Written by Chris Horton
This month sees the 110th anniversary of one of Southsea’s most loved establishments; The King’s Theatre. A venue with a very special place in Southsea resident’s hearts I’m lucky enough to be given a tour by two of it’s long serving archivists, Chris Grant and Peter Rann. Both men are fountains of knowledge, bombarding me with a whole host of wonderful facts and stories they’ve uncovered detailing the last one hundred years or so. “We need to document the history of such an important theatre not just for Portsmouth but on a national level too” states Peter explaining how the theatre’s architect, Frank Matcham, was a world renowned theatre designer who also designed The London Palladium.
Sitting in a box seat – incidentally not the ‘best seat’ in the house according to Peter, “These were to be seen in, rather then to actually see” he reveals – I mention my first experience of The King’s was actually on film. The famous Pinball Wizard scene from Tommy was shot here with The Who and Elton John’s performance now part of film musical folklore. With that, the pair proceed to rattle off a who’s who of those that have trodden the boards including such luminaires as Houdini, Laurel and Hardy and Gracie Fields. “Oh, and Dr Who himself!” adds Chris “Well, William Hartnell once appeared in a production but that’s close enough” he chuckles. It even bore the weight of six elephants at one point and although nothing quite so exotic has been witnessed since I’m casually reminded that last year’s Tosca performance did include a Golden Eagle.
I’m after more facts and Chris is quick to suggest another. “Did you know there’s a pond under the stage? It’s built over a spring. Matcham realised this so built the stage on brick stilts so that it wouldn’t rot.” Rumours of band members having to get a boat to make their way to the orchestra pit are disappointingly untrue though the water is technically a spring and therefore potentially drinkable, but I think I’ll stick to my interval ice cream next time.
Over the next half hour I’m told how it only took a year to build the theatre – looking at the intricate ceiling designs this seems incomprehensible with many of the original features still surviving. Performances carried on throughout the war with a light on the side of the stage signalling any air raids. The productions would continue, though audiences were offered the chance to leave if they wished. “Most stayed” stresses Chris.
Despite being a fascinating insight into such a grand building Peter is at pains to stress the continued role it plays in Southsea today. “The character of the theatre hasn’t changed over the years.” he says “It’s not like a National Trust property where you have to be careful what you touch, we highlight it’s history but this place has to earn it’s keep and continue to be a huge part of the local community”. So what brings people to the theatre still in this age of domestic digital technology? “You can’t beat a live show” declares Chris as we look out over the auditorium. “Every performance is unique, it isn’t the same with television. You’ve got the wow factor with a place like this”.
The simple fact is that Southsea loves it’s theatre. As I step outside I’m reminded of something Chris tells me when I ask why he’s so dedicated. “This place is special, I love it to bits. I pat it every night before I head home”. Looking up at the grand entrance with a smile on my face, I do the same.