The Lyric Theatre is a very special old building. Built as an Independent Chapel in 1746, it has been a Temperance Hall, the Liberal Hall and was the original Electric Palace Cinema. It was listed in 1950 and was used as the Bernard Gale School of Dancing for many years. From ballet to salsa and pantomimes galore, Bernard taught hundreds of pupils in his time here until 2002 when he passed away leaving a great legacy of dance in the town.
The building was left empty for 4 years until Niki bought it in September 2010, saving the building from property developers whose intention was to turn it into flats. Upstairs now houses an artist’s studio, our office space, and a space for creating puppets and costumes for productions. Downstairs is our kitchen, café/bar, toilets and beautiful, flock wallpapered auditorium complete with proscenium-arch stage, a very old grand piano and removable dance floor for classes.
The Lyric is interested in working with artists who create devised theatre and in puppetry, physical theatre, visual performance, circus and innovative children’s theatre. Since opening we have been able to provide research and development space for artists, premieres of new work, visiting international companies, showings of work in progress, mentoring and rehearsal space. The Lyric is a completely unfunded organisation!
There is a vibrant artistic community in the town and the Lyric has built a reputation as a space that encourages and presents innovative and experimental work. Our audiences enjoy taking a risk on seeing something new and supporting work that is in the process of being created. We have also built strong support for work for children, particularly using puppetry.
With many thanks to Kate Scott, writer-in-residence at The Lyric,
who generously researched and wrote this, and Teresa Grinter for the photos
The Lyric Theatre has performed many roles over the last three centuries, proving it possesses as much of a talent for reinvention as the actors and artists who now work here.
The building began its life as a Chapel in 1746. Between the eighteenth and late nineteenth century it underwent four transformations, becoming a Temperance Hall, a school, the Liberal Hall (the memorial plaque can still be seen on the front of the building) and The Old Artillery Hall.
In the early twentieth the building edged closer to its present-day identity when it became The Electric Palace Cinema in 1912. The proprietor was Mr C. Sheppard, whose son, Sydney, later took over the management of the cinema.
In the 1920s a fire broke out in the cinema because of nitrate film stored near the gas engine. The operator, Billy Ryan, only narrowly escaped. Sadly, more details of the dramatic event have proved impossible to uncover…
The Electric Palace operated successfully until 1926 when a new cinema, also known as The Electric Palace, was opened in South Street by the brewery proprietor J. C. Palmer and Sydney Sheppard was persuaded to close the original cinema on the basis that the town would not be able to support both businesses. But in 1934 the building reopened as a cinema, this time named The Lyric. The Lyric was given a Grade II listing in 1950.
The Lyric Cinema closed permanently in 1962 and soon after became the venue for the Liberal campaign offices. By the mid-1960s the building was hosting dances on a regular basis with one of the people who attended remembering:
‘The Lyric used to show good films but it was known for its fleas! In the autumn of 1964 it was used as the Liberal campaign offices but I remember it mostly as a venue for jives in the mid-1960s. I particularly remember going to one on the day J. F. Kennedy was assassinated (22 November 1963) and none of us feeling very cheerful about the world.’
Mary Berg (neé Heads)
In the late 1960s The Lyric was home to a strip club called the Conchord Club. A newspaper article written by one of the club’s organisers tells us:
‘The club ran for five years. The first two years it was in an upstairs room with fruit machines and a midnight blue ceiling and a bar. After a couple of years it became so popular that we moved to the larger room downstairs. There was a sloping floor that had been put in for the cinema, when it was taken out we discovered parquet flooring that is the present dance floor. In those days it was the only venue in Bridport that had strippers. Another act that performed there was Adge Cutler and the Wurzels. You would think that the Tiger, the pub opposite, would be in competition with us but we used to work together. On a weekend there would be 200 people visiting the Conchord Club and in the interval or after the performance they would go over to the Tiger. The club got closed down in the end as some underage drinkers were getting in.’
A poster from the period lists the acts for one of its evenings: the comedian Peter O’Farrell, a ‘Torch and Fire Dancing Act’ called ‘Corrienne’ (billed as ‘too hot to handle’), ‘the excotic [sic] Amber Lee from London Night Club Tantalising Tease’ and folk music from Alan Briars. A past patron said that newspapers were stuffed into the large windows to block out the light and noise and that it was occasionally raided!
In 1971 the building was bought and became the Bernard Gale School of Dancing. It was to operate as a dancing school for over thirty years. In 1998 some of the teachers and students were involved in an episode of the television show Harbour Lights which starred Nick Berry and was filmed in and around Bridport.
Past students have happy memories of their time at the school.
‘…in the summer as you walked past you could hear the tap classes as the windows would be open.’ Emily Walker, student at the Bernard Gale School of Dancing in the 1980s and 1990s
‘When we went in through the large front door there was a door to the left leading to a room which was an Aladdin’s cave of brightly coloured costumes, completed, half done sequins everywhere! This is where Joy (Rodber) worked her magic for every pantomime and show we performed in. The room always had a distinctive smell, musty with a hint of old cigarette smoke.’
Emily Walker, student at the Bernard Gale School of Dancing in the 1980s and 1990s
The School was also home to the Bridport Pantomime Players which staged forty years of successful productions there beginning with Dick Whittington in 1966.
Bernard Gale died in 2002 and in 2006 the School of Dancing finally closed. For a few years the future of the building again looked uncertain as developers seemed set to close in and turn the much-loved venue into flats. Rescue came in the form of Niki McCretton who bought The Lyric in 2010 and saved the building from unwanted development.
In 2011 the building reopened as The Lyric Theatre – an artist venue and home to the Stuff and Nonsense Theatre Company.
Upstairs there is an artist’s studio and space for creating puppets and costumes while downstairs houses a café/bar and the theatre itself. The building still bears evidence of its many previous incarnations – from the wooden floors and cabinets to the flock wallpaper in the theatre itself. Fundraising efforts have led to some of the beautiful and vast windows being replaced and more conservation work will be carried out as funds allow.
Since its opening, the Lyric has hosted a myriad of shows – from circus and cabaret acts, to puppet shows and community projects. The Lyric welcomes artists and acts from every genre and background and provides an inspiring and open-minded space for art practitioners of every kind to experiment and explore as they develop new work.