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Thursday, March 1st 2007

8:32 PM

The Grand plan

Neil's Grand plan

IN CHARGE: Neil Thomson, who has been acting manager on seven occasions, with Ken Dodd at Blackpool Grand Theatre
IN CHARGE: Neil Thomson, who has been acting manager on seven occasions, with Ken Dodd at Blackpool Grand Theatre
The show will go on pledges Blackpool Grand Theatre acting general manager Neil Thomson.
"The Grand is not going to close – the show will go on – but there will be changes," says Neil, who has worked at the Grand for 26 years and admits he is used to stepping into the breach.
"This is actually the seventh time I've been acting manager and every time I have done the job the environment and the circumstances have been different."
This time was probably the biggest surprise – and the quickest move into the top spot.
He heard on a Friday that manager Paul Iles had cut short his originally- planned tenure of five years and
resigned after just two – and by Saturday Neil was in charge.
"Yes, it was a shock but the changeover period is always different and sometimes it's harder to pick up the reins than others," he says.
"You are left with a residue of programmes which you have to try to keep going or change. The programming gaps in the past have been large and small – this time it is quite small at the moment.
The theatre's enforced closure for several of the previously peak summer weeks for the latest phase in its renovation have helped ease things slightly – and visits by new musical Babewatch (August 3 to 14) and the revival of South Pacific (August 24 to September 2) have already been made public.
Neil has now added a September 12-29 season of Joe Longthorne with a full production show – and the first National Theatre visit to the venue since 1999, with the multi award-winning play The History Boys (October 15).
"It's exciting and it's putting The Grand – and Blackpool – back on the theatrical map," he says. "The National's is only a small tour and it will be here six weeks before going to the West End – and at a time when we would normally have a summer season show running."
So is that the end of long summer runs as we know them?
"We have diversified," he says. "South Pacific, Babewatch, Joe Longthorne are all in what was our summer season but it allows us to provide a rounder programme throughout the year.
"It may be the end of the traditional summer season run for The Grand but not necessarily for the town. There are so many theatre seats to fill in Blackpool that something has had to change with what is known as a summer season show.
"I've seen them gradually slip from 17 weeks to 10 so the summer season has already changed. The Opera House has switched to one or two nights on a rotating programme. We were the last theatre to hang onto the long run."
But Neil is optimistic about the future. "It's an exciting time for the resort. We have got to go forward. Blackpool is far from dead. I have a passion for the resort. I was born in Cleveleys in 1952. I've worked at The Grand for 26 years. Yes, Blackpool has changed but one of its better historical attibutes is that it can change.
"It is just unfortunate that in the past 10 years it has slowed down – but with the promenade and Houndshill developments it is changing again. All we can do is go forward and be part of the changes.
"The car park at West Street is greatly improved – the town centre is a lot, lot better than it was. The new Houndshill will increase the number of people in town. Blackpool is safer than it is perceived to be."
So would he fancy taking on the general manager's role permanently?
"I'm not sure. It would be a challenge. All I know is that the board of directors is not currently looking for anyone else but it is inthe public domain that the theatre is having an independent review.
"One of the ways forward will come from the outcome of that review. They will be looking at where the Grand sits in Blackpool and where it sits in the North West. And if we are viewed as a North West theatre, then how it will attract people into Blackpool will be important."
The Grand's immediate future
is secure – having been underwritten by Blackpool Council. "That carries us through to the end of the next pantomime which means in the short term our future is safeguarded. The council, like everyone at the theatre, wants to see The Grand prosper."
As for the future he would like to see more contemporary dance back in town as well as Northern Broadsides and the Royal Shakespeare Company – along with the more obviously commercial product.
"We need to appeal to a core audience – which I think has been ignored – but also to wider reach. But economically we can't afford to take gambles.
"Paul Iles had started to change the programme with that in mind – let's see how our series of major musicals goes. But it's important to have as wide a programme as possible. We can't keep relying on the same audience."
He's now hoping to re-open the Dress Circle Bar at lunchtimes – and possibly after shows.
"Matcham's Bar on the ground floor helped us enormously last year but again we need to look after our core audience.
"When we re-open after the refurbishment our aim will be to move forward. A casino would have had some effect but with another two or three thousand theatre seats who knows what effect?
"Now we will be looking at how to attract people from the Manchester one to come and see us in Blackpool."
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