Brixham Theatre History

The building

Situated in the heart of historic Brixham, the current Town Hall building was constructed on the site of a former naval reservoir, from which pipes would have led down to the Kings Quay in the Harbour and were used for watering naval ships.  The building always leaned to the right, because of subsidence into the mud.

The building was always called Brixham Town Hall and was designed by George Bridgman, the same local architect who designed the Palace Theatre, Paignton,  It was officially opened on 1st October 1886, with a build cost of £3,000.

On the ground floor, the current Function Room used to be the Magistrate's Court, and where Brixham Does Care offices and shop are was the entrance to the original Pannier Market, with the old entrance now restored and updated. The Scala Hall started life asthe town's Fish Market and a Pannier Market and became a silent cinema, until 1934.

On the first floor, over the Magistrate’s Court, were the offices for the Harbour Commissioners.  Above the Pannier Market and Scala Hall was a large upper hall, for use as a Drill Hall.  It later was used for public meetings, concerts and theatre gang shows, as well as the local amateur drama group’s performances. Nowadays it is Brixham Theatre.

There used to be stackable canvas chairs, with iron frames, which were removed to hold dances and for use as a hall.  Extra pillars had to be added in the Scala Hall below to strengthen the floor to take the dances. Originally the Theatre was said to seat 800!

Brixham Operatic and Amateur Dramatic Society

BOADS (Brixham Operatic and Amateur Dramatic Society) started using the theatre in the 1920's and staged 'Pearl, the Fisher Maiden' as their first show in 1922.  Plays and musicals, and later pantos, were added to the repertoire from the 1980s.

Renowned poet and novelist, Malcom Lowry, visited Brixham Theatre in the summer of 1933 to see a production, ‘The Belle of New York’ performed by BOADS.  A musical comedy in two acts, with book and lyrics by Hugh Morton and music by Gustave Kerker, ‘The Belle of New York ‘was about a Salvation Army girl who reforms a spendthrift, makes a great sacrifice and finds true love.

In a letter to Jan Gabrial in August 1933, written at the Vernon Court Hotel, Torquay, Lowry tells Jan that he went to see a "dilapidated musical comedy called ‘The Belle of New York’ just so as I could think about the title”.

This occurred just before his rejection of Europe for the New World, beginning with his voyage to New York in 1934, aboard the R.M.S.Aquitania. His most famed work was ‘ Under the Volcano’, written in 1947.

In 1953, BOADS member Peter Bond was a choirboy, and remembers singing at Parish Suppers in the Theatre.

BOADS still continue using the Theatre to stage a musical show in October, a pantomime in February and a play in May.

John Slater

British character actor, John Slater (22 August 1916 - 9 January 1975) was usually seen playing lugubrious, amiable cockney types. His father was an antiques dealer. After attending St. Clement Danes School, Slater began acting in Farce at the "Whitehall Theatre".  He first appeared on film in 1938, remaining active in the industry up until his early death.

He was a familiar face in British films of the 1940s and appeared in many classic films of the period, including "Went the Day Well?”, "We Dive at Dawn”, "A Canterbury Tale", "The Seventh Veil", “It Always Rains on Sunday" and "Passport to Pimlico"

In 1956, Roger Slater appeared with his father John, in the film “The Devil’s Pass”, in Brixham, about an attempt to wreck a trawler, for the insurance money. It was the first film ever shown in the Theatre.

John Slater also appeared in the notorious 1958 stage production of “The Birthday Party “ by Harold Pinter as Nat Goldberg.

He was known on television for his presenter role opposite popular children's puppets "Pinky and Perky" during the 1960s, as a story-teller on Jackanory and as Det. Sgt. Stone in Z Cars from 1967 to 1974.

John Slater sustained life-threatening injuries as a result of an air crash in France in 1946 and sporadic bouts of ill health hampered his career. He featured on Roy Plomley's Desert Island Discs in 1961.

He took over the Theatre after a refurbishment in 1973 and ran two summer seasons there. His company performed Whitehall Farces for three days a week in 1973 and 1974.

John Slater died in 1975, aged only 58. Brixham Theatre was one of the last venues at which Slater entertained an audience. Now his spirit is said to have returned to haunt the location. His ghost, wearing the costume of his final show, has been spotted several times throughout the theatre.

A blue plaque commemorating the actor was erected on the front of the building in 2008 by Brixham Town Council.

BATS, in conjunction with Matthew Clarke from Torbay Bookshop, helped stage the launch of the book ‘Memories of John Slater’ by his son Roger, in discussion with Bob Curtis, at Brixham Theatre on Monday.14 June 2010.

A photograph of John, which hung in his hall since his death, was left to Brixham Theatre by his widow, Betty Slater, when she died in March 2014. It is now hung on the stairs leading to the Theatre, alongside a relief bust of the famous actor. 

He was back in the theatre he loved so much, and that his wife believed cost him his life.

Grand plans but slow decline

Nothing had essentially changed inside the Theatre since John Slater’s time. It was given a small refurbishment in 1973, when the chairs were replaced with fixed seating but these soon wore out.

With the re-organisation of local government, the entire complex became part of the estate of Torbay Unitary Authority, the Theatre available on a hiring basis only, without programming input or staff.

In 1991 - 1993 plans were prepared for developing the Theatre at a cost of 3 and a half million. They were fruitless because no theatre designers were consulted and the Arts Council report condemned them as ‘the worst examples of theatre planning ever seen...'

In 1993/4 the Old Festival Theatre on Paignton seafront closed and was rebuilt as the Apollo Cinema.

Following the unsuccessful attempt at redesigning the Brixham Town Hall building, Torbay Council decided to re-use the Festival seating and placed it in Brixham Theatre, where it remains to this day, with metal ashtrays still attached, until given a refurbishment by BATS in 2012.

The building became unloved & unwanted, just hired out with no support and help for any groups bringing in shows, used only two or three times a year by BOADS, and with a few hirings as one-off events. Torbay Council even drew up and passed plans to block off the rear section of the auditorium and turn it into additional ofices for their staff.  Thankfully, these changes did not materialise as they would have rendered the theatre unsalvagable as a working professional venue.