Theatre. I called on her. I read, and I was spellbound. I had not realised before that it was so largely through the activities of Herbert Farjeon that the oldest theatre in the country was preserved for the City of Bristol and the nation.

It appears that Farjeon was broadcasting in Bristol in 1935. He was advised by an old actress friend that, as it was his first visit to the city, he should search for the eighteenth-century theatre, which was somewhere in the slums, though, added his correspondent: "I have a horrible feeling that I have read that it has been demolished."

The writer of this letter no doubt had in mind the fact that ten years earlier, in 1925, there had been a danger that the theatre might be converted into a bacon factory, but it had then been bought by three theatrical people, Milton Bode, Robert Courtneidge and Douglas Millar. Farjeon found the theatre, and was enchanted by the eighteenth-century auditorium, with all its accessories, but he was horrified to find that this wonderful setting was the home of the cheapest twice-nightly variety. He was further amazed to find that no one in the City of Bristol, in the wider world of the theatre, or in the cultured world of architecture lovers, seemed to be aware of the survival of this masterpiece.

RESPONSIBILITY

Programme for 'Mrs. Gorringe's Necklace' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol on April the 26th 1915.In an effort to safeguard the building for the future he set about trying to awaken a sense of responsibility. He contacted the two owners, Bode and Courtneidge. Both were at the time men in their late seventies and both were to die within a couple of years of this correspondence. Bode had been a touring manager in the days of Victorian and Edwardian prosperity, his name always associated with cheap melodrama and still cheaper variety. Courtneidge, of course, was associated with musical comedy in its most flourishing period. He was part-author and manager of "The Arcadians" and many other famous musical plays.

Right - A Programme for 'Mrs. Gorringe's Necklace' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol on April the 26th 1915.

The correspondence between Farjeon and these two men was most amusing. Courtneidge talked of the ghosts which clustered round the footlights at the witching hour of night, said the theatre was almost a sacred spot, and then skilfully passed the buck to Bode. Bode expressed himself flattered to hear from "so keen a lover of the legitimate theatre ", and sent Farjeon some pamphlets about the wickedness of cruelty to horses. Farjeon's comment was that "this seemed rather beside the point, as I didn't even possess a horse to be cruel to"; but evidently Bode felt that he was dealing with a crank, and that therefore it would be the appropriate moment for him to boost his own pet cause.

It became clear that neither Bode nor Courtneidge wanted to sell the theatre and that each was using the other as an excuse. Not that Farjeon had the money to purchase. but he would have been prepared to launch a campaign for the purpose, had there been any indication that a sale could be effected. He then suggest that it might be possible to hold a fortnight's festival of classical plays with star artists in the theatre, in order to arouse the local interest.

As the suggestion did not meet with a downright refusal he began to explore the possibilities. He contacted Tyrone Guthrie, Edith Evans and Athene Seyler, who were all most enthusiastic. There is, incidentally, a most typical letter from Guthrie, who was at the time working in the film studios at Ealing. He writes to ask Farjeon to have lunch with him. He devotes two lines to the invitation and the suggestion that Farjeon should come out by tube and walk across Ealing Common, he then expands for two full pages on the beauty of the Common at that time of the year.

POINT-BLANK REPRISAL

Their plans completed in outline, Farjeon returned to the owners, but met with a point-blank refusal. Such a programme of classical plays would upset their regular twice-nightly variety customers. In vain Farjeon protested, only to be met by a letter from Bode, explaining, in what the writer no doubt felt were words of one syllable, that they were running the theatre for a living, and speaking "from fifty years' experience" he was quite certain that the intended programme would drive away their regular clientele. How often, in the war and the immediate post-war years, were those of us who worked for CEMA and the Arts Council to hear those same well-worn arguments from the lips of the dwindling old guard !

However, Bode ended his final letter with the petulant remark: "Why doesn't Bristol buy the theatre, then they can do what they like?" This was all that Farjeon needed. Though he tried to elicit some idea of the price from Bode, he does not seem to have had a reply, but he began to busy himself about ways and means, and contacted various people of influence in Bristol. He also pursued his enquiries on the architectural side, and was startled to find the lack of knowledge about this unique building amongst circles which he felt should have been informed.

Eventually through the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings he was put in touch with the Georgian Group, who sent a representative down to Bristol to make an examination in situ. The interest of this group was established, but they had no funds, and could do little more than hold a watching brief; and there the matter rested for some years.

It was not until seven years later, in the middle of the War, that the next step came. In January, 1942, an urgent letter reached Farjeon from the secretary of the Georgian Group. The theatre, after having been closed for two years since the blitz, was about to he put up for auction. Could Farjeon immediately write a letter to "The Times", pointing out the value of the building to the nation? This letter was duly written, and its publication had tremendous moral effect on Bristol, where the local press immediately took the matter up. After that, it was only a few days before the famous anonymous benefactor came forward in Bristol and bought the theatre on behalf of the citizens. The correspondence concludes with a letter from the Georgian Group, thanking Farjeon and frankly admitting that but for the impact of his intervention in "The Times ", the theatre might have been lost.

There is one other letter which deserves mention. It comes almost at the end, and it is from CEMA. Dated mid-January, 1942, it refers to Farjeon's letter in "The Times". It expresses great sympathy with the purpose and promises moral support, but adds; "We regret we can't promise any money, because the money we receive from the Ministry of Education is for the promotion of companies and must not be spent on bricks and mortar".

The writer of that letter could not guess that within three months CEMA would have a new Chairman, Lord Keynes, who would snap his fingers at red tape, spend thousands on the fabric of the Theatre Royal, and cheerfully admit his fault in a subsequent article in "The Times", adding that "the whole happy incident has come about in a happy haphazard English way".

The above article by Charles Landstone was first published in the Stage Newspaper, 4th of July 1957.

A Programme for the Bristol Old Vic production of Christopher Fry's 'Venus Observed' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in November 1951 - Courtesy Joan Jefferies.A Programme for the Bristol Old Vic production of Christopher Fry's 'Venus Observed' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in November 1951 - Courtesy Joan Jefferies.Several alterations were subsequently carried out to the Theatre in the 1940s, and in 1946 a new Theatre company, formed from part of London's Old Vic Company, took up residence in the Theatre. Called the Bristol Old Vic Company they have remained there ever since. The Bristol Old Vic Company also produced some productions at the Bristol Little Theatre until 1980.

Right - A Programme for the Bristol Old Vic production of Christopher Fry's 'Venus Observed' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in November 1951 - Courtesy Joan Jefferies. See cast details below.

In 1973 the whole stage house was demolished, including its Victorian stage machinery, and then rebuilt with a flat stage which somewhat spoilt the sight lines in the process. A new entrance to the Theatre was also provided at this time through Cooper's Hall next door where a new facade was built, behind which was built a new Studio Theatre called the New Vic which seated 150.

The new studio Theatre was built where the original entrance had been and the new entrance through Cooper's Hall provided the building some much improved foyer space.

A Programme for the Bristol Old Vic production of Christopher Fry's 'Venus Observed' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in November 1951 - Courtesy Joan Jefferies.

Above - A Programme for the Bristol Old Vic production of Christopher Fry's 'Venus Observed' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in November 1951 - Courtesy Joan Jefferies. In the cast were Laurence Payne, John Neville, Newton Blick, Paul Eddington, Pamela Alan, Elaine Wodson, Michael Aldridge, Christopher Burgess, Yvonne Coulette, and Sheila Burrell.

The Auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Bristol from a postcard.In 2011 the Theatre underwent a multi million pound refurbishment by the construction Company Galliford Try. Part of this included an archeological dig under the auditorium floor and stripping back part of the auditorium walls.

Right - The Auditorium of the Theatre Royal, Bristol - From a postcard.

By April 2011 the dig had already reached the Theatre's original 18th century level and the site manager Mat Lugar told the Theatres Trust: 'The project started approximately six weeks ago with the isolation of the M&E services [plumbing and electrical], which is now complete. We then started to strip out the auditorium, removing all the floor finishes exposing areas that are to be refurbished and enhanced. The concrete floor was covering the original flagstone floor under the stage area. Excavation continued to expose the Victorian steps to the stalls area, and the original orchestra pit. In the pit passage area, we have uncovered the original flagstone flooring. Quite a lot of this is damaged but we hope to reclaim enough to relay it somewhere within the auditorium.' Mat Lugar.

One of the finds was a very heavy iron ball which has turned out to be a counter weight which was once used to raise the Theatre’s curtain. The next major challenge would be covering the Theatre's roof with a huge tent so that the original timbers could be exposed.

The first phase of the redevelopment of the Theatre, which cost some £12 million, was completed in the Autumn of 2012 when the Theatre reopened with a beautifully refurbished auditorium, a new stage grid, and new flying and lighting systems carried out by the Theatre Consultants Charcoalblue. Further redevelopment, completed in September 2018, saw much improved FOH spaces and the addition of a new Studio Theatre. More information on the redevelopment of the Theatre can be found on the Theatre's own Website here. The Guardian Newspaper reported on the enhancements in their 29th of September 2018 edition here.

The Old Vic Theatre is a Grade I Listed building, you may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.

Georgina Lee at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in the late 1800s

A Photograph of Georgina Lee in costume in the late 1800s - Courtesy Ian Haddrell

A Photograph of Georgina Lee in costume in the late 1800s - Courtesy Ian Haddrell

Above - Two photographs of Georgina Lee in costume in the late 1800s - Courtesy Ian Haddrell who writes: 'I am compiling a history of my Haddrell family who lived in the Temple area of Bristol in the late 19th and early 20th century. My grandfather Thomas Haddrell was a haulier, who on occasions moved scenery & equipment to the Theatre Royal from temple Meads station. My grandmother Georgina Lee, born in 1877, was a dancer at the theatre, or the "Old Gaff" as it was then known, and it was whilst making a delivery to the theatre that they first became acquainted, marrying in October 1898.'

Harry Tate in 'Little Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39

A programme for Harry Tate in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

Above - A programme for Harry Tate in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

The 1938-39 Panto Season at The Theatre Royal Bristol, was a production of 'Little Bo-Peep, with Harry Tate as the Baron and is thought to be Tate's last pantomime as he died the following year in 1940. The programme extracts and cuttings shown here were kindly sent in by Tony Craig whose mother, Jessie Jewel, played the 'Principal Boy' and his Uncle, Joe Ring, played the 'Dame' Joe Ring also produced the production.

A Cutting from the Bristol Evening Post of Friday, December 23rd 1938, on 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol - Courtesy Tony Craig.

Above - A Cutting from the Bristol Evening Post of Friday, December 23rd 1938, on 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol - Courtesy Tony Craig who says 'In the three adverts, Harry Tate is obviously the one in the false moustache and Mom (Jessie Jewel) is the 28 year old girl in the fur coat.'

Harry Tate, Jessie Jewel, Betty Love, Arnold and Archie, Ronald Tate, The Saxon Sisters and Nan, Billy Blyth, Joe Ring, in a cast of 40, in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig. Harry Tate, Jessie Jewel, Betty Love, Arnold and Archie, Ronald Tate, The Saxon Sisters and Nan, Billy Blyth, Joe Ring, in a cast of 40, in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

 

Above - Harry Tate, Jessie Jewel, Betty Love, Arnold and Archie, Ronald Tate, The Saxon Sisters and Nan, Billy Blyth, Joe Ring, in a cast of 40, in 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

A Handbill for 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

Above - A Handbill for 'Bo-Peep' at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in 1938/39 - Courtesy Tony Craig.

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