Tucked away amongst The Lanes, our city’s lost treasure slowly crumbles. Abandoned since 2006, after four decades of anonymity as a bingo hall, Brighton Hippodrome remains a building of national importance searching for identity. The subject of wrangling between developers, pressure groups and the council, this Middle Street venue has always endured a mercurial existence. Built in 1897, this Grade II* listed venue was designed as an ice rink, being converted a few years later to a circus. Only a year later and it was remodelled as a variety theatre by Frank Matcham, an architect responsible for many other iconic theatres, including Hackney Empire, London Palladium and Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
The following 43 years would see the building host the superstars of the day. Houdini, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Gracie Fields, Max Miller, Olivier (who fell over making his début entrance) and Tony Hancock all graced the stage of this fabulous auditorium. It was recognised as the most important on the Sussex coast. After WWII, the building was adapted for concerts, squeezing in 4,000 fans for shows with Roy Orbison, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Sammy Davis Jr.
In 1967, following a brief incarnation as a film studio, the Hippodrome was bought by the Rank Organisation and converted into what was possibly the UK’s most lavishly decorated bingo hall. After its closure in 2006, Academy Music Group (AMG) then acquired a 30-year lease for the building, intending to revert it into a music venue.
“What Brighton doesn’t have is a receiving theatre capable of housing the large-scale touring shows,” says Paul Zenon, trustee for Our Brighton Hippodrome and co-founder of Save Our Hippodrome. “The Theatre Royal is too small and the Dome is a concert platform, not a theatre, so doesn’t have the necessary facilities.” With care and attention, the renovated building would be nationally unique in its suitability for any type of performance, like large-scale musical theatre productions, operas and concerts.
The building is at the top of The Theatres Trust’s ‘Theatre Buildings at Risk’ register and high on Historic England’s ‘Heritage at Risk’ register. Inside Brighton Hippodrome, it’s easy to see what makes it special. Elaborate moulded plasterwork, showing dolphins and female figures, arches over the horseshoe shaped stage. This Rococo-style decoration continues to the panelled ceiling, from which a large lantern hangs. Looming over the auditorium is an intricately patterned dome, with Indo-Saracenic-style onion domes adorning the top of the stage boxes, themes echoed by the nearby Royal Pavilion.
English Heritage and The Theatres Trust demand that any deviation from the building’s use as a theatre must be reversible, in order to preserve its unique architectural and historical quality. A recent and unsuccessful proposal attempted to squeeze eight cinema screens and three restaurants onto the site. The potential alterations involved stripping the building of its finest assets. Highlighted by the Save Our Hippodrome campaign, these plans were met with a wave of public opposition.
Recently AMG‘s attempts to secure a late license, a critical part of their vision to present live music and comedy in the venue, proved unsuccessful. To presumably negate their enormous leasing costs, said to be around £300K per year, they have recently purchased the freehold on the property, declaring a six-month window for new lease applications to be made.
The Theatres Trust, AMG, Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC), Historic England, Our Brighton Hippodrome, Brighton Hippodrome CIC (a private company set up independently by several self-appointed members from OBH’s ‘Business Group’ ) and The Frank Matcham Society are now reportedly working together on a viability study, to identify a suitable use for the building. “This is a very positive initiative,” said BHCC Leader, Warren Morgan. “We are keen to see a use that complements our ambitions for the economic development of this area of the city centre.”
However, subsequent to these events, a petition with over 5,000 signatures remains un-presented to the council, meaning amassed concerns over the building’s preservation have not entered public record. The Brighton & Hove City Plan, effective until 2030, labels the Hippodrome as a part of the city’s ‘existing cultural infrastructure’ which should be ‘protected and enhanced… to contribute to the city’s unique tourism offer’.
BHCC also have a duty of care to enforce the preservation of the building’s interior, due to its listed status. “The council, as the local planning authority, is in dialogue with Live Nation (AMG’s main shareholders) regarding necessary works to keep the building weather-tight and secure, until a long term solution for its re-use is in place,” said a BHCC spokesperson. They also stated that an inspection has been carried out, and are satisfied to the building’s condition. There remains little evidence of work to preserve the priceless decorative elements themselves though. “I personally spoke to a senior figure from Live Nation recently,” says Zenon, “who told me that it is in a very poor state compared to when they first acquired the lease.”
The future for the theatre is far from certain. Even if an interested party successfully takes on its lease, the obstacles of acquiring both a suitable license and the finance needed to maintain the property remain formidable obstacles. The longer the building is neglected, the more expensive its preservation becomes. Similar situations around the country have seen buildings crumble beyond repair, lose their listed status and endure conversion to unsympathetic uses. Although many parts of Brighton Hippodrome’s priceless interior are salvageable, six months is not a long time to implement a viable plan or to secure the considerable funding necessary to purchase the venue. So unless public pressure continues and all interested parties seek a resolution together, it is still possible our treasure could be lost for good.