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7. Born Again - The Mayflo...
History of The Mayflower
Chapter 7: Born Again - The Mayflower Years
Next came the question of a name. Public opinion was canvassed and a committee considered the suggestions. Popular names included 'The Prince Of Wales' and 'The Empire' but in the end 'The Mayflower' was chosen. The name had the virtue of referring to Southampton's historic role as the starting point for the Pilgrim Fathers' famous ship, while being unique as a name for a theatre.
A year of refurbishment saw the stage gutted, as an orchestra pit and new understage was installed; an extended scene dock was built providing more space and an easier get-in for the productions; dressing rooms were refurbished; the seating was recovered; the manager's accommodation was converted into offices; new toilets and one new bar (the Empire Suite) were added; the foyer had a new floor; a computerised box office and the latest sound and lighting systems were installed.
On Tuesday 24 February 1987, The Mayflower opened with a production of Peter Pan starring Bonnie Langford. In May, an official Opening Gala starring Neil Sedaka was televised nationally.
Initially there was much experimenting with the type of events to establish which would prove popular and at first audiences were disappointing. It was not long before the local media were carrying news stories and readers' letters suggesting the theatre was a white elephant.
The turning point came with a bold decision by Dennis Hall to stage a major pantomime starring the biggest comic star of the day, Les Dawson. Babes In The Wood which also starred John Nettles attracted over 65,000 people and was declared a smash hit. Building on that success, Paul Nicholas and Fern Britton in Cinderella in 1988 sold over 100,000 tickets and the following year Russ Abbot's Jack And The Beanstalk achieved a then record attendance of 122,000 people. In the following years Stefan Dennis from Neighbours, Danny LaRue and Michael Elphick in Aladdin, David Essex in Robinson Crusoe and Brian Conley in Cinderella, all attracted over 100,000.
The highest ever attendance at a Mayflower pantomime was in 1994 when 126,256 people saw Lesley Joseph star with John Nettles in Dick Whittington. It was also the first pantomime to take a million pounds at the box office. Jack And The Beanstalk starring Su Pollard (1995), Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs starring Lionel Blair and Britt Ekland (1996), Brian Conley (replacing a terminally ill Dudley Moore at short notice) and Danny LaRue in Cinderella in 1997, Frank Bruno in Goldilocks (1998), Lily Savage in Snow White (1999), Jim Davidson in Dick Whittington (2001) and Brian Conley back in Cinderella (2002) kept up the tradition of high quality fun and spectacle.
Despite steadily improving audiences in the early years, the theatre continued to lose money and relied on a substantial revenue support from the City Council for its survival. Dennis Hall and the Council stuck to their guns and a programme of exclusively live entertainment continued to be offered. A week of rock music cinema in the summer of 1987 was the first and last occasion on which The Mayflower showed films.