Why the show must go on after a troubled year for Leeds Grand Theatre

Chief Executive Chris Blyth. Picture: by Simon Hulme.
Chief Executive Chris Blyth. Picture: by Simon Hulme.
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Theatre folk are a famously superstitious lot. Actors must follow a specific path from dressing room to stage, directors pray for a bad dress rehearsal which dictates a good opening night and then there is the greatest superstition of all - never utter ‘Macbeth’ once across the threshold.

The people who run Leeds Grand Theatre might well wonder if some reckless travelling player reeled off the name of the Scottish Play each and every night they were in the city, such has been the building’s fortunes over the past year.

The costs were out of control. In 2013-2014 the company made a loss of about £400,000

Chris Blythe, the CEO of the Grand Theatre independent charitable trust

The grand old lady of Leeds (the staff universally refer to the Grand as ‘she’) has been plagued by fraud convictions, cancelled performances, structural issues and a very public spat with a touring show’s producer. And yet, there she still stands.

“This is a truly magnificent building, one of the jewels in the crown of Leeds and if it wasn’t here as a theatre, the council would still have to maintain the Grade II listed building and the city would have lost something incredibly important to its heritage,” says Chris Blythe, the CEO of the Grand Theatre independent charitable trust.

The Leeds Grand isn’t going to disappear from its somewhat inconspicuous home on New Briggate any time soon, but talk of what might happen if the theatre could no longer operate as the venue it is today is not quite the fiction you might imagine. It was back in 2015 that it became clear that all was not well. Leeds City Council, a stakeholder in the building, agreed to write off £379,000 of debt owed. The financial burden came from the Grand’s share of the bill for the revamp of Leeds City Varieties.

Debt cleared, as far as the public were concerned the Grand, not long entirely refurbished itself, was back on an even footing. However, backstage a different drama was being played out.

Last October it emerged that Peter Alp, the former heard of finance, had defrauded the organisation of £180,000. Currently serving a five year sentence after being found guilty at Leeds Crown Court, it was money the organisation could ill afford to lose.

“The court said that this person (he can’t bring himself to use Alp’s name) had abused the staff by taking control from them, but leaving them vulnerable to the consequences of what he had done,” says Blythe. “Fortunately, because this person was a council employee, Leeds City Council gave us an interest free loan to cover the shortfall and we didn’t have to pay back that loan if there was a guilty verdict.”

Blythe, an accountant by trade who worked for the council and was seconded to Leeds Grand two years ago, signed the contract to become the theatre’s full time CEO just over a month ago.

“The costs were out of control. In 2013-2014 the company made a loss of about £400,000,” says Blythe. A lot of the problems stemmed from the fact that Alp, didn’t let anyone else, including Alan Dawson, the theatre’s facilities manager, control their own budgets.

Blythe says: “Alan was pretty much using sticking plasters to keep the building together. I realised we were paying over the odds for things like insurance, which was costing £150,000 a year.”

Blythe and Dawson want to show me what they mean. They point to a multi-million pound state of the art flying system (the steel cables that lift scenery up into a cavernous roof) Next to it the paint peels off the walls to the right. A heating and cooling system which cost more than a semi-detached sits inside a dank and dark cellar. All fur coat and no knickers is the old fashioned phrase.

“The ceiling of the theatre is a £10m work of art,” says Dawson. “The theatre might be a jewel in the crown for the city, but that ceiling is the jewel in the crown of this theatre.”

It is that ceiling, the seats, the bar, the facade, which means the theatre costs £14m a year to run.

“We receive a grant from the council and that makes up one percent of our budget,” says Dawson. “The rest we have to make ourselves as a business.”

The most recent controversy was over its £3 booking fees. The producer of Gangsta Granny wrote to the Yorkshire Post saying he was going to pull future shows from the theatre over the ‘racket’ of ‘ludicrous booking fees’.

“All theatres operate by making a deal with the producers,” says Blythe. “We don’t make our own work so we don’t receive any Arts Council funding. We have to rely on the shows that are available to us. We then have to make deals on those shows to make it worth a producer bringing a show to us rather than going somewhere else. The booking fee is always part of the deal, it’s not something we add on at the end of a ticket price. What it says in the brochure is what the customer pays. It’s purely down to how we divvy up the split between us and the producer.”

Back above the stage Dawson shows me how the stage scenery can be lifted at the touch of a button.

“People don’t just come here to see the shows, they come for the building,” he says. Blythe adds: “And to keep this building running and, who knows, improve it, we need to continue to operate properly and efficiently as a business.”

And, hopefully with a little bit of luck the theatre will avoid another year like the one just gone.

A brief history of the Leeds Grand

The Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House was built in 1878 in a backlash to the music hall tradition which was thought by ‘polite society’ to lower the tone of entertainment.

The theatre cost a total of £62,000 and took 13 months to build and once complete only those sitting in the best seats were allowed to use the theatre’s main entrance.

Stars that have trodden the boards over the years include Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Julie Andrews and Laurence Olivier.

The theatre closed in 2005 for a major refurbishment and reopened the following year with a new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto by resident company Opera North.