Lytham And The Artful Pendulum
Alan Veale was born in Manchester, but grew up in Lytham during the Sixties. His lifelong interest in the arts has prompted him to reflect on the changing circumstances around the Fylde Coast
Lytham St Annes’ residents and business owners have seen fortune’s pendulum swing completely since 1973. Few would argue that an apparent discrepancy in investment exists between the opposite poles of Lytham and St Annes, where one half feels poorer than the other. Today, the complaints originate from St Annes, but fifty years ago Lytham felt neglected compared to its more glamorous neighbour around the coast. Perhaps benefiting from its proximity to Blackpool, Fylde Borough Council’s major source of revenue was from the tourism and leisure interests of St Annes-on-the-Sea. By contrast, Lytham’s silted-up coastline was clearly a no-no for visitors. I saw all this first hand, living there in a council flat with my mum. Lytham had been left to stagnate like its ageing population. I was only in my early twenties, seeking new adventures and challenges as an apprentice adult, but I had to get the bus to St Annes to find them.
It’s been fifty years since I found my feet as an amateur actor. I ‘trod the boards’ for the first time in 1973 at St George’s Hall, behind the United Reformed Church. The hall is still there, but the boards of the stage are long gone. I went on to perform regularly at each of the four theatres around town, but only one exists today. Curiously, that survivor was the most dilapidated of them all. So, what has happened in the meantime to put that particular theatre front and centre for a bright future?
To answer, let me first take you back to life as I saw it when the Seventies began.
My earliest wage slips came from the Anchorage restaurant on Lytham promenade, the Clifton Arms Hotel, and the café at Fairhaven Lake. Later I would find more permanent employment with Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance (then owners of the Clifton Estate, including Lytham Hall), but I still believe the three summer seasons I spent working on St Annes Pier were responsible for shaping my interest in entertaining people. I did everything there from hiring deckchairs to watering geraniums in the Floral Hall, manning the ticket office to looking after the parrots in the miniature zoo. All gone now.
At the end of the pier was a huge 667-seat theatre, known locally as The Sultan’s Palace, because of its Moorish design, complete with minarets. While working on the pier, I would sometimes get to see inside, marvelling at the intricate plasterwork and gold leaf. Later I would perform there twice – once during a drama festival, and a year later (1974) while celebrating the centenary of the St Annes Land and Building Company, who owned the pier and were responsible for the formation of the town itself. Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne was guest of honour! Sadly, within a month of her visit in June, the theatre was totally destroyed by fire. Within five years, the pier owners were bankrupt.
Imagine it. In 1974, all Lytham had to offer their visitor was a stroll along a promenade with the Green on one side, and muddy sea grass on the other. We had a yacht club, a closed-down restaurant and the remains of a sand pit. Our pier was demolished years ago, and now the one at St Annes was in trouble. Who would want to be Head of Tourism in the mid-Seventies? And there would be worse to come in a little over three years. At least Lytham still had something unique to offer…
That large building at the corner of the prom and Dicconson Terrace still boasted a host of facilities. Originally built in 1862, its primary role was to provide indoor saltwater bathing, together with a growing trend in Turkish and Russian baths. It also included Assembly Rooms for the benefit of the community, plus a small theatre!
By 1974 that particular venue was looking more than a little shabby, and it held less than half the audience numbers of The Sultan’s Palace. But for the local am-drams, its reduced capacity was ideal for plays and tight budgets. Over seven years I would take part in more than a dozen shows there, and at least that number again elsewhere. Looking back, I must have averaged somewhere between four and five productions each year – which just goes to prove I had all three desirable qualities for acting – I was young, male, and I had a pulse.
But in 1980 I left the area, taking up a new position with the Civil Service in Dorset. In my absence there would be more changes to residents’ fortunes. Lytham Baths was closed, together with the theatre, and redeveloped as private apartments. Which posed a dilemma for the amateur societies. Theatres were becoming rarer than hen’s teeth. Where in Lytham or St Annes could one stage Oklahoma or West Side Story? What about dramas and comedies? The Fylde Coast had hotels for the television stars performing in Blackpool, but what were the chances of us ever hosting them on stage?
The Seventies’ arts scene in Lytham St Annes saw a legacy of neglect that threatened the demise of all our potential performance venues.
But now the pendulum has swung!
Since the millennium, Lytham in particular has seen a major transformation in the performing arts. Stately Lytham Hall now regularly hosts outdoor performances, and who hasn’t heard of Lytham Festival? As for the one remaining theatre, there are some new and very exciting developments in progress.
With Christmas on the horizon and rehearsals for pantomime in full swing, I’ll look at those brightening prospects in the second part of this article, next time.