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Save Darlington Civic Theatre & Arts Centre

Published by: Steve Burbridge on 1st Dec 2010 | View all blogs by Steve Burbridge


The New Hippodrome & Palace of Varieties was formally opened on Monday September 2 1907. Its first Managing Director was Signor Rino Pepi, an Italian ex patriot who was originally a quick-change artist (or protean) and impersonator, whose love of theatre took him into a management career. George F Ward of Owen and Ward of Birmingham, a firm specialising in theatre building, designed the theatre and Owen and Ward were responsible for the building of the theatre. It is constructed from local Middlesbrough red brick with terracotta dressings. Above the Parkgate entrance is a 64foot high pyramid-roofed tower (housing a water tank) that gives the theatre's distinctive appearance and was used to provide high-pressure water for aquatic scenes that were popular at the time. The ornamental canopy is a replica of the original iron and glass structure, which was destroyed by a traffic accident in the 1960s.

e theatre flourished during the 20 years Signor Pepi ran it but following his death in November 1927, its future became uncertain. Competition from cinema became a real threat and a succession of different managers struggled to balance the books. Indeed at one stage the theatre was equipped with a film projection box at the rear of the Upper Circle, this can be seen above the name on Borough Road side of the building. In 1966 after much hard work and enthusiasm from members of the community, especially Darlington Operatic Society, the Borough Council of Darlington assumed full financial, administrative and artistic responsibility for the theatre on behalf of the town. The ‘New Hippodrome’ became officially known as Darlington Civic Theatre.

Darlington Arts Centre began its life as Darlington College of Education, which was founded by the British & Foreign School Society. From 1876 to 1978 it was used as a teacher training college. In 1978 it became Darlington Arts Centre funded by Darlington Borough Council. On July 10, 2001, ownership of the building was officially handed over to Darlington Borough Council.

Now, as a direct result of the coalition government’s Strategic Spending Review, Darlington borough council have announced that both venues shall no longer receive any funding and will be closed in the summer of 2011 unless they can be sold as going concerns. The news has prompted angry reaction – not only from residents of Darlington, but also from actors who have performed there.

Denis Lill (right) in 'Witness for the Prosecution' at The Civic.

Denis Lill

“I’d be surprised if the council would be allowed to close the Civic because it’s an historic theatre and a beautiful place to play and these theatres are getting fewer and further between. Would it later be replaced by a ‘one size fits all barn’ which can host a rock concert, a panto or a play?

From an actor’s point of view, it’s far more satisfactory playing a theatre that was designed for the acoustic of the human voice rather than a barn. I’d be very sorry if the Civic was to be closed. I’d campaign very much in terms of it staying open. It’s a joy and a privilege to perform at these old theatres.”

Denis Lill first performed at The Civic Theatre in the mid-Nineties in 'Mrs Warren’s Profession', alongside Penelope Keith. He also appeared there in 'Spider’s Web' and will play Sir Wilfred Robarts QC in 'Witness for the Prosecution' from Monday 15th November 2010 to Saturday 20th November 2010. He is also well-known for his television role of Mr Rose in The Royal.

Debbie Arnold (far left) in 'Keeping Up Appearances' which played at The Civic.

Debbie Arnold

“Having performed at Darlington Civic in ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ in July (12th to 17th), I am very aware of the huge value that the Civic Theatre and the Arts Centre represents, culturally, to the residents of Darlington and the surrounding areas. The Civic is a beautiful venue and is blessed with wonderful support from the Friends of the Theatre and patrons alike. I , and my fellow members of the cast and company of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, received a very warm welcome to the theatre and enjoyed the run immensely. We all must do what we can to preserve the Civic Theatre and the Arts Centre for the future.” 

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Louise English (left) with Anita Dobson in 'Hello, Dolly!' which played at The Civic.

Louise English

“The North East has some beautiful theatres and Darlington Civic is absolutely stunning. I have very fond memories of performing at this wonderful and grand theatre in shows such as ‘Hello, Dolly!’, with Anita Dobson, and ‘All The Fun Of The Fair’, alongside David Essex. So, with the combination of a beautiful theatre and great audiences, how could anyone not love working here? It would be an absolute tragedy if it were to close. Please help save the Civic.”

Lesley Joseph (far left) with the cast of 'Hot Flush!' which played at The Civic.

Lesley Joseph

"It would be a tragedy if Darlington were to close the doors of its theatre and arts centre, which have brought so many hours of enjoyment to so many people. When times are hard, we all need the arts to take us away from our own lives and to help us forget the hard times. I sincerely hope that a way can be found to keep these venues open for many more years to come."

Su Pollard in 'Annie' which played at The Civic Theatre.

Su Pollard

" The Civic has always been a delight for actors and audiences alike. Apart from the stark fact that our profession will lose yet another venue to practice our craft, my main concern is that the loyal audience that has built up over the years will then have to travel further afield for their entertainment. As good as neighbouring theatres are, I believe adding what could be another two hours onto an evening out could have detrimental effects. There is no doubt the people of Darlington adore 'their' theatre. Please reward them by continuing to provide it. Selfishly, I adore playing there and don't want to stop. Many thanks, Su Pollard."
Victor Spinetti (with Anita Harris) in 'Come On, Jeeves!' which played at The Civic.

Victor Spinetti

"For more than a century, Darlington Civic has provided the town's cultural heart and lifeblood. It is so unfair that the arts and entertainment industry is the first to feel the axe fall when any cutbacks are to be made. Especially when you consider that during the Great Depression it was music halls, theatres, roller-skating rinks and the like that flourished. In times of austerity, people turn to the arts and entertainment industry for escapism and pleasure. It is imperative that we save the theatre and arts centre."

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Niki Evans as Mrs Johnstone in 'Blood Brothers', which played at The Civic.

Niki Evans

"I'm horrified to hear that the beautiful Civic Theatre is under threat of closure. Not only is the theatre a wonderful venue to perform in, but the people who work there are warm and friendly.The audiences are wonderful, too, and the place has a great atmosphere. It would be  a very sad event if this happened. Please fight for the Civic."
Steve Arnott has performed in a number of pantomimes at The Civic, including the role of Dame Trott in 'Jack & The Beanstalk'

Steve Arnott

"Please give your support to saving this gem in the theatrical crown. With so much uncertainty in these austere times we need the Arts and entertainment to lighten our days."

Ray Spencer (right) with panto partner Bob Stott

Ray Spencer MBE, Executive Director of The Customs House in South Shields, actor and comedian

"The Civic Theatre and Darlington Arts Centre offer a fantastically varied programme from the most commercial to the most thought-provoking work. They support and promote a rich cultural heritage for Durham and their loss would be a real blow to the North East arts infrastructure. Their offer to their local community and to the wider region is to be envied and the true worth to the people of all generations would be felt both economically and emotionally. Long may they champion the arts in Darlo!"

Isla St Clair, who appeared in 'Eyes Front!' at Darlington Arts Centre.

Isla St Clair

"It is very sad news to hear that the authorities are actually thinking of closing the historic Civic Theatre and the important Darlington Arts Centre! One wonders who makes these decisions and have they really thought out the implications of such a move. I doubt it. I do hope the residents of Darlington will fight hard to keep these important venues and that allowing them to be closed will be a blow not only for Darlington but to the wonderful North East population in general."

Top North East entertainer, Steve Walls.

Steve Walls, actor, presenter and comedian

"It would be sad to see such a beautiful theatre with such tradition go dark. The North East is proud of its theatre's, it would be a blow to the region."

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Elkie Brooks, who has performed in concert at The Civic Theatre.

Elkie Brooks

"I am shocked to hear about the possible closure of Darlington's glorious Civic Theatre.  I have played here on many occasions and always had a very warm reception from both the audience and the theatre staff.  I do hope a positive decision can be made which allows this most elegant of theatres to stay open and continue to attract high quality productions and performers."

Kim Hartman has appeared at The Civic in productions including 'Keeping Up Appearances' and 'Daisy Pulls It Off'.

Kim Hartman

"I think it's shocking that the Darlington Civic should have had its funding withdrawn. Recreation is vital for us all and the enjoyment of every form of art and sport should be available to all society, wherever they live. The Civic has a flourishing group of Friends, supporters and helpers; the building is beautiful, comfortable and historic and we should be investing money into it with the view to it becoming a producing house again, not taking funding away. With love to you all and good luck. Kim"






  • Tin Can Podcast
    by Tin Can Podcast 7 years ago
    Coming from the North East and being a writer of theatre and film I think closing the theatre would be disastrous. The North East is an area where culture is at a bare minimum so to lose one of the only places one can actually go and see a play would be a massive blow. I had to move to London to fulfil my aspirations because the North East (particularly Stockton/Middlesbrough) seemed to think creativity was a useless attribute to be sneered at. Closing this great building only serves to prove this to be true.
  • Marwood Graham
    by Marwood Graham 7 years ago
    Closing the Darlington Civic would turn this area into a cultural desert. It must stay open. It is too far to travel to Leeds, York, Sunderland or Newcastle. M Graham
  • Steve Burbridge
    by Steve Burbridge 7 years ago
    I received an e-mail from Valerie Howitt and Sheila Bowe, who had this to add:

    "We are writing to say how passionate we are about the theatre, and how dreadfully upset we would be (like many others) to see the closure of such a historic and vital contribution to the image to the town. - We have been members of the Darlington Friends of the Civic for many years have met and spoken with many actors and actresses all who say how much they enjoy performing at our lovely little theatre. Wishing you every success with this campaign. Kind regards - Valerie Howitt and Sheila Bowe
  • Steve Burbridge
    by Steve Burbridge 7 years ago
    I received a letter from Eileen Fitz Hugh, who had this to add:

    "Being a Friend of Darlington Civic Theatre, I am very concerned about the possible closure of this theatre. The Civic is an important venue in Darlington, bringing Opera, Ballet, Musicals and Plays to the region - otherwise patrons would have to travel to Newcastle or Sunderland to see these shows.
    The closure of this theatre would be a great loss to Darlington, both in bringing shows to our town, and visitors to our shopping centre.
    Therefore, I hope that if the council finds itself unable to support the theatre, then every effort will be made to find a suitable buyer.
    Yours faithfully,
    Eileen Fitz Hugh"
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