Chris Upton discovers how Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre became the beating heart of a town.

The theatre may well be any town’s most significant building. It’s more than just a landmark – it’s a cultural coming of age and a sign that the place is not solely about Phones 4 U and Tesco Express. It is what distinguishes the town with aspiration from the village with a church hall.

I still recall, with surprising clarity, my earliest visits to the Temple of Thespis. It was not to see Gielgud and Olivier strutting the boards, I confess, but Frank Ifield and the Barron Knights in panto.

The Christmas pantomine at Wolverhampton Grand was an annual works’ outing for the parents and children at my father’s factory, and we cheered and hissed like music hall veterans.

Even the safety curtain was a thing of excitement, neoclassical ladies besporting themselves in a rural idyll. You didn’t see that too often in Wolverhampton.

This was a world where women dressed as men, and men dressed as women, and (in spite of these challenges) everyone lived happy ever after. And there were opera glasses to play with, and a goody bag to take home.

Louise Bent of the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, astutely picked up on the fact that theatre instils the most indelible of memories, and set in train an oral history project to collect them. Grand Memories, a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has turned into a newly-published book with accompanying CD.

The theatre, in Lichfield Street, was built in record time in 1894, to the design of Charles J. Phipps, a noted theatre architect. Phipps created a space both grand enough for the name and intimate enough for performance, and remarkably little has changed in the intervening 116 years, even if the rest of Wolverhampton has. Squeezed between the Victoria Hotel and the Post Office, the Grand has retained its dignity remarkably well.

The opening show – on December 10, 1894 – was by the D’oyly Carte Opera Company. I saw the same company perform The Mikado a good 80 years later. Continuity is what the Grand has always been strong at.

As the largest public space in the town, at least before the arrival of the Civic Hall, the Grand always had to double up as a meeting-hall as well as theatre. In 1909 Winston Churchill spoke from the stage as President of the Board of Trade, his voice almost drowned out by heckling suffragettes. And in 1918 David Lloyd George launched the post-war election campaign with the promise of “homes fit for heroes”. It became the slogan of a generation.

Those first few years of the 20th century were when the provincial theatre circuit was at its height, the political heavyweights shared the Grand with stars of stage and (future) screen. Henry Irving appeared in no less than four plays in Wolverhampton in 1903 alone, and Charlie Chaplin played Dr Watson’s pageboy in William Gillette’s stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Noel Coward followed him onto the stage in 1915.

For three decades in the thirties, forties and fifties the Grand had a repertory company, managed by Basil Thomas and run by Leo and Derek Salberg, who had a similar company at the Alexandra in Birmingham. With the kind of punishing schedule unimaginable today, the Grand Rep put on a fresh play each week, launching stars-to-be like Kenneth More, June Whitfield, Peggy Mount and Leonard Rossiter. In the 1950s the repertory season lasted a mammoth 36 weeks.

The repertory days ended in 1959, by which time its stars had been lured down to London for television work. After that time the stage was occupied by touring companies, and the occasional visiting soloist.

Televison has had a profound impact on panto season too, as the stars who made their reputation in music hall and in the hit parade have steadily been overtaken by familiar faces from the soaps and the talent shows. In 1950 a little-known comedian called Norman Wisdom trod the boards.

Salberg, who knew a talent when he saw one, astutely signed him up for two years. In the intervening year Norman had been on Saturday Night at the London Paladium and become a household name. By the time he returned to the Grand for the next panto, everyone knew who he was. Nevertheless, as George Thomas recalls in the book, “he lived in a touring caravan at the side of the Fox Inn, next to the Molineux football ground”.

The Grand pantos always had novelty acts too. I think I probably considered myself too grown-up to go to the show in 1973-74, when a troop of real lions – one lion and three lionesses – were introduced into Robinson Crusoe. Humphrey Standbury describes in the book what happened on stage when one of the lionesses came into season. I’ll leave it your imagination.

However, I do recall the panto of 1971-72, when Red Riding Hood featured real wolves. They were not animals this time, but (rather a good joke, this) Wolves from the local football team. A different player appeared each night.

And so the Wolverhampton Grand rolls on and, like any good theatre, measures out our lives in interval coffee spoons. My last visit there was to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and there I was, fiddling with the opera glasses as of old. I managed to stop myself hissing and cheering.