Pantomimes, the Poole Proms, roller disco, film festivals, Shakespeare, Reduced Shakespeare, craft fairs, sculpture, Gilbert and Sullivan, rock concerts, tea dances, Ballet Rambert: the Poole Arts Centre (to give its original name) has hosted an enormous variety of events over the years and created indelible memories. In fact it has become such a part of local life over the last four decades that it is hard to realise what a remarkable place it is.
It was back in the 1960s that Poole started to look seriously at providing a large venue for arts and entertainment that the town lacked. With the help of local arts groups, the Council produced a report of what should be included: a large hall for concerts and other entertainments, an exhibition room, meeting room and function rooms. Preliminary plans for a centre on Kingland Road were drawn up in 1968 and presented to the largely enthusiastic public in 1972. It was to be ‘a centre where you can watch a play or a film, listen to music, have a meal or a drink, paint a picture, practice your music, throw a pot, develop your holiday snaps or your interest in say, local history; attend a dance or look at modern sculpture – all in one building.’ Final proposals were approved as the current Borough Council was about to go out of existence under Local Government reorganisation. The contract to go ahead was signed against a background of rising costs and some vocal criticism.
In February 1978 ‘Poole’s new £41/2m Arts Centre’, operated by the Poole Arts Trust, first opened its doors to the press. The Poole Herald hailed it as ‘a magnificent building, an exciting challenge and a thrilling prospect’ being particularly enthusiastic about the mechanism which transformed the 1,500-seat Wessex Hall from a tiered theatre to a flat-floored show venue by winching the seating into a massive underground hangar. Besides the concert hall, the centre boasted the 600-seat Towngate Theatre, 140-seat Ashley Cinema, the Longfleet Gallery, first floor bar and function rooms. It was to be home to two orchestras, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Bournemouth Synfonietta. On 8th April, the centre opened for business with the Poole Lion’s Club Gala Ball for 1,000 people in the Wessex Hall. The following day, Leslie Crowther ‘launched’ the bar by pulling the first pint and in the evening, lute player Julian Bream performed in front of 600 people in the transformed Wessex Hall.
The first director, who had the responsibility of launching the complex, was Anthony Covell who had come to Poole from Hampshire County Council Recreation and Arts Service. His report at the end of the first 9 months of the centre’s existence showed the challenge he faced to make a success of ‘the largest purpose-built art complex under one roof in the country’. Besides organising a programme of events in all the different venues he had to fill 2,250 seats on a regular basis, run the restaurants and bars profitably and most difficult of all, develop a regular audience in an area new to such lavish provision. There had been many successes in the first few months; the cinema had made a profit of over £9,000 and Kent Opera and ‘Hair’ had played to a 80% capacity audience. The summer show, however, had not been successful and it would take time to work out the right mix of events.
The centre was not expected to pay its way entirely and Poole Council was intending to support it with an annual grant, but the £375,000 they had to provide at the end of 1978 was hard to swallow and gave the centre’s critics plenty of ammunition. In fact 1978 set the pattern for the next 40 years, a mix of financial highs and lows, drama, entertainment, successes and occasional near disasters.
In March 1979, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Arts Centre, toured the Wessex Hall and met members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The following year, fire broke out in the Wessex Hall in bags of dust collected after sanding the floor. The fire detectors had been switched off in case they were set off during the sanding process and the fire was burning for some hours before it was detected. A watchman believed to be in the building was eventually found to have left. Fortunately the repair bill of over £100,000 was covered by insurance. Later that year, the accounts showed a rise in income, a turn-up in box office receipts and savings in operational costs.
In 1981, the windows were found to be defective and the firm which had installed them had gone out of business. They had to be replaced at a cost of £40,000. December 1982 was notable for the great brass band competition and in 1983 people queued up in their hundreds when the Antiques Road Show was held at the centre. Two Poole Prom performances were televised and theatre audiences were said to be up by a quarter. Long term critic of the centre, Councillor Mrs Edna Adams, currently mayor, now changed her mind and told the press that attending events at the Arts Centre had convinced her what a wonderful place it was.
The 1984 programme included such varied acts as the London Festival Ballet, the Kinks, Alexei Sayle, Alan Price and a performance of The Winslow Boy. The press reported that income at the centre was up by 27%. A mural by John Liddell representing 60 years of film was unveiled in the passageway leading to the Ashley Cinema. The following year, however, competition from the newly opened Bournemouth International Centre began to make an impact. A display of sculpture and drawings by Dame Elizabeth Frink was one of the triumphs of 1986, but later that year, the centre was said to be facing its largest deficit yet. Performances of Funny Peculiar were attended by three members of the vice squad after complaints from a Bournemouth Conservative Family Group. There were full houses for the show all week.
In February 1988, thieves broke in to the Wessex Hall and stole goods from the Ideal Home Exhibition worth £30,000, prompting an urgent review of security. The 10th anniversary was celebrated with a gala performance by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus which included Bruckner’s Te Deum and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The celebrations culminated with a visit by the Princess of Wales. The centre was said to be ‘on the crest of a wave’ having struggled through the financial crises of the early years.
In 1989, it was determined to meet competition from the new complex at Tower Park by refurbishing the cinema and creating a ground floor café bar. That year was another successful one but the competition soon began to have its effect. By the early 1990s, huge losses were revealed at the Arts Centre and the council warned that the trustees and management would have to take drastic measures to get a grip on finances. The battle of the pantomimes took place against this background. According to centre marketing manager Vivien Bolton, both the Arts Centre and the Bournemouth Pavilion were planning to put on Cinderella over Christmas, forcing Poole to change their programme to the Wizard of Oz. They then discovered that the Pavilion was actually offering Jack and the Beanstalk. Luis Candal, the Pavilion Director denied that Cinderella was ever in their plans.
Over the next few years, the Arts Centre gradually reduced its losses. In July 1995, Anthony Covell left after 18 turbulent years as director. To call his job a challenge would be an understatement but during his directorship the centre had been established as the main venue in the town and had provided entertainment and delight to thousands of local people. As he left, an outline application for lottery funding towards a total refurbishment had just been made.
It was January 1997 before the new director Ruth Eastwood came to take up her post having previously been manager of the Civic Theatre and Arts Centre in Darlington. Her first season’s programme was described as being ‘as striking as any that has come to Poole for many a year’. In April an evening of drama, dancing and music starred Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury who addressed the audience as part of the performance having arrived by helicopter at Ashdown School. In July, the Royal Shakespeare Company visited the Arts Centre for the first time with a new production of Cyrano de Bergerac. Other shows on offer that year were the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Neil Simon’s play Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble with Under African Skies, blending film, poetry and traditional dance. It was also announced that Poole had won a £500,000 lottery grant to research what improvements the centre needed. Plans would be drawn up to transform the building for the 21st century.
In April 1998, the press reported that prices for theatre tickets were likely to rise because the previous rather generous discount scheme was unsustainable. A Coolio concert in June received a rather cool reception and some of the audience walked out when the support band failed to show and the start was delayed by an hour. The Antiques Road Show with High Scully and Paul Atterbury, however, was a great success. The following year a huge fund-raising effort for the centre refurbishment was launched with £2,000-worth of coins from the Dolphin Centre fountain. The target was £2m and every £1 raised would be matched by £3 from the National Lottery.
The Faraday lectures which came to the centre in 2000 were intended to inspire young people to become scientists and discussed such futuristic ideas as ‘mobile phones showing your nearest bus route and satellites pin-pointing your position to the nearest millimetre anywhere on the planet’. The designs of the proposed new centre were unveiled in May, to an inevitably mixed reception. Some people called the new look ‘industrial’ ‘flavour of the month’ or like a Lego set. Others thought it ‘fantastic and what the town needs’. Part of the plan was to improve air conditioning and natural air circulation and to open up the building to give more of a sense of what was happening inside. In October, an audience of 800 in fancy dress (including an entire row of reindeer) prepared to raise the rafters at the Singalong Sound of Music.
The next two years were taken up with fundraising and centre refurbishments. In September 2001, 50 people including Poole’s Chief Executive Jim Brooks and Eldridge Pope chairman Christopher Pope raised £5,000 by abseiling down the front of the 20m high building. The work was completed at a cost of £8.5m paid for by Arts Council Lottery awards, the Borough of Poole and additional donations. New facilities were added to the centre including a studio performance space, a re-sited cinema, expanded concert hall and photography labs. The first floor foyer and bar was transformed with mirrors and cloud effects. It also had a new name: Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts.
Today, 12 years after this refurbishment, the Lighthouse is once again planning to upgrade its facilities, improve the studio theatre, the foyers, performance and rehearsal spaces and increase the environmental efficiency of the building. In its 40 years, centre has seen many millions of people come through its doors to be entertained, amused, inspired and transported. It has become central to the town’s identity and in the words of the current Chief Executive, Elspeth McBain ‘a testament to the visionary cultural thinking of our forefathers’.
Main sources: Poole Herald / Bournemouth Echo / Poole’s Pride Regained by John Hillier and Martin Blyth.