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6. The Threat of Closure
History of The Mayflower
Chapter 6: The Threat of Closure
Despite all of this, live performances remained the exception rather than the rule. Audiences were still filling the theatre for the best new films - the latest Disney or James Bond - but there were many nights when cinema audiences were sparse. In 1970 an application went in to convert to a Bingo Hall, though this was not pursued at the time. Despite investing £40,000 in a new sound and lighting system in 1975, the owners were still not sure whether there was a future for their Southampton cinema-come-theatre.
In 1982, the Rank Organisation found they were losing too much money and submitted a proposal to Southampton City Council for a change of licence which would turn the theatre into a bingo hall. In 1983 the Council, under Conservative leader Norman Best, refused the application which then went to appeal. A public enquiry was set up. Fortunately, and not coincidentally, in the same year the Department of Environment awarded the building a Grade II listing. This strengthened the Council's hand since it prevented changes being made to its theatre design and features.
The enquiry was presented with a petition organised by the Save The Gaumont Committee, led by Pam Sherbourne and Cyril and Joyce Grout, containing 93,000 signatures. On 1 March 1984, the Enquiry Inspector John McBride supported the Council's decision, stating, 'There is clear evidence of overwhelming popular support for the retention of the building as a place of live entertainment. The Local Authority have committed themselves to a policy of initial purchase and early physical improvement.' Rank were forced into negotiations with what by then had become a Labour Council, led by Alan Whitehead.
The Council offered to buy the building for £650,000, giving the management of a £3 million refurbishment contract to the outgoing owners. Hampshire County Council and the Arts Council of Great Britain contributed to the cost. In a visionary approach, they then set up a separate company to manage the theatre on behalf of the Council with the intention of handing over control to an independent charitable trust. The trust was created in 1989 and given a lease on the building of over a hundred years for a peppercorn rent. The idea was to prevent the theatre from becoming a 'political football' or coming under commercial pressures.
Ken Watts took his retirement after achieving the longest stay in the post of any of the theatre's managers. He had the satisfaction of having overseen a revival in live entertainment at the theatre, including its greatest period of live music, and having played a significant part in saving the building from closure. He was also the last manager to 'live above the shop'.
Finding the right person to manage the refurbished theatre was a challenge. Previously managers had been employed by a large organisation and the programming was mainly provided for them and, since 1933, largely comprised films. Now the person in charge would personally have to put together a full programme of live events. Bournemouth's Entertainments Manager Dennis Hall fitted the bill perfectly. He had spent his life working in show business, he was an experienced programmer and he was young and dynamic. He took up the job of Director (later Chief Executive) in November 1985 just as the theatre was closing. The last performance at the old Gaumont - Southern Theatre Productions' amateur production of Carousel - took place in January 1986.