Tuesday, 22 February 2011

NORTH ARDEN LOCAL HISTORY SOCIETY

REPORT: MEETING FEBRUARY 2011



A HISTORY OF THE BIRMINGHAM REPERTORY THEATRE

Members of the North Arden Local History Society together with several visitors assembled in the Spencer Lounge Bar at Arden Hall on the 10th February to learn about the origins of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and its founder Barry Jackson. Our speaker was Ms Nikky Rathbone who was making a return visit.

Both professional and amateur theatres in Birmingham can trace their origins to the 1730’s and most present day readers will surely remember the ‘Empire Theatre’ and the ‘Prince of Wales’ on Broad Street that fell victim to the Blitz. The Theatre Royal on New Street first opened its doors in 1774 and numbered amongst its audiences Horatio Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton in 1802. The founder of ‘The Rep’, Barry Jackson, whose father started Maypole Dairies was born in 1879 in Birmingham and was introduced to the ‘Theatre’ at an early age by his father, a love that stayed with him throughout his lifetime. In his late teens/early twenties together with a group of friends of his own generation they founded their own Amateur theatrical group, known as the ‘Pilgrim Players’ and produced numerous plays in the houses and gardens of their families (many around Edgbaston and Moseley) around the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries. So successful were they that they toured numerous locations with their productions even as far as the ‘Royal Court Theatre’ in London,

Maypole Dairies was a very successful company and on his father’s death Barry Jackson came into very handsome inheritance that enabled him to pursue his theatrical ambitions to a greater extent, as a result of which he commissioned the Repertory Theatre (Station Street) that opened its doors to the public on 13th February 1913. In 1914 the outbreak of the First World War saw 15 paid members of staff leave to enlist; Barry himself joined the Royal Navy in 1917 leaving the running of the Theatre in very capable hands.

Sir Barry Jackson
Ms Rathbone illustrated the talk with slides taken from original contemporary black and white photographs of actors, sets and programmes of the various productions giving us very detailed and well researched information about each play. Of special note was the work of John Drinkwater who had joined the Pilgrim Players before1913 and went on to become a poet and playwright on international note in the inter war years. In the 1920’s Barry Jackson was the first theatrical promoter to stage Shakespeare’s plays in modern (contemporary) dress (as opposed to Elizabethan or period costume). We saw many photographs depicting world famous actors in their fledgling years who achieved fame after they were introduced to the critics and the London stage by Barry Jackson: names such as Lawrence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson, Paul Schofield, Ian Richardson and John Gielgud to name but a few – it is a virtually an endless list that also includes the young Richard (Dr Kildare) Chamberlain and Julie Christie.

In recognition of his contributions to the world of drama and the theatre Barry Jackson was knighted in 1925. It was pointed out that the reason the ‘Rep’ was built in Station Street – opposite the original exit from New Street Station – was because, even 100 years ago, it was difficult to attract London based critics and reviewers to the provinces: as Ms Rathbone told us, to them Birmingham was a nondescript provincial town, not good enough for the likes of London critics! This fact partially resulted in the practice of taking their productions (cast, scenery and all) to London Theatres and to which many later well known thespians owe their careers. In 1932 Sir Barry was promoting four touring companies including the ‘Rep’ the Malvern Festival and one in Canada in addition to productions in London. By this time he is said to have spent £100,000 a vast sum in the 1930’s (and still a fortune to many of us these days).

In1923 after an unsuccessful and poorly attended promotion of (what was at that time) an avant-garde play called ‘Gaff’ that one performance saw an audience of only six persons; Jackson threatened to withdraw his investment and close the theatre. However a subscription scheme was introduced that members of regular audiences could subscribe to (similar to a current scheme sponsored by the CBSO at Symphony Hall) that turned out to be very successful that enabled the ‘Rep’ to continue operating. By 1936 with the Depression affecting the national economy Sir Barry had no alternative and came to a deal with the City Council whereby their rate payers were underpinning the running of the ‘Rep’. This meant that a change of direction was needed with the choice being towards the more popular (conservative) productions rather than experimental work because of the public money involved. With the help of the Birmingham Civic Society a Trust was established that has helped maintain the operation to the present day even after the relocation to Centenary Square in 1972.

Ms Rathbone spent some time talking about ‘Rep’ productions of Shakespeare’s English History plays beginning with Henry VI Parts 1, 2 &3 which introduced Paul Schofield to the stage with Peter Brook as director who went on to do sterling work with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1950’s. These Historical plays ultimately gave rise to a successful BBC TV series some of which are now available on DVD.

Sir Barry Jackson died of leukaemia in April 1961 but had laid the foundations for a new civic theatre with the City Council that came to fruition in 1972 that is presently closed as it is being refurbished and being incorporated into the new Central Library complex. The original building is still alive and well, still functioning as a theatre in Station Street and quite often hired to successful local amateur drama companies performing the function for which Sir Barry commissioned it. Sir Barry’s contribution to the world of the stage is enormous and it is pleasing to know that so many great names of the stage began their roads to stardom working for him in Birmingham. Thank you Nikky Rathbone for sharing your knowledge with us’

We are always pleased to welcome guests and visitors at our meetings, the next of which will be on 10th April when the topic will be ‘Ritual and Worship in Roman Coleshill’ presented by Jo Wenlock. The following meeting (May 12th) will be ‘Birmingham Churches’ by Mr Bill Dargue. Meetings are held in the Spencer Lounge Bar at Arden Hall, Water Orton Road at 7.45pm.


JERRY DUTTON

NORTH ARDEN LOCAL HISTORY SOCIETY

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