Less than a year after The Shell Seekers passed into memory, Fred had made up his mind to strip the fittings from the now-defunct theatre building and instead install a self-contained apartment, “just in case Valarie and I need a live-in carer later on, old boy.” He commissioned an architect to design what he required and, over the course of the next few months, meetings were held in the auditorium. Upon learning of this proposed course of action several friends tried dissuading him from continuing. The Grange already held three apartments, each one of which could provide more than adequate lodgings for a carer, and it did seem strange that Fred was considering spending upwards of £10,000 on new works. However, despite reasoned pleas, he remained adamant.
Fred and I had known each other for so long that we were able to speak frankly about any issue without fear of causing offence but even my attempts at reasoning fell on stubbornly deaf ears. Only a few years previously during a particularly cold and damp winter I’d protested to him that, as he and Val were around 90 years of age, surely they should invest in better heating if only within the core of the house? (In Edwardian times two coke boilers and rudimentary central heating was installed but, given the size of the house, could never be effective. With over 30 rooms in the building, it was hardly surprising . . .)
They’d both recently had heavy colds and there was a deep chill in the place even near the kitchen, in which their faithful oil-fired Aga supplied the only steady heat. It did feed a vast Victorian towel rail in the bathroom above the kitchen, but these were the only two rooms which were warm and Fred in particular always wore outdoor shoes, a cap and heavy sweaters. He’d poo-poo’d the idea of additional heaters and I expressed my frustration, telling him how exasperating he could be: he was considering spending thousands of pounds unnecessarily but not a fraction of that on heating. “My mother died when she was 105,” he said, defiantly, “so with luck you’re stuck with me for another 15 years!” Although we didn’t know it, he had less than three.
Fred’s infirmities had become progressively worse (exacerbated – though we didn’t realise it at the time – by the leukaemia which was slowly weakening him) and so, as he and I usually worked together in reasonable harmony, in April 2012 he asked me to undertake the proposed foul deed of decommissioning the theatre. I agreed, with many forebodings; I’d been in at the start of it all and, it seemed, would be in at the death.
First of all we had to decide exactly how one sells a theatre! Eventually we agreed that pretty much everything that it comprised would be carefully dismantled and/or removed from the building, catalogued and stored in cardboard boxes.
I favoured some form of advertising culminating in a auction sale at the house, but Fred was against the idea. Instead he asked me to design and have printed a brochure which we’d distribute to “interested parties” who could then contact us. Where to begin? Well, initially I took photographs of the old place as it was during its working life and prior to dismantling. I’ve written elsewhere on this website that during the years the theatre existed, we were simply too busy to take archive photos even had the thought occurred to us.
Once the leaflet was out of our hair, the horrid task of physically stripping-out our beloved theatre could commence. At this remove I can disclose that Val took quite violent objection to the idea and cursed Fred and me for even considering it. When she was aware that the work was going forward she refused point-blank to speak to us for a while. It must have been a bitter blow for her to realise the hard truth that her greatest joy in life was being torn apart and I really felt for poor Fred, who obviously faced her impotent fury most of the time. A very black period for us all.
Dismantling, however, began despite the icy atmosphere. First down were the stage lights, my own particular interest and responsibility. How painful it was, as one by one I brought them down the ladder and laid them in neat lines.
Before I commenced this part of the strip-out I once again turned on the 20 amp main switch to bring the control room back to life and then plugged up the electronic dimmers and patched all the lights into their oh-so-familiar dimmers for the last time (front-of-house dimmers 1-6, front battens 7-9, back battens 10-11, number one bar 12-17, number two bar 18-20, leaving the usual dimmers 21-24 as the “specials” feeding individual sockets around the theatre giving power if needed to ‘practical’ lights around the set, eg table lamps, fire-effect bulbs in stoves, mini – and I mean mini – groundrows sitting behind scenery windows to light the “sky” flat behind, and any other device requiring power which needed dimming). Turning on the 60 amp stage lights’ main I watched the circuit’s tell-tale lamps glowing brightly on the racks, each one reassuring me that no fuses had blown despite the all-pervading damp which was spreading throughout the deserted building.
Switching on the sound relay (the windows between the control room and auditorium were double-glazed due to the back row of patrons’ seats being adjacent to them) I heard once more the remote hums as sixty-odd bulbs warmed gently up around the theatre. Fading down the houselights and with the stage lights’ two master faders down on zero, I advanced each of the 24 circuit faders up to ten, then slowly advanced the masters up full. In the dark auditorium the light swept through the gloom until the stage looked much as it had done for so many years.
I walked round and onto the stage, prowling across and up and down, noting again those few areas which had always proved difficult to light depending on what scenery was in use. Understandably, many memories came back to me down the years; the follow-spot at the back of the auditorium which never knew the touch of human hand (it was remotely controlled by fishing line!), the two sets of multi-circuit battens whose coloured gels could produce shadow-free sunlight through to deep moonlight across the stage depending on the dimmer levels, the three floor-located sockets which could feed the fire-effect bulbs in ovens, coal or log fires and which necessitated constant “trembling” of their respective dimmer levers (“trembling” is the action of gently and constantly pushing up and down a dimmer lever just enough to make its bulb pulse slightly – a dedicated small flood, usually on one end of number one bar would also be trembled, out of syncronisation, which gave the satisfactorily realistic effect on the set of flickering shadows in the fire’s glow but at the cost of cramped fingers for the operator!
Of course, once the lights and their bars were down, all the associated cabling and their 15 amp plugs and 5 amp sockets could be stripped out. As each of the two dozen circuit cables were pinned securely to the roof purlins with lead clips every six inches; releasing them all was tedium in extremis. Slowly though, the cables came down, were measured, coiled, labelled and placed in boxes. Alongside them were placed plans of the theatre with associated dimensions marked so that, theoretically, all (all) the new owner needed to do was find a similar sized building, install our equipment and – voilà – a new theatre would be created relatively easily.
The main tabs and their tracks came down next; the fabric was surprisingly heavy but with hardly any dust in it considering the curtains had never been vacuumed. (Before each production – and certainly after a winter break – the top surfaces of those 72 red plush seats wore a light film of dust and damp spores and needed cleaning. With no heating in that stone building, the theatre was left to its own devices until awoken in time for the next rehearsal round prior to a forthcoming show.)
Up until then Fred had pretty much kept out of my way, knowing there really wasn’t much he could do to help other than produce welcome cups of tea (lunch wasn’t really an option, given that the kitchen wasn’t exactly a friendly place any more) because most of my time had been spent up ladders. But when my attention turned to the seating, he made a companionable addition to what had been a pretty lonely task . Although he was very infirm by now and relied heavily on his crutches and painkillers he performed a useful duty in dragging the liberated seat units into neat heaps away from the current area of dismantling. And although it was a great struggle to kneel down, he insisted on un-wiring and removing the sets of tubular electric heaters as the disappearing rows of seats exposed them.
Each row comprised a cast-iron end stanchion into which a seat-back and its swivelling squab located. Another stanchion formed the opposite edge of that first seat and allowed the second seat-back and squab to locate against its opposite side. This continued across the row, with the opposite end’s stanchion closing the line. Each stanchion had four locating holes through which hefty wood screws secured it to the concrete floor, a floor which was usually damp. After forty-odd years these screws had partially rusted into the embedded Rawlplugs and removing them all was a tedious process. Fred insisted on care being taken to get them out undamaged where possible and sorted into sizes because he wanted them “saved for future use, old boy.” Really, I could cheerfully have kicked him. Until, that is, he explained that furniture restorers were always grateful to be given screws with an age patina. A shiny, new steel screw would sit uncomfortably in, say, a repaired antique piece. The “future” he was anticipating wasn’t necessarily one in which he featured… as always, Fred knew best.
Once the seats were stacked, the raised wooden platform which had formed the elevated section at the back of the auditorium (necessary to give the back rows a better view of the stage) could be dismantled. Happily, the planks were tongued & grooved, being held down on hefty wooden beams by lovely brass screws which came out so easily. With that platform reduced to its separate components and stacked against the wall, the largest elements of the theatre had been dealt with and we could gather together everything else.
Almost the last items packed away were the emergency EXIT signs, the stage manager’s cue board, the coffee urns and their crockery, the bar ancilliaries, coffee bar tables and chairs and such stuff. But the very last item of all was a large block & tackle in the apex of the stage roof which had been the very first thing installed all those years ago.
It was needed in the first place to lift the heavy main tab tracks, the lighting bars and the timbers holding the black fly cloths which once formed the sightlines hiding from the eyes of an audience all the equipment in the roof above the stage. It had also been most useful for suspending a chandelier for one show (I hated the thing – its uncontrollable spillage of light played havoc with shadows around the set! but its seemingly miraculous appearance after a brief interval certainly impressed the audience!) Clambering up there, unbolting the block and carrying it back down the ladder on to the now-empty for the first time in forty years was a curiously poignant moment. At that moment, the theatre really no longer existed.
In the early days all the scenery was built and stored in a large first-floor room of the house but, as Val witnessed yet more chunks of door frame and wallpaper in her beloved home being removed along the way by collisions from flats as stage crew members (who were sometimes working against the clock to get Act 1 set struck and Act 2 erected during the interval) misjudged widths, corners and momentum, she understandably put her little foot down and insisted we build a separate scene store somewhere nearby. Many were the times a flat would become jammed as it was being manoeuvered round the stairs’ half-landing, necessitating at least one hefty chap to crawl beneath it to the balance point, apply pressure with broad shoulders to the offending flat and hope his compatriots on either end could lift it clear – all the while trying to ignore Fred’s beseeching cries of “mind the paint”. Ironically, he wasn’t so concerned with the paint on the house, but very concerned indeed about the painted scene on the canvas flat!
A site for the proposed scene store was soon settled on, just across the patio to the side of the auditorium; Fred sourced a local manufacturer of timber buildings whose products would be considerably cheaper than an equivalent structure in brick or stone. Nonetheless, the large area of concrete required for the floor still had to be of a sufficient thickness to support the building’s weight as well as the proposed contents, and this meant a substantial area needed to be excavated to a depth of eighteen inches. And as we always did things in the cheapest way possible (grants weren’t available to us) we set to and hand-dug the blessed thing out. We must have wheelbarrowed scores of loads round the back of the house and into the surrounding wood where the ever-increasing spoil heap wouldn’t detract from the views to or from the house. We certainly slept well those nights . . .
Naturally, Val was pleased to witness this hive of activity but there was a distinct frostiness in the air when, as she saw us erecting the building, she insisted to Fred that the front elevation facing the theatre must be of local stone rather than the bland wooden doors and apex originally planned. Fred – always one to triumph in adversity – promptly contacted the manufacturers who agreed to buy that end of the building back from us! And just for effect he built a lovely bay window in order to put the finishing touch to the place.
Planning permission, I hear you ask? Simple; his plans showed a large double motor garage and for all I know the inspector either turned a blind eye or – as was sometimes the case when dealing with such an autocratic, heavily-limping, charming owner whose theatre was rapidly becoming so well known – that he simply rubber stamped the proceedings.
Over the years our own stock of costumes had steadily grown, partly as a result of Val’s determination to have clothes of the highest quality, and we were so lucky to enjoy the freely-give services of several talented dress makers who produced some exquisite garments. Of course, we also sourced costumes from theatre hire companies but, apart from the cost of hire and cleaning after the show, the quality was often found lacking. With our audience mere feet from the acting area, shoddy costumes simply wouldn’t do. (An amusing aside to these home-made costumes: the heavy materials used especially for full gowns on period shows would come as an understandable shock to our young actresses more used to lighter modern apparel such as jeans. Val needed to train them in deportment, how to gather the skirts when sitting, and remind them to leave clearance when passing delicate pieces of furniture or scenery!)
At the theatre’s closure we’d amassed quite a wardrobe which was accommodated on a dozen or so long, free-standing costume rails. As we were deep into deconstructing the theatre, Fred was in despair at also having to dispose of this collection. Happily one of our founder members, Andrew Jenner, had over the years built up a most successful professional costume hire business based in Leamington Spa, serving such luminaries as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. He gave us a most generous valuation for almost all the costumes, paid promptly, and turned up with his merry band of staff to sort, pack and remove everything. In his usual quiet, efficient way he removed some of the worries besetting Fred over this issue, and for which Fred was very grateful.
What of Val during this busy time? She more than anyone was distressed at the thought of the destruction and general disposals going on beyond her kitchen sanctum – the room in which she was beginning to spend most of her time now that her beloved theatre was no more. After the death of their adopted son Stephen, she had immersed herself in painting, writing and planning new shows for her theatre, and witnessing its end was dreadfully painful for her. She retreated more and more into isolation and poor Fred was left to manage as best he could.
Despite our little brochure being posted far and wide we had no firm interest shown, and it was faithful Andrew who once again came to the rescue. He knew of two theatre enthusiasts, father and son, who lived in a country property outside Bromsgrove near Birmingham. Seems that although having a suitable building in which they’d considered creating their own theatre, they’d understandably been rather stumped by the sheer logistics of sourcing affordable furniture and fittings. Phone numbers were swapped and a visit organised.
Although the auditorium by now resembled a local auctioneer’s sale room, piled high as it was with the entire contents of the theatre, the two chaps could easily see the sort of area needed to accommodate it all in a new home, and a visit to the scene store allowed them to take their pick of the flats, doors, windows and sundries like scenery braces and weights which would come in useful. Our plans and diagrams swung the balance from uncertainty to a firm handshake on the sale, and a removal date was set.
Thus it was that on 6th August 2012 a large van and double-axle trailer arrived in the lane at the back of the theatre to collect its first load. If memory serves, Fred and I waved goodbye at the departure of the last of our stuff at the third collection. As the cortège slowly drove away we turned and walked back into a curiously empty building. Fred paused, surveyed the desolate scene and, in typical fashion said, “Ah well, let’s go and put the kettle on, old boy.” So we did.