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The show must go on . . .

PUBLISHED: 10:35 28 April 2015 | UPDATED: 10:35 28 April 2015

Beccles Public Hall showing the new colour scheme and exterior repairs.

Beccles Public Hall showing the new colour scheme and exterior repairs.

Stuart Sneddon (AnglianArt)

David Green visits Beccles to see how efforts are going to save the town's Public Hall

The ancient Suffolk town of Beccles has a proud history, not least of all in terms of showbusiness.

One of East Anglia’s ‘Fisher’ theatres – a network created by David Fisher and his family – was built there in 1814, only to be ‘lost’ later in the century.

But this building, the remains of which now form part of Lloyds Bank, had been preceded by another entertainment venue, one which survives today thanks to the gargantuan efforts of volunteers.

Beccles Public Hall was built in the 1780s by a £25 a head subscription from a group of local ‘gentlemen’ who held meetings there and organised various entertainments for the townspeople.

Shows continued throughout the 19th century, but in 1903 a stage, complete with a beautiful proscenium arch, was provided and the auditorium began to look like a conventional theatre. It eventually passed into the hands of the borough council and, as a result of local government reorganisation in 1974, to Waveney District Council.

But over recent decades, following the failure of efforts to make the venue viable, the building became dilapidated. The roof was leaking, timbers were rotten and the walls were unstable.

Butterfly plants were growing out of the crumbling masonry, gutters were blocked and the heating system antiquated and inefficient.

Local residents, already glowing in the success of saving the town’s outdoor swimming pool, The Lido, faced the prospect of the Public Hall being sold to a developer and, following prompting by local Green county councillor Graham Elliott, they gave their response: “no way!”

Two years on, following the transfer of the building to the community for a token £1, a huge fundraising effort has resulted in a highly successful repair and restoration project.

About £150,000 has already been raised, mainly through grants, to pay for ongoing work and applications are currently being made for grants to help create an expanded box office and foyer area.

Entertainment – from live performances of drama, music and comedy to tea dances and film showings – take place every week and the Public Hall has once more become the cultural centre of Beccles.

Its success story is down to many people, but in the vanguard have been Sue Bergin and Terry Dentith.

This duo, together with fellow director John Cushing, and volunteers such as John Gallagher, the theatre’s technical supremo, have been responsible for spearheading a project which has widespread community backing.

Sue, who moved to Beccles from Somerset ten years ago to open an ‘eco’ bed and breakfast business with her husband, Graham, was looking for a new challenge when the fate of the Public Hall was being debated, and she volunteered to become a director and, subsequently, the theatre’s events co-ordinator.

“When my brother died five years ago at the age of 53, Graham and I re-thought our future – life’s too short – and that’s when I decided to get more involved with community projects.

“There would have been a huge public outcry if the town had lost the hall. I love community projects and I love it when the community gets really involved.”

Terry, a former Suffolk Education Authority schools adviser who had retired in 2010, also took on the challenge of becoming a director – to oversee grant applications and to guide the repair and restoration project.

He said: “The foundations of two older buildings were found under the Public Hall during excavations, but we don’t know what they were.

“The hall has had various uses over the years – some of the early motor cars were displayed in it and during the First World War it was a respite centre.”

There are currently 56 people on the volunteers list – people who give up their time to staff the box office and bar and undertake numerous other jobs necessary to keep the building maintained and active.

Five thousand programmes are printed and distributed each quarter and a further 600 people are on the theatre’s email list.

Famous faces have already graced the Public Hall stage in the past two years, including Toyah Wilcox, Arthur Smith and comedian Roy Hudd, one of the theatre’s patrons.

One of the most memorable performances soon after the theatre’s re-opening was given by 89-year-old Ronnie Ronalde, who had achieved international fame in the 1940s and 50s for his music hall act involving whistling, yodelling and bird song imitations.

At the time he performed at Beccles he was living a few miles away at Kessingland but was passionate in his support for efforts to save the theatre. Sadly he died about a year later at a retired entertainers’ home in Twickenham.

For more information about Beccles Public Hall and its entertainment programme visit

www.becclespublichall.org.uk

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