Monday, 21 January 2008

Stage set for the mother of theatre revivals

The Times, November 29, 2007

Halfway down the hill which runs south out of Dunfermline town centre, hidden away behind a non descript façade, one of Scotland finest theatres is slowly being brought back to life. So obscure that few locals even know it is there, yet the sheer scale of the Alhambra Theatre is breathtaking.

It boasts a 1500-capacity auditorium, an elegant balcony and its royal boxes command a view of one of the biggest stages in Scotland. Yet despite its magnificence the Alhambra has lived through decades of ignominy since it opened in 1922, converted first into a cinema and then limping along since the 1960s as a bingo hall.

This weekend the past will be forgotten. The venue which has staged the Alexander Brothers, Jimmy Logan and the White Heather club will host local dance and musical extravaganzas to kick-start a fund-raising campaign to restore it to its former glories. By spring 2009, a group of enthusiasts believe the Alhambra will be booking some of Britain’s biggest bands and best shows.

These may seem lofty ambitions, but the man behind the restoration, Paul Gudgin, has already seen his growing obsession with the Alhambra begin to turn its fortunes round.

Mr Gudgin is the former director of the Edinburgh Fringe and a Dunfermline resident who for years walked past the theatre every morning on his way to catch the train to work. Alerted by a friend to the building’s glorious past, he caught his first glimpse of the interior five years ago, when he sneaked in during a bingo game.

“I went to the front desk and told them I wanted to find my granny just so I could come in,” he recalled. “When I walked in, there were one-armed bandits, the fug of smoke and the smell of the deep fat frier, but it was still an overwhelming sight. I was bowled over by the scale, by the beauty and how intact it all was as a theatre.

“I found myself drawn to the Alhambra more and more ever after. You get in that frame of mind: ‘I just want to see it open’. I don’t know what the classic signs of obsession are, but that must be pretty close. Every day I’d walk past and think: ‘I’ve got to get that place open.’”

When the Alhambra came up for sale in 2005 – for offers of around £700,000 - Mr Gudgin wrote an article in the local paper proposing it should be saved, and was contacted by Bill Fletcher, a Dunfermline-born property developer. The businessman took the “remarkably brave” step of purchasing the building, said Mr Gudgin, because he shared the desire to regenerate his home town.

“There’s a lot of pride in Dunfermline but you don’t meet anyone who doesn’t think it needs to do better. It’s a bit down on its luck, it needs a lift.

“I am a passionate believer in culture as a force of regeneration. I have worked all over the world, but I have never seen anything with as much potential to help regenerate a town as this place,” said Mr Gudgin, who is a visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University and an international consultant on the arts.

It is estimated that a new large scale arts facility on this scale in a town centre location would cost £20 million. The refurbishment of the Alhambra as a local arts centre and a stage for bands and touring productions will require £2 million and should be achieved within 18 months.

Already, the first steps have been taken. The false ceiling which enclosed the stage has been removed along with cheap chandeliers that lit up the bingo caller’s station. Partitions which once closed out the old balcony have been removed, and the glorious space of the auditorium revealed.

The launch of the appeal at the weekend will coincide with the launch of an Alhambra Theatre trust, and the funds it raises will be spent on new dressing rooms and backstage facilities, stage equipment, new seating and on the building’s façade.

Local politicians have spoken out for the project and celebritiy endorsements are trickling in. Richard Jobson, the film maker who fronted the local punk band, The Skids, has called the “a fantastic opportunity for Dunfermline to come out of the artistic shadow of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and other Scottish cities and to establish a reputation for itself as a major cultural centre.”

The alternatives are dispiriting. Conversion to flats or office space is a possibility. The Alhambra might even go the way of its illustrious former companion, Dunfermline Opera House, which was scheduled for demolition in the 1980s, when its interior was sold and shipped to a theatre in Florida.

Mr Gudgin hopes no such fate awaits his beloved theatre. “Anyone who has been in the building can understand why it became a bit of a cause. They can see it is a unique opportunity. It won’t come around again, certainly not in Dunfermline,” he said.


Anonymous said...

i was in the Alhambra for the Campaign launch, and i can 100% agree with Paul, the interior (also the exterior) is amazing, but i have to glad that the bingo were in it for a while, because if the building was left empty with no maintenance it would be turned into flats or demlished.

Anonymous said...

GO PAUL GUDGIN! What a truly inspiring story of belief and integrity. If anyone can make this dream come true it is Paul Gudgin, no doubt about it.

I have never been there, but the spirit that is being generated to save this magnificent theatre is absolutely amazing.

Give that man the freedom of the city.

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