Geoff and Linda know everything there is to know about The Grand from the building, the stars and Frank Matcham
Of all the double acts to tread the 121 year old boards of Blackpool Grand Theatre Geoff and Linda Tolson are probably the least likely to see their name up in lights.
People feel very connected with the Grand – they bring plenty of memories
Not for them a hit song or a risqué gag yet they’ve entertained thousands of people with their passion for the architect Frank Matcham’s masterpiece which so easily could have ended its days as a Littlewoods store or (another) a car park.
Their love affair with the architectural gem sees a timeline traced from childhood visits to the theatre, to appearing on its stage in amateur drama productions, through to campaigning with others to thwart demolition plans and onwards to their role as archivists and guides to ensure the Grand has a safe future.
Linda was born in Blackpool, Geoff “up the coast” in Cleveleys.
“Blackpool was my playground on the doorstep,” says Geoff. Both were born in 1939 (“Mother always said I was responsible for the war,” he quips), they’ve been married 43 years and live in the house Linda was born in.
“Blackpool was a wonderful place to grow up,” says Linda. “Looking back to the ‘golden years’ and how very busy it was in the summer and all the stars that came perhaps we didn’t appreciate how extraordinary it was.”
“The stars were around everywhere,” adds Geoff. “You’d meet them in the street and at garden parties. I remember the Beverley Sisters on Market Street just walking along. I don’t know where they were going but all three were together all dressed identically, just walking with everybody around them.”
“If you set about going to the shows you could do one a week and it would last all summer - then in the winter months the Sunday concerts got all the really big names.”
So was showbusiness in their blood?
“Going to the Grand was just what you did,” says Linda. “You went a lot and if it was your birthday you sat in a better seat perhaps. If it was a really special occasion you’d go and have your supper in the Lobster Pot afterwards.”
“I had a box at the Grand on my 21st birthday,” says Geoff. “The extraordinary thing is that we both did that, we didn’t know each other because we were at opposite ends of the coast, but we both went on our 21st.”
“I think youngsters have lost the tradition of theatre going and it’s one of the theatre’s biggest challenges to get them back,” says Linda. “Because there’s nothing as exciting as a live performance - it has this risk element that young people would enjoy and the fact that no two performances are ever the same.”
“But theatre as a genre has just moved,” admits Geoff. “Most of the big musicals are in London and London is mainly a musical theatre town now but they rely so heavily on gimmicks, over and above the words and the characters of the people in it.”
“It’s all technology driven, perhaps because of television,” says Linda. “The Grand was built as a lyric theatre, it’s a great playhouse and certainly in my years of growing up it was plays we went to, week in week out, the same two seats on the same night, you’d know who was sitting in front, next to you, behind you, there was that tradition of theatre going but it was more often than not a play you went to see.”
Not surprisingly they met through their shared love of theatre.
“We were both involved in amateur theatre,” says Linda. “Geoff at the north end me at the south end, and we even saw each other as performers before we ever met face to face.”
They even both played the Grand in the Green Room Players – though not at the same time. That came later as members of the Anonymous Players.
“If we’d coincided with the Green Room Players we’d have probably married 10 years earlier!” says Linda, who at one time was the youngest head teacher in Lancashire.
“I was Moor Park in Bispham – I started there in 1967 and left in 1999 - I just never moved on,” she says modestly.
Geoff’s family had a jewellers shop in Cleveleys.
“But you’re really a horologist aren’t you?” she adds defensively (Horology is the art and science of time measurement, and the study of clocks and watches, both mechanical and electronic)
“The shop itself was a jewellers,” he says. “It’s an all-encompassing label.”
Do they miss their former lives?
“I think doing what we do at the theatre has been a wonderful thing,” she says. “It’s developed the interest we always had and since we retired we’ve been able to develop it into a much broader role than before - and it’s still to do with meeting people which we both did in our working lives.”
Linda’s father actually started the archives in 1981 when he was asked to collect some autographs and press cuttings for the royal show attended by Prince Charles.
“We had some programmes and posters from the early days but it developed from that,” says Geoff. “We were both asked in early days to do talks about the Grand. Inevitably you would get to the place with slides on a carousel, half would end up on floor and be back to front or upside down but that’s what kicked us off – before Grand was bought.”
Linda did her first talk in 1979 when supporters were trying to raise the money to purchase the theatre.
“A lot of people hadn’t been in it at all so didn’t know why we were telling them it was so beautiful,” she says. “Other couldn’t remember what was so still so special about it. We were selling the theatre - to keep it standing.”
From those acorns things took off. In October alone there are two tours booked, six talks and “one or two” displays. A talk is already arranged for November next year.
“It’s quite diverse and has taken on a life of its own,” says Linda. “It’s not just looking back, we think you should look forward too but people are fascinated to hear about the people involved.”
There are now four different talks covering the building, the stars, Frank Matcham and just what is involved in putting a show on.
The most asked questions?
“Why don’t we get certain things that are on in other places and why don’t we get certain stars,” she says. “But people do feel very connected with the Grand – they raise interesting points and bring plenty of memories.”
Having housed most of the paper archives in their home for some time, they are now in the process of moving everything to Blackpool Central Library where it can be computerised.
“Storing what it was, when it opened, when it closed, who was in it, who wrote it,” says Geoff. “It’s a huge job, we did four in one night last week!”
They still keep duplicates of as much as possible and admit that their interest verges on obsession.
“Things develop,” says Linda proudly displaying a school take home pack. “We can tailor a talk for them, every teacher gets one with links to the curriculum and work for them when they get back to school.”
They have recently trained four Heritage Guide helpers to keep up with demand.
“We are passing the knowledge on – a case of working towards the future,” says Linda.
Have they ever considered living anywhere else?
“No,” they both say. “Our hearts and lives are here, we are fiercely loyal to Blackpool. It has its bad areas but everywhere does. Blackpool has an awful lot going for it.”
And it’s not all about the Grand.
“I do believe that Blackpool is on the way up,” says Linda “I think this whole notion of the heritage museum is exciting although I’m not sure that ‘museum’ is the word we should be looking for - but I think it’s good to celebrate Blackpool’s heritage. People are astonished when you say it’s the first town in the world to have electric street lighting or the first tramway, or the first working class resort.
“At least people are willing to accept that Blackpool does have heritage. It’s not that old but it has got one and it is interesting, all those stories about boarding houses and bringing your own egg, I find it fascinating.”
So is it time to put the pride back into Blackpool?
“We are always proud to show people round,” says Geoff. “I’m pleased the town owns the Winter Gardens and the Tower. I think the work that’s gone on in the Winter Gardens is great, it has revealed so many hidden treasures.
“It was built for all weathers but how do you get the public to go in when there’s not something else on? Will the public actually go across the “threshold barrier? It’s the same at the Grand – especially if there’s something else on.”
“It’s like St Johns Square,” says Linda. “The idea was great but how often is it used? There should be somebody marketing that space and making sure something is happening there at least every weekend.”
Adds Geoff: “It’s as if they’ve signed off a planning programme then forgotten about it. The Headlands is the same – the volleyball was brilliant, great fun, but we all knew what would and wouldn’t work there. As a performance space wouldn’t Stanley Park have been better?
“There’s so much potential yet to be realised in Blackpool. It’s not just that narrow strip on the front.”
Having admitted “When I was a girl my mother wouldn’t have taken me along the Golden Mile, it was considered tatty even then” if they didn’t live in Blackpool would they still come here?
“We’d come to the theatre,” they say together.
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