Leeds & West Yorkshire

Bradford Alhambra Theatre: 100 years of the show going on

Alhambra Theatre Image copyright Bradford Theatres
Image caption The Alhambra Theatre first opened on 18 March 1914 and was the brainchild of impresario Francis Laidler

From Laurel and Hardy to Les Dawson, from ukulele-wielding George Formby to ballet superstar Anna Pavlova, some of the biggest names in showbiz have trodden the stage at Bradford's Alhambra Theatre since the curtain was raised there exactly 100 years ago.

The vision of Bradford impresario and theatre manager Francis Laidler, the Alhambra went from blueprint to reality in just two years, with its unmistakeable dome soon becoming one of the landmarks and symbols of the city.

Its roots go back to the afternoon of 18 March 1914 when the Alhambra was officially opened.

Just five days later the theatre opened its doors to its first paying audience, who enjoyed a variety show featuring the likes of Leeds comic Sydney Howard, music hall star Mamie Watson and Italian acrobats the Benedetti Brothers.

From that day on, a stream of top entertainment names has passed through its unassuming stage door on Great Horton Road.

Image copyright Bradford Theatres
Image caption The Alhambra was designed by architects Chadwick and Watson and seats an audience of 1,400

"It's a beautiful, beautiful theatre. I love it to death," said Bradford-born actor Duncan Preston, star of Coronation Street, Emmerdale and BBC TV comedy Dinnerladies.

He finally achieved his lifetime dream of acting on the Alhambra's stage in 2011 in a production of To Kill a Mockingbird - years after he made his first visits there as a child.

"I remember very vividly seeing [comedian] Freddie Frinton doing his drunk act there. He looked straight at me and that's a memory that's always stayed with me," he said.

"You look on that stage and stand on it just before you go on and do a show and you think of the people who've stood on that spot. It's quite moving really.

Image caption Bradford-born actor Duncan Preston said the Alhambra Theatre had a "friendly atmosphere" and "warmth"

"It's got a warmth to it. I've always had warm feelings for the Alhambra since I was a kid watching pantomimes there."

And for many people in Bradford the Alhambra's name is synonymous with pantomime.

These have been an annual feature since the theatre's earliest days when Francis Laidler, known as The King of Pantomime, delivered panto after panto for half a century.

In fact, Mr Laidler's last Alhambra panto - like his very first - was Red Riding Hood which opened on 27 December 1954.

Sadly, he died just a few days later, on 6 January 1955, a day before his 88th birthday.

Today, the Alhambra's pantos attract famous names of British entertainment.

Over the years the cast has included such stars as Barbara Windsor, Sue Pollard, Jimmy Cricket, Little and Large, Cannon and Ball, Frank Bruno, Joe Pasquale, The Chuckle Brothers and even Sooty.

Image copyright Bradford Theatres
Image caption Bradford's Alhambra Theatre was extensively refurbished in 1986 and is a Grade II listed building

Lynda Bellingham, who starred as the Fairy Godmother in the 2012-13 Alhambra panto production of Cinderella, said the theatre was "wonderful".

"The first time I ever saw the Alhambra, I thought it was a hugely impressive building and would put a lot of people off.

"But once you get people in the door and they meet the people who work here - we're such a jolly lot, we're not snobs and we're not posh - it gives people a huge point of reference within the community. It's a wonderful theatre."

The Alhambra has even been immortalised on film as the setting for the 1983 film The Dresser, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.

Image caption Thousands of performers have passed through the Alhambra's stage door over the past 100 years

Soon after making its big screen debut, the Alhambra "went dark" for two years while an extensive refurbishment was carried out, finally reopening on 30 October 1986.

That same year the theatre was back in the limelight with audiences in Bradford becoming the very first to see a brand new stage version of BBC TV's World War Two comedy 'Allo, 'Allo before its West End opening.

Major productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar, The Sound of Music and The Muppet Show soon followed, marking the Alhambra's return to centre stage.

Since then, the 1,400-seat theatre has continued to play host to some of the biggest shows on the British stage.

For example, the Alhambra saw a 12-week run of Les Miserables in 1998, a seven-week run of Oliver! in 1999, a five-month run of Phantom of the Opera in 2000, and in 2006 the National Theatre's critically acclaimed production of The History Boys came to the theatre.

According to Alan Hall, from Bradford Civic Society, the Alhambra is "not just a theatre for Bradford".

"If you talk to people who have come to the Alhambra, they've come from all over the north of England.

"The Alhambra is a theatre for the north of England and one of the nicest theatres in the north of England.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Lynda Bellingham said Bradford's Alhambra Theatre was a "hugely impressive" building

"This theatre is of vital importance. It's as important to the people of Bradford as the City Hall opposite it or the Odeon cinema next door.

"It is a key part of Bradford's heritage and Bradford life right up to the present day."

For Duncan Preston, the Alhambra is, quite simply, "one of my favourites".

"In fact I would probably put it at the top of my list. There's a friendly atmosphere. It's just got something about it.

"If all theatres were like it then there wouldn't be as many closing. I just hope it lasts another 100 years and I'm sure it will."

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