Harry Rutherford's
Festival of Britain Mural

Saturday, 18 August 2012


We are delighted to share this wonderful account with everyone courtesy of  Gordon Burdekin.
Many thanks to Gordon & Stuart Green ( Theatre Royal) who sent it to us.    



The Theatre Royal was opened in Hyde in 1902, and was used mainly for musicals, plays and concerts, until these were replaced by “talking movies”, around about 1914, when a moveable screen was added. I believe there was once a circus, and the stage was strengthened underneath, to accommodate the weight of the elephants. The stage, at that time, was one of the largest in the North West, with a raked stage and a fly tower containing about 40 sets of lines (ropes), and large wing spaces each side of the stage, which were sufficiently wide enough to allow large “trucks” to be stored- these are large scenic pieces built onto rostra on wheels, which are then pushed into position during scene changes.

During the war period, the theatre was used for films, with Sunday night band concerts.  After the war, during the mid fifties, the theatre was again used for live shows, but this time, for a period of about 3 or 4 years, was used extensively for “weekly rep”, whereby a different production was performed each week, with a professional panto each Christmas, starring well known entertainers of the period, one of which was “The Dallas Boys”, I think this was possibly in the early sixties.

One of the better rep companies at that time were the “Frank H Fortescue Players”, many of whom went on to be well known through TV appearances. One of the actors in this company at that time went on to become Stan Ogden in Coronation Street.  I remember my parents telling me that in the fifties, the plays were very popular, and people used to have regular weekly seats, my parents included. I think the plays were also performed twice nightly.

In addition to the professional theatre, there were 3 amateur operatic societies who used the Theatre Royal for a week each, these being Hyde Musical Society, Hyde Light Opera Company and Romiley Operatic Society.

Hyde Musical Society performed their show around early to mid-March, followed by Romiley Operatic Society, usually 2or 3 weeks later, dependent upon when Easter fell. Hyde Light Opera Company performed their show in early October.

The first show I was involved with was Hyde Light Opera’s production of Kings Rhapsody in Oct 1967.  As a 14 year old, my job was “Call boy”, (they daren’t call people that these days!) where I had to run up and down all the stairs to the dressing rooms, calling the actors onto the stage. I was given this job by walking into the theatre one Saturday morning whilst everything was being delivered, and asking if there was anything I could do!

The next production after this, in March 1968, I was on the lighting crew, as I have always had a fascination for stage lighting design, and this show, if I remember correctly was Hyde Musical Society’s production of The Student Prince.  It has to be remembered that these shows were in the days before all the modern technology and computerised control boards.  The theatre had standard lighting of 3 compartment battens, and footlights, and a spot bar, I think there were probably 12 outlets on this spot-bar, but no actual lanterns, as these had to be hired as required. (The footlights were still used for films, and could be controlled from both the stage and the projection room.)

There was a Strand switchboard, which, as far as I am aware, is still in-situ, bricked in behind the wall which separates the two cinemas.  This controlled the footlights, the spot bar, and the three battens, along with the dip sockets in the stage floor.  This switchboard was on a platform about 10 or 11 feet above stage level, in the stage manager’s corner.

Additional lighting had to be installed, usually some front of house lanterns, then a couple of extra spot bars and a flood bar lighting the backcloths.  It was also necessary to install additional dimmer boards, and these were usually placed on the platform next to the old strand board.

If I remember correctly, we used to hang about 12 to 16 lanterns on each of the spot bars, including the theatre spot bar, and about 8 lanterns were placed front of house on stands in the balcony, and then about a dozen floodlights on the flood bar at the back to light the backcloths, sometimes called a cyc bar (cyclorama), as they were usually used to light what is called the cyclorama, or sky cloth, at the back of the stage.  All of these then had to be coloured up, and cables run to the switchboards, and then focused.

The scenery, all lighting equipment, sound equipment, props and costumes were all usually delivered to the theatre on the Saturday morning prior to the show.  The stage crew and lighting crew were usually at the theatre on the Saturday morning, and everybody usually worked as one team getting everything in, and sorting it out.  If there was time, a start would be made on hanging some of the back cloths, but we always had to be out of the theatre for 12, and the stage area left totally clear, so the screen could be moved after the evening’s film.

The cinema screen would be moved on the Saturday night after the film finished, and this was on a large wheeled frame, and it was rolled to the back of the stage and placed against the back wall. The very large sound box, which was behind the screen, also had to be moved, and this was also placed at the back of the stage.  These were usually placed right against the back wall, and an old back cloth, or drapes, was hung in front of the screen to protect it.  A gap was usually left between this back cloth, and the final backcloth, in order to facilitate a passage across the stage.

If it was a complex show scenery and lighting wise, we would sometimes work for a couple of hours on Saturday night, but normally, we just started about 7 or 8 on Sunday morning, and there would be a few hours frenetic activity.

All the lighting and scenery would be hung on Sunday morning, and then the lighting was set and coloured, and all the other scenery sorted, and all the various sets put up and tried, in readiness for the afternoon’s rehearsals.  We normally finished for lunch about 12, then back in for about 2, for technical rehearsals, and dress rehearsal in the evening, ready for opening on Monday night.

Even though my main interest was lighting, I sometimes had to work on the stage, if there was a shortage of crew, but it was actually very worthwhile, as it gave me the opportunity to learn general stage craft.  One of the first jobs I remember having to do on the stage was brace and weight boy, which meant that, on a scene change, if flats were used, I had to put brace and weights in place to stop the scenery falling over.  As there was quite a steep rake to the stage, I also had to put wedges under some of the flats, to keep them vertical, and to stop them falling over.

I was also taught how to “run” 18 foot flats singlehanded, and also how to “throw” a cleat line and how to tie it, so that the rope could be released quickly with a single pull, as some of the sets had to be struck very quickly. Another aspect of stage craft included learning all the various knots used for hanging back cloths and lighting bars.

At this time, the Theatre Royal was managed and run by the Breakey family, which consisted of Florence Breakey (manager), Albert Breakey (chief projectionist and resident stage manager), and Reene Breakey (Albert’s wife) who ran the ticket office. When live shows were on, and the bars were open, these were run by Albert’s brother, Gordon. There was also a senior projectionist, Arthur Wilde, who has been involved with the theatre for about 50 years, and I believe that he still goes in on a daily basis, to check the place over, as a caretaker for the present owners.

Albert had been involved in the Theatre Royal virtually all his life, including the period in the fifties when the theatre was on weekly rep, as he was in charge of the lighting in those days.  He usually operated the strand switch board, which was operated by individual dimmer levers, all grouped on to a series of wheels, which could all be locked and controlled with one master wheel. The board contained what were known as “sunset” dimmers.

Albert was very experienced, and taught me a lot about stage craft, and became a good friend over the years whilst I worked with him. What Albert didn’t know about stagecraft wasn’t worth knowing, and I certainly remember on many occasions, if there was a shortage of stage crew, he would do the “cue” on the switch board, slide down the ladder from the board, run round the stage, cleat up a complete set of flats, and then go back on to the switch board, in time for the next lighting cue.

Most of the shows were stage managed by John Booth, and I recall that he became resident stage manager in about the late 1960’s, which meant he was responsible for the safe operation of everything on the stage, on behalf of the theatre. For many of the shows, he was also the society’s stage manager, and kept that position until he became the first manager of Romiley Forum when it opened in 1971. I do remember that people such as Sam Beckett and Norman Croker also stage managed for Hyde Musical Society.

One of the more memorable productions I remember working on was the Northern Amateur Premier of Oliver, which Hyde Musical Presented in March 1970.

The society had purchased a very large set which was very similar the original set used in the West End production, and the lighting was also designed in a similar style.  The set was a very large wooden construction, on several levels, part of which revolved.  There was also some flown scenery, which had to be flown in to meet up with the set as it revolved.

The lighting was the biggest rig I ever recall seeing in the Theatre Royal and again, as this was pre the electronic dimming age, lots of additional lighting boards had to be installed, and I can recall seeing all of these lined against the prompt side stage wall, with all the cabling from the lighting bars dropping down the back of the stage.  About 6 or 7 people had to operate these boards. If the production was mounted now, a computerised control board with about 200 dimmers would be used, and probably about twice as much lighting.

 For “Oliver”, we started work on the Saturday evening about 10, after the films had finished, and worked through the night, until Sunday morning, when we all had a break and went home. We then returned just after lunch, in time for the technical rehearsal and then the dress rehearsal.
This would be on a Sunday evening, with performances commencing on Monday.  There would be a show every night, with a matinee Saturday afternoon.

After the final show on Saturday, we had to do everything in reverse, all the backcloths having to be lowered, and then rolled, and then all the rest of the scenery had to be loaded onto the scenery wagon, which would arrive outside the dock doors about 11 ish.  All the lighting had to be removed and again loaded onto the van which had arrived from the lighting hire company.

Props and costumes also had to be loaded up, and the stage left completely clear, in readiness for the screen being put back.  We usually finished in the early hours of Sunday morning, but always managed to have a pint in the theatre bar before we finished.

As can be imagined, there were many characters involved back stage on these shows, some of whom had been doing the stage work for many years, even in the professional theatre days.

There was usually a team of men, probably about 4 or 5, who worked in the flies above the stage, and the chief fly-man was Arthur Wheatley.  He was a very knowledgeable man, when it came to all the practical and safety elements of flying, but he also had a very dry sense of humour.  He was usually assisted by his son Ken, and several other men, including, if I remember correctly, Brian Nicholls, who had all worked together for years.  This was a very heavy and dirty job, as there was no counterweight flying system at the Theatre Royal, it was all hemp rope.  If a particularly heavy piece of scenery was being flown, such as a French flat (this is several flats fastened together and flown as one piece of scenery), it was sometimes hung on two adjacent sets of lines, to distribute the weight, and one of these sets of lines would occasionally be dropped over the fly rail, down to the stage, so the stage staff could help in lifting it out.  These days of course, with counterweights, and even motorised flying, anything can be lifted out.

There was also an old stage carpenter by the name of Jim Kellett, who always turned up with his bag of tools, and if anything needed sawing or repairing, the cry always went up, “where’s Jim, he’ll fix it!”  (This was long before Jimmy Saville coined the phrase.)

The Theatre was entered by the stage door, and the first room on the left, after going through the door, was the stage door keeper’s room.  There was always someone there checking your stage pass as you went in.  From this, there was a short corridor, at the end of which was a small dressing room, which was usually occupied by the principal ladies.  On the right hand side was a sliding fire door onto the stage, and people were also not allowed to smoke beyond this point (nor on the fly floor). There was also a large props room at the far back corner of the stage.

On the left side of the corridor, a set of stairs led down to the cellar under the stage, where you could clearly see all the brick buttresses which had been built may years before to strengthen the stage.

The area at the bottom of the stairs was the tea area, where every- one had their interval cuppa, and also the make- up area,

From the corridor near the stage door, there were also stairs leading up to the other dressing rooms which I think were on 3 levels, but I cannot remember for certain.  At the top of this stair case, on the third level, was access to the fly tower.  Again, there was a large sliding fire door.  On entering through this door, it was very quiet and dark, and all that could be seen was about 40 sets of ropes coming down from the grid above the stage. The grid is so called because it is above the stage, and contains lattices going both up and down and across the stage.  Across the stage, attached to these lattices, are usually 3 sets of pulleys, as there are usually 3 ropes to make up what is called a set of lines.  The ropes then come across from the stage, and are fastened on large cleat hooks onto the “fly rail”, which runs the length of the stage.

Coming out of the fly floor, back into the corridor, again there were 2 or 3 dressing rooms.  Next to these was a pass door into the gallery.

The gallery was used normally only for lives shows, but I do remember a few occasions in the early seventies, when some of the more popular films were on, such as the James Bonds, and Shaft, the balcony would be opened occasionally on a Saturday night, as these films were very popular in those days.  I do not remember the balcony being used on any other occasions after the demise of the live shows.

The projection room is at the rear of the gallery. The projection room housed 2 carbon arc projectors, which I think were Kalees, along with Westrex sound heads.  There were also 2 carbon arc follow spots which were used on live shows.  In addition to these, there was also a carbon arc special effects projector, which was used for making announcements, such as “will the owner of car.......”., This was in fact a “magic lantern” projector which was used for showing magic lantern slides.

This sequence of shows continued until early 1972, when the owners ( I think it was Stanneylands at the time) announced that the theatre was to be “twinned”, with a smaller cinema being built on the stage. This would be the end of live shows, with the last one being Hyde Light Opera’s “Annie Get Your Gun” in October.  Even though it was a superb show, as I recall, the last night was very sad with us not only having to clear the set, but also remove other fixtures and fittings which we had put there over the years, such as talk –back systems, and cue lights and all the extra switch boards and so on, and generally empty the stage, in readiness for the builders.

The builders moved in on the following Monday morning, and I remember seeing a large skip, into which all the remaining unwanted equipment was thrown. Films carried on as normal in the main cinema, with a soundproof wall being constructed behind the screen.  The smaller cinema, Royal 2, was then built on the stage behind this. Apparently, the design was such that it would be possible to convert it back into a working theatre.

In the mid seventies, I was asked by Albert if I would like to work with Arthur a couple of nights a week in Royal One, as a part time projectionist, to which I agreed, whilst Albert ran the projection room in Royal 2.

At that time, Royal One was still using the carbon arc projectors, and small reels of film which ran for about 20 minutes each, therefore changeovers being necessary between projectors to ensure continuity in the films.  My job was to rewind each reel of film after it had come off the projector and also thread up the next reel, and also to change the carbon rods in the projectors, and also to occasionally check that the carbons were burning correctly, as the quality of the picture on the screen would have been affected if they had not been burning straight.
Royal Two had a Xenon arc projector, with a long player unit, whereby all the reels of film were joined together, and run as one continuous programme.

By the late 70’s, the projectors in Royal One were replaced by the same equipment as in Royal Two and also a modern sound system.  The old projectors did however remain in situ, but I don’t know if they are still there to this day, and were certainly there up to the building closing completely.

Then, in 1977, the Yanks arrived!

A film company arrived in the town to make the film Yanks, which was directed by John Schlesinger.  Their activities were centred around Hyde Town Hall, where the ballroom scenes were filmed, and also the Mayor’s Parlour in the Town Hall, which was used for a Children’s party scene.  It took several weeks to film these sequences, and the centre of Hyde looked like a USA Army base for weeks, as all the extras, many of whom were recruited locally, all wandered around town dressed in USA Army clothing, complete with GI style haircuts.

The Town Hall is only across the road from the Theatre, and a production manager from the film company called at the theatre one day, and asked if they could show the “rushes” daily, to check what they had filmed on the previous day.  Albert agreed to this, and I was present on a couple of occasions, to see John Schlesinger and the other members of the production team sitting in Royal Two each day to see what they had filmed (without sound of course),  and I did have the pleasure of meeting John Schlesinger.

The small tins of film, containing the rushes, direct from the processing labs, minus the sound, were handed to Albert, and off he went up to the projection room. I remember Schlesinger shouting up to him, “When you’re ready, boy!”  Albert must have been at least 20 years older than him!

I continued to work with Arthur and Albert for 2 nights a week until 1982, when I decided it was time to move on, as by then, as I was also very involved with the Festival Theatre in Hyde (next door to the Theatre Royal.)

I seem to recall that in the early 70’s, there were a couple of one night charity shows, organised by Hyde Round Table.  I think they were compared by Stuart Hall, who lived locally, along with some singers and musicians. There was also a fashion show as part of this, and I remember us having to build  a dressing room in the corner of the stage, for the models to do there changes in.  I think there may have been a singer called Sheila Buxton, who used to be on Radio 2 at the time.

Other projectionists I recall were Dennis Roylance, who had previously worked at the Gaumont in Manchester, and I believe he has only recently died, and also Ron Brocklehurst, in the mid 70’s, and also John Booth and also Eric Parker.

Ashton Operatic Society and Dukinfield Operatic Society also performed their yearly shows around the same time, usually With Ashton it was the week following Hyde Musical in early March, and Dukinfield performed in October, usually a couple of weeks after Hyde Light Opera.  These shows were performed at what was then known as the ABC Cinema in Ashton Under Lyne, later to become the Tameside Hippodrome, and usually utilised mainly the same stage staff from both theatres, so when we had finished “getting out” at the Theatre Royal, we would then go over to Ashton to start work there.

Anyway, that’s another story........

Gordon Burdekin
October 2010.


Marjorie said...

What a wonderful account! And so interesting to know of all the work that goes on behind the scenes. Thank you for this.

Werneth Low said...

Thank you. This is an amazing account of what went on behind the scenes at the Theatre. What will happen to the building eventually I wonder?

westarsteve said...

excellent account there gordon i used to go and sit with arthur on monday nights in the late 80s
the kalee projctors and the westar in royal one are still in situ as is the westar in royal 2 although the royal 2 cinema has now all been knocked out and there is now an open stage
unfortunatly arthur has been quite poorly just recently and no longer goes into the theatre as he cant climb the stairs but i believe the new owners have repaired all the roof and put new windows and doors on outside and from what arthur says it looks quite smart i have spent many a happy hour in this building and its a shame its np longer used for entertainment but who knows in the future it may return

Anonymous said...

Fascinating read, thank you.

Stuart Green said...

Thank you Gordon for a superb article that shows how the Theatre Royal brought the people of Hyde together in a common community spirit. Theatre Royal Onward saved the theatre from demolition and are still working to try and bring it back as a multi-use venue. The theatre is a superb Grade II listed building, the architecture is magnificent to look at. Reopening it would certainly breathe life back into Hyde Town Centre and go a long way to promote community cohesion. The private owner has carried out a lot of repair work to a high standard and whilst the owner does not know what future use the building will have, we hope he will share our vision of a multi-use venue as many other theatres have done successfully. To read more about this visit our web site at www.hydetheatreroyal.co.uk
Please support us in our efforts. Thank you, Stuart Green.