Here at the Belgrade Theatre, it’s not uncommon for us to delve into our archives and to unearth interesting stories from our history, but recently, we were thrilled to be get an alternative view on our past from one of our Arts Gym participants, Gill Yardley.

With Friday 27 March having marked our 62nd birthday, it’s been great to hear from someone with clear memories of the opening of the Belgrade. We hope you enjoy reading her stories and those she’s gathered from other people as much as we did!

I was thirteen when the Belgrade Theatre opened in 1958. Until then we had only had the Coventry Theatre, formerly the Hippodrome. We mostly went there for the pantomime, courtesy of Coventry Transport at Christmas, because Dad was a bus driver for many years.

Luckily my school, Whitemoor, was a good one for the arts, so we were encouraged to go to the new theatre. Our music and drama teacher Mrs Piff was proud of her son Charles Kay being an actor who had performed at the Belgrade Theatre. I loved her lessons, she was fun and talented and I never forgot her. She also had lovely handwriting.

My biggest worry was that I would not be able to go as often as I wanted to due to family finances. Julius Caesar was very memorable in 1959 – it was a school trip. I was surprised to find, all these years later, that Michael Crawford was in the cast. It must have been one of his first roles. This play gave me a lifelong love of everything about the theatre, which has taken a lot of my money – well-spent – over my lifetime.

The Belgrade is now, surprisingly, a Grade II listed building, and very much part of Coventry’s City Centre. It was the first civic theatre to be built in Britain after the Second World War, and joined the new Coventry Cathedral in providing optimism and culture in the rebuilding of the city after the devastation of the Blitz in 1940 had destroyed the town centre.

The Belgrade Theatre was officially opened by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina on Thursday 27 March 1958. The first performance was Half In Earnest, a musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, written by Vivian Ellis. Pearl Hyde was Lord Mayor at the time – she had a passion for the arts and culture. The idea of having a brand new theatre received her full backing. It had been planned since 1946, and due to her influence, Coventry Council gave £6,000 per year, matched by the Arts Council.

In the brochure The Belgrade Theatre – a Civic Amenity it states:

Old Age Pensioners: As a gesture to the old people of Coventry they may attend the Thursday Matinee performance at 1 shilling each.

The Refreshment Lounge: This offers patrons Morning Coffee and Matinee Teas on Thursdays and Saturdays. Each evening, full restaurant facilities are available. After-theatre suppers must be booked in advance. Theatre bookstall is on the ground floor offering a wide selection of books on the arts.

Certainly the amenities have been trimmed down today!

John Gibbs – Carpenter and Electrician

The curtain went up for John Gibbs at the Belgrade Theatre in 1958-59. He was a carpenter and made the scenery in the space that is now B2, going on to be an electrician, spending two happy years there before moving on to the Coventry Theatre – for more money. He says he was sometimes used as an extra and recalls in Julius Caesar having to walk across the stage at the back with a board on his head, being a Centurion.

It was anything to save money, he points out. John recalls meeting Frank Finlay, Rosemary Leach, and Trevor Nunn, who began his own career at the Belgrade. After 18 months of working there, John’s name was added to the credits in the programmes. The hours were long and John could be there late into the night and then back the next morning early too. He worked on Pygmalion, Chicken Soup with Barley and Thark – to name a few.

Elizabeth Copeland – Wardrobe and Props

Elizabeth Copeland confirmed the long hours worked. She began in the wardrobe department at Red Lane in 1975 and left in 1983 to train to be a teacher. She progressed to work with the props and also painted some of the scenery. The official hours were 9am until 6pm. However, people just stayed until the job was done. This was very difficult with a young family. Most of the workers were totally dedicated to getting the play or show on. They carried on working long into the night.

Elizabeth explained that for each production, the stage floor had to be painted and it could only be done in the early hours of the morning, often beginning at 2 or 3am. Apparently, the first night parties were legendary and nearly everyone was affected by the many drinks on offer!

A nice little memory of Elizabeth’s was of her mother visiting to go out for lunch, when Richard Todd opened the stage door for her, making her day. Such an English gentleman, and a special, never-to-be forgotten moment for her mum! Elizabeth was called into dressing the stars very occasionally and was in the wings for quick changes between acts. She also recalled how one carpenter was enthralled by Alison Steadman’s part in Nuts in May, and asked her when she came to appear in another play to sign a photo in her character’s name. This she graciously did. More of Alison later.

The Belgrade was named after the gift of timber to build the interior came from the Serbian capital, Coventry’s official sister city, which was used in the building of the auditorium. The Main Stage auditorium holds 852 people, while the more recent, flexible theatre space B2 holds 250-300 people. The Belgrade is one of the largest regional producing theatres in Britain.

Christina Ivens – Head Housekeeper

Christina Ivens, the head housekeeper, was happy to talk to me about her thirty years working there and her love of the Belgrade shows. It is a great place to work, and there are very few staff changes due to this. For ladies, the extra toilets added during the refurbishment of 2007, was a gift, as for us women queuing, it was ever thus. However, for the valiant band of eight cleaners, it is a trial!

One highlight of her career was the visit of Prince Edward to open the revamped theatre. The stairwells had been cordoned off and she wanted to escape without being seen. No fear of that – she ended up hiding behind a glass showcase that had taken four days to polish! Seeing the royal fingers touching her handiwork, Chris told him from her hiding place, how long it had taken to clean, and that she had used baby oil in the final flourish. They had a good laugh about it and HRH was happy to have his photo taken with the woman who had taken him to task.

Chris told me it is ‘interesting’ working when animals are needed for performances. For Willy Russell’s Our Day Out, she recalls a note on the door of Dressing Room 6 that said, “Don’t hoover in here, you will upset the snake.” Well, there was no fear of that, as the notice quite upset the cleaner!

On another occasion, Peggy, one of the cleaning team, was playing with and stroking a toy tarantula belonging to a pop band playing there at the time, but suddenly realised it was real when it moved one of its furry legs. I should think she has been having nightmares ever since! Another time, there was a full complement of farmyard animals with real smells and ‘evacuations’ in the small car park at the back of the theatre. No amount of air freshener would mask it. Authentic to the last, just as we like it.

When Gloria Hunniford was performing there, Chris asked her whether she had ever covered Morocco on a holiday programme as she was interested in going there. The next time it was broadcast, Morocco was featured, with Gloria telling viewers this had been requested by a member of staff at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.

Chris also told me that they had a good laugh when a play called Marriage used life-size dummies round a table on the set. Whilst cleaning the green room, she and her colleagues were surprised and amused to see the same dummy ‘guests’ all sat round looking like real people.

It was explained that the deep spring clean has to happen when the theatre is ‘dark’ which means no shows are on, usually late July or August. I had not realised there was an exhibition space on the third floor that the public can visit, giving some history, with showcases.

The wooden dove was pointed out to me and its significance explained. Designed and carved by Walter Ritchie, it was bought by Arthur Ling on behalf of the City, for the Belgrade Theatre. It is displayed on the wall by the Burbidge Room (the former restaurant) on the first floor by the stairs. The dove with a silver leaf in its mouth was carved directly from a single block of wood. It cost £100. This dove of peace is a symbol of reconciliation after the destruction of the city in the 1940s. It is made of lime wood and has a 75cm wingspan.

For many years it was kept in the cleaner’s cupboard. I was intrigued to learn that Walter Ritchie was a Coventry man, the last apprentice of Eric Gill, and the man who designed Man’s Struggle which for years was in the Upper Precinct and then outside the Herbert Art Gallery.

I envied Chris meeting so many stars. She was disappointed however, not to have met her heartthrob Edward Woodward, as he was busy when she went to see him. This was shortly before he died. She tells me that Roger Lloyd Pack was a delightful character and she has a great fondness for the Belgrade’s regular Dame, Iain Lauchlan and his former pantomime co-star Andy Hockley.

With a start time of 6.30am in the morning, Chris is invaluable in leading her team to keep the Belgrade spick and span, as it always is. One of my own memories is of going to see a play when I was only 15 with an older boyfriend, who had splashed out for the middle box, the one the Mayor sits in. He had bought me chocolates too, Milk Tray, with rattly paper, and every time I tried to open it, everyone – I thought – looked up at me.

If he saw it as the way to my heart, he was wrong; I never went out with him again. I was not mature enough to appreciate either, seeing the coming and goings down the wings or the audience looking up at me.

Russell Berry – Stage Door Man

Russell Berry worked part time at the Belgrade from 2001 to 2003; these are his own words about that time in his life.

“I began with Chris’s cleaning team, later working as a stage door keeper alongside Brian Jones, a gently spoken Welshman, occasional Santa and Punch and Judy man and Peter James, a serious jazz aficionado. It was easy to detect which of them had worked the late shift the night before by sniffing. Pipe tobacco meant Brian, cigar smoke meant Pete. My own preference was for Golden Virginia roll-ups, though I’m happy to report that I, like the theatre itself also I am now smoke-free!

“I am a great admirer of Mike Leigh’s films, so it was a thrill to meet Alison Steadman, who played the original Beverley in Abigail’s Party. In 2001, she was starring in a production of Entertaining Mr Sloane and was only too happy to chat and let me have a signed photograph for a girl I knew who was a big fan. I wonder if you still have it, Toni?

“I recall chatting to one of the young leads in the original run of Three Minute Heroes, when he told me he really had the 2-tone bug and could not stop listening to The Specials and Selecter records. I know what he means. The Specials vocalist Terry Hall used to live down the road from my grandparents in Swan Lane and I remember as an eleven year old the buzz around the city as 2-Tone broke through.

“Anita Harris was every bit as charming as you might expect, as was the comedy legend Eric Sykes, who wore two hearing aids and a constant smile. David Soul was probably the biggest star I met, incredibly laid back and approachable, as only Americans can be.

“Having seen many memorable performances at the Belgrade, one sticks out for me because of its poignancy. Linda Nolan sang her heart out in Blood Brothers, and really cried at the end. We later learned that she had been told she had breast cancer, so her tears were real. As they say, the show must go on.”

Acknowledgements

Thank you to:
Christina Ivens, head housekeeper at the Belgrade Theatre
John Gibbs, former carpenter and electrician
Russell Berry, former stage door man
Elizabeth Copeland, former wardrobe/props/scenery worker.

Bibliography

Belgrade History – Belgrade Theatre Website
Belgrade Theatre – A Civic Amenity
Coventry History Centre
Wikipedia ref: Walter Ritchie

The Belgrade Theatre Trust is a registered charity (number 219163) and at this financially challenging time we are more reliant than ever on the generous support of our funders and donors. If you would like to help support the Belgrade while the building remains closed to the public, you can donate to us online here.