I have become a fan of the urban exploration forum, 28 Days Later. There are some very talented photographers and commentators moderating and contributing to the website. One of the reports I found was about the Derby Hippodrome.
The report includes photographs from the interior of the once grand theatre, now like an unintended open-air forum. The roof is absent and a long metal support frame crossed above the stalls area, resting on the ledge of the balcony seating area. A earlier visit to the Derby Hippodrome in December 2008, yielded responses to the report which included the phrase “he should be made to put it right”. “He”, I realised after further research, likely refers to Mr. Christopher Anthony, the current registered owner of the Derby Hippodrome.
The former live entertainment theatre, that also spent years in the guise of a cinema and subsequently a bingo hall, was the subject of a fire in early February 2008. The actions of the various cast of characters in this drama vary from conniving to negligent to passionate. Here’s a summarised timeline of events affecting the theatre since this unfortunate event:
- Fire breaks out on 8 February, believed to have started in the orchestra pit. Spread of the fire is minimised in part by the fire curtain. Authorities treat it as arson.
- Derby City Council orders the owner to make immediate repairs to the grade II listed building.
- On 28 March, contractors appear at the site to make essential repairs, but instead knock a gaping hole in the roof and bringing a side wall down with a bucket excavator and nibbler.
- Derby City Council obtain High Court injunction preventing Mr. Anthony from making any further alterations to the buildings without its involvement.
- Derby City Council erects protective hoardings around the building to improve the appearance and security of the site.
- August 2008
- The Council steps in and makes repairs to replace tiles, unblock gutters, and install joists to support a structural beam. By this time, the building has stood roofless and exposed to the elements for five months, prompting the Council to seek ways to waterproof it. However, a protective roof tent fails to materialise.
- Online petition at www.gopetition.com starts.
- Online petition attracts over 100 signatures asking for the theatre to be restored as a traditional theatre under public ownership.
- Neighbouring property owners complain about the state of the Derby Hippodrome, claiming its dilapidated state attracts vermin and is an eyesore. They call for it to be demolished.
- In mid-October, the Council meets with Mr. Anthony and they agree to work together to bring the building back into some sort of use and discuss tight timescales to achieve new plans.
- Derby New Theatre Association, representing amateur theatre groups, releases an artist’s impression of the Derby Hippodrome if it was restored. The Association had submitted a planning application prior to March 2008 to restore and reopen the building as a theatre, but did not have sufficient funds to carry out the redevelopment.
- Another fire breaks out on 22 January, firefighters once again suspect arson as reported on This is Derbyshire (Derby Telegraph).
- Derby City Council reveal that it withdrew an enforcement notice requiring the owner to make repairs because it was preventing him from obtaining funds to make an appropriate planning submission.
- It is revealed that the owner had planned to redevelop the site into a 346-space car park, retaining two of the theatre walls, fronting Green Lane and Macklin Street. The redevelopment would include shops on the ground floor, some offices, and six bedsits.
- Derby City Council take legal action against Mr. Anthony and contractor Wayne Watson over unauthorised work on a listed building.
- Spokespeople for Mr. Anthony state that he will plead no guilty to criminal charges.
- Mr. Anthony fails to appear in court on 27 March, his solicitors claiming that they had not had time to go through the papers. Mr. Watson appears in court, but did not enter a plea.
- A year has passed since the devastating intervention of Mr. Anthony and his contractor’s invasive machinery. The state of the building has not improved.
- Derby Hippodrome Restoration Fund, established in July 2009, issues a press release announcing its goal to restore the theatre. Restoration costs are estimated to be around £15 million.
No further reports appear in the news regarding the court action against the owner and the contractor. It is certainly up to the courts to examine the evidence and determine whether there was any wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Anthony and his contractor. Although such decision would refer to the specific charge made by Derby City Council – that the owner and contractor carried out unauthorised work on a listed building. Beyond that charge, I would question the owner’s motivations and objectives for the building and whether those are aligned with the wishes of the community. On the face of it, keeping the theatre façade and building a car-park on the site does nothing to remind the present and future community of the theatre’s history. The building is grade II listed meaning the exterior must be retained, with no attention paid to protecting the interior. So, perhaps it is Derby City Council with whom the community should have issue, for failing to sufficiently protect the building through local listings or other means of historical protection. A car park does not contribute towards building and promoting community spirit and interaction. It is another faceless, passionless structure. It does not share, it does not provide any sort of education, enlightenment, or entertainment as theatre or other arts-based or culture-based activities could yield. But there is a value debate these days, where resources are scarce and limited. If the community does want the building restored and used as a theatre, will there be enough patronage? Not only does the restoration need to be funded, but so do ongoing productions and activities. I wonder whether there is enough demand, local or otherwise, to finance the existence of a theatre in Derby. Could it ever be self-funding or would it rely on Arts Council and other philanthropic support? The Hackney Empire Theatre in London underwent an extensive renovation, restoration, and extension from 2001 to 2004 at a cost of £15 million. It has a full and varied programme catering to the local community, but recently announced that, due to financial difficulties, it will close for at least nine months in January 2010. In future posts, I will examine and critique theatre restoration, alternative uses, and other projects – both successful and failed and discuss what the future could hold for these glorious buildings of our past.