>TheMaltingsTheatre&Cinema: The last days of the Berwick Playhouse

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The last days of the Berwick Playhouse

Berwick Playhouse – originally a beautiful theatre opened in 1914 – is due for demolition next month. It’s been closed since 2005, and in the last six years has slowly begun to demolish itself. 


Original photos show a rather grand building, with detailed plasterwork on the exterior, but all the plasterwork was cleared away years ago and replaced with an uninspired but no doubt practical render. 


Like most people who have lived in Berwick for some time, I have very good memories of going to see films at the Playhouse. Spittal Variety Group, who regularly perform at The Maltings, used the Playhouse for all their productions for many, many years. 


We were given the go-ahead recently to investigate the Playhouse to see if there were any items which The Maltings would like or which would be of some use to us.


So this morning, a small but intrepid band descended and had a look around for anything that could be saved from the demolition – for items that might give some continuity between the old and new theatres in the town. 

A Spittal Variety Group Pantomime in 1974 on The Playhouse stage.

It’s terribly sad to see a theatre on its last legs. So our visit was not a high-spirited one, but more about seeing what could be saved – and marvelling at this once-beautiful building, now destined to disappear. 


There have been a number of theatres in Berwick-upon-Tweed. The Playhouse, Ceaser’s Palace, the Berwick Theatre – and now there’s just one. Almost all the great public buildings of the town are now flats – part of the relentless drive towards a future of individualism, where presumably we all sit in white boxes watching DVDs by ourselves. Nice.


So we donned hard hats and facemasks, and found a lot of dead pigeons, dust, mould and rubble. Plus three 1940s era projectors and some small items which had been missed when the building was stripped. You can see the biggest projector we salvaged on permanent display on the stairwell at The Maltings already – it was removed from The Playhouse at 1.30pm in three sections and installed at The Maltings at 1.50pm. It was very, very heavy.

Relief plasterwork in the foyer of The Playhouse at stalls level.

The foyer at The Playhouse, looking past box office to the stairs to stalls level.
The Berwick Playhouse. The floor has been dug up for some reason, and the perspex cinema screen shattered. Behind the hideous drop ceiling is a beautiful blue curved Edwardian ceiling, with scroll work and a high proscenium. Below the stage is the orchestra pit. The water damage has been very bad indeed and the roof is in a terrible condition.

An emergency exit from the stalls.

At stage left, there are some very small toilets. The sign reads “The management of the Playhouse and S.V.G. [Spittal Variety Group, the last theatre company to regularly use the theatre] will not be held responsible for the loss of any personal items such as jewelry – money – etc back stage during the production.’ It is signed, but I can’t make out the signature. [It’s Alex Moor’s signature apparently – Thanks Jenny!] SVG staged their last production at the Playhouse in 2004, I think.

Looking from the stage up the flytower to the grid – and past it, to the sky. 
At the rear of the stalls, this is what remains of the bar. Unusually, this bar was actually open to the stalls, possibly during performances? The sign reads: ‘Please do not occupy seats or smoke in the bar during the show.’

The theatre from the stage. Obviously the interior is pitch black, except where the odd ray of light spills from holes in the roof, so it was a bit of a shock to see the colours on the walls. At the rear of the stalls is the bar. The circle is too badly rotten to allow access.

The projection room was the best preserved room in the building, containing this lovely projector. All the projectionists belongings lay where they had last been touched in 2005. A bit like the Mary Celeste, to be honest. It took us two hours to dismantle and remove the projector – to its new home on the main stairwell at The Maltings Theatre, a few hundred yards away. It was a little sad to be removing it, but if we hadn’t it would have been destroyed in the demolition.

[John T says: “The control buttons on the wall in the projection box were used to alter the maskings on the screen for the different film formats the 3 slides hanging up were used to do this on the projector” Thanks John!]

The old powerboard in the projection room. 
[John T tells us: “ The large wheel on the power board is the dimmer for the house lights that were in before that false celling was put in.” Thanks John.]

This beautiful 1940s projector is now on display at The Maltings Theatre. It’s nice that it has found a new home.

We found these two projectors in a cellar. They must have been replaced by the slightly more modern projector that stood in the projection room. 1940s, we suspect. [John T tells us: “the 2 projectors you found were replaced by the 1 in situ when single reel films came in, the 2 old 1’s were powered by carbon arc and you had to watch them all the time to ensure the carbon rods stayed the right distance apart.” Thanks John!] The projectors will be cleaned up and installed in The Stage Door Bar at The Maltings.




Many thanks to Jimmy, Cam, Gary and Brian Martin for their help – without which, all of these items would have ended up in landfill. Any comments, questions, memories welcome.

4 comments:

Jenny said…

Wow, so many memories in that place… such a shame to see it looking in such a pitiful state. I think that’s Alex Moor’s signature….?? Goodness knows how long that’s been up there! I remember forward rolling down the aisles when I was little. 🙂

John T said…

I think I am right but the 2 projectors you found were replaced by the 1 in situ when single reel films came in, the 2 old 1’s were power by carbon arc and you had to watch them all the time to ensure the carbon rods stayed the right distance appart. The large wheel on the power board is the dimmer for the house lights that were in before that false celling was put in. Its very sad to see this place in this state. I grew up in the playhouse as my father was manager from 1962 until 1970 and the place holds a lot of happy memories and I remember days when the q’s to get in went round into Bridge st at the time the place had over 700 seats. Yes jenny it was Alex’s signature who else but Mr SVG

John T said…

The control buttons on the wall in the projection box were used to alter the maskings on the screen for the different film formats the 3 slides hanging up were used to do this on the projector

stevie said…

nice, enjoyed that very much,to much stuff is forgoten all to easily,thanks for this,regards Paul

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