Northcott Theatre

Theatre through the lens: the photographic archive of Nicholas Toyne

Nicholas Toyne worked as a photographer for the Northcott Theatre from its first production until the mid 1980’s; capturing thousands of beautiful photographs from the first two decades of performances. His archive of negatives, donated to Special Collections, has now been fully catalogued as part of the Northcott Theatre Archive cataloguing project. The clips below share some of Nicholas’s reminiscences of his work at the Northcott in his own words.

Negatives from the Nicholas Toyne Archive (EUL MS 383)

Having worked as a stationary rep in London, Nicholas Toyne’s photographic business began when he moved to Devon with his wife Shan. Shan had previously worked for the BBC on schools broadcasts with Tony Church who was to become the first artistic director of the Northcott Theatre, and who offered her a job as Theatre Secretary. When the Northcott began looking for photographers Shan suggested that her husband should be part of the auditions and in the clip below Toyne describes a blind audition taking photos of a dress rehearsal for the Northcott’s first production “The Merchant of Venice” in 1967.

 

The process of photographing the Northcott Shows could be extremely demanding. In the early days Toyne often attended a number of rehearsals in order to identify the best scenes and positions for a shot but competing time pressures eventually meant he was forced to take photos during dress runs. In the clip below Toyne talks about his process of taking photographs and the fun of working with Tony Church.

 

Often staying in the theatre until midnight to get photos from the final dress run, Toyne’s job was then to process the photographs ready for display on the first night and use by the press. Below Toyne talks about the challenges of processing the images overnight in time for display for the first night of each production.

 

After an almost twenty year run as photographer for the Northcott, Toyne began to concentrate his photography business on other clients, such as his aerial photography for the National Trust, and the last negatives in the archive date from 1986. Despite the late nights and gruelling time frames Toyne remembers his work at the Northcott with fondness, and his enjoyment is clear from the beautiful images he achieved.

Keep your eyes peeled as work continues on our Northcott Theatre Cataloguing Project as we will be digitising a number of these negatives and making these fascinating glimpses of local theatre history available online for the public to view. You can explore the Nicholas Toyne Archive using our online catalogue here

Bob Hoskins in the Caucasian Chalk Circle (1971)

 

It’s behind you: Christmas shows at the Northcott Theatre

The tradition of pantomime is hundreds of years old; thought to have originated in the 16th century Italian street theatre tradition of commedia dell’arte before spreading through Europe and gaining popularity in England by the mid 17th century. The 18th century saw the commedia character ‘the Harlequin’ emerge to precedence as the star of the pantomime, along with his wooden slap stick (a wooden bat which produced a loud smacking noise but little force, allowing actors to hit one another without injury). In the 19th century the 1843 Theatres Act lifted the restrictions on using spoken word in performances (previously only allowed in theatres with a royal patent) and allowed Victorian pantomime to flourish. The resulting addition of verbal dialogue, puns, social commentary and audience participation provided a format that would be recognised by many theatre-goers today. The 19th century also saw the gradual replacement of harlequinades with pantomime story lines taken from folk tales, fairy stories and nursery rhymes. Mother Goose is often hailed as the grand old dame of pantomime; with the story dating back to an ancient Greek legend. It first appeared in 1806 as ‘Harlequin and Mother Goose or The Golden Egg’, though bearing little resemblance to the story we know today. It may also be in the running for the most popular pantomime ever; being rumoured to have opened on Boxing Day 1806 and played for 92 consecutive nights! The modern version owes its origin to the 1902 version created for Victorian pantomime’s most famous dame: music hall star Dan Leno, who performed as the Drury Lane Theatre Royal’s pantomime dame for 15 years, from 1888 until his death in 1904.

In recent years the Northcott Theatre’s pantomime has become synonymous with Christmas for many theatregoers in Exeter, resurrecting the strong tradition of pantomime set by it’s predecessor. Exeter’s Theatre Royal often put on several pantomimes a year (the current view of pantomimes as specifically a Christmas show being a relatively recent development); in fact a search of our Theatre Royal playbills collection (EUL MS 202) shows 126 playbills for pantomimes performed between 1893-1953! However, despite this long history, the yearly pantomime is a relatively recent trend for the Northcott, which historically put on a family show or musical each year.

Theatre Royal playbill for Little Red Riding Hood (1900)

Theatre Royal playbill for Sindbad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After opening in 1967, the Northcott Theatre’s christmas show for it’s first two years (with a reprisal in 1975) was ‘Big Noise at Fortissimo’. This eclectic show followed the story of a troop of abandoned toy soldiers reclaiming their fort from the new toys that had taken it over, and was written by the Northcott’s writer-in-residence Bernard Goss and actor Paul Starr. These family friendly productions, part musical, part play, and with pantomime elements, continued with ‘The Adventure’s of Noah’s Ark’ and ‘The Fantastic Fairground’ (also by Bernard Goss) until Artistic Director Tony Church stepped down in 1971 and Jane Howell took the reins.

 

Jane Howell, Artistic Director from 1971-74, is often credited with the introduction of the Christmas musical production. This tradition began in 1971 with ‘Guys and Dolls’ and was continued by subsequent artistic directors. As with many of the Northcott’s early shows these musical productions often contain fun glimpses of famous faces early in their careers. If you look closely at the last two photos of ‘Guys and Dolls’ below you can make out a young Robert Lindsay playing the role of Benny Southstreet.

 

During the late 1970’s and 1980’s fairy tales and children’s stories began to become common choices for Northcott Christmas shows. Many of these shows revolved around the same fairy tales that form the basis for much loved pantomimes and. despite being primarily billed as family shows or musicals, many of these shows embraced some pantomime elements, particularly with regards to staging and illusion. Flying systems, trapdoors, elaborate scene changes and the perilous star trap are all used to contribute to the illusion and suspended reality of pantomimes; far from being a cheap show, pantomimes often have some of the most complicated and costly set design, and the smooth performance of scenes relies on perfect timing by both the actors and stagehands. Many of the stage plans and set designs in the Northcott Theatre Archive show a similar level of intricacy in these Christmas family shows and musicals, with complex sets used to create mystical lands. A quick look at these shows again reveals a number of famous names, with Raymond Briggs (creater of ‘The Snowman’) making his debut as a theatre designer for the Northcott’s production of ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ (1984). Sadly my personal Christmas wishes have failed to come true and the archive has so far failed to reveal a picture of Celia Imrie in what i’m sure would have been a seminal role as ‘The Christmas Pudding desirous of remaining in tact’ in ‘The Adventures of Alice’ (1976).

 

Despite the pantomime elements of the Northcott Christmas shows in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, actual pantomimes were uncommon, with only two shows being billed as such before the 1990’s. The 1978 production of Cinderella has the honour of being the first Northcott pantomime, with all the traditional trappings including a principal boy, pantomime dames, a fabulous transformation scene for the ugly sisters, a real horse pulling a carriage on stage and Imelda Staunton starring as a sugar-wouldn’t-melt Cinderella. Despite a successful run, there would only be two more pantomimes performed at the Northcott in the next 17 years; Aladdin (1981), starring prominent black actor Thomas Baptiste as the Genie, and Sleeping Beauty (1990).

 

In 1991 John Durnin took over as Associate Director for the Northcott and the Christmas shows became firmly routed in fairy stories and folk tales. In 1996 Durnin wrote the book for the Northcott’s pantomime ‘Cinderella’, a success he repeated again the following year for ‘Jack and The Beanstalk’. After his departure in 1998 the new artistic director Ben Crocker, a graduate of the University of Exeter’s Drama Department, carried this on and the yearly tradition of the Northcott Christmas pantomime was born. From 1996-2009 a Christmas pantomime has been put on every year at the Northcott theatre with the books for these years usually having been written by John Durnin, John Crocker or Ben Crocker. A particular style of panto has emerged, helped by the long service of pantomime dame Steve Bennett. A local actor, Bennett has acted in many Northcott productions but began his career as a pantomime dame in the 1996 production of Cinderella, playing the dame each year until 2009, a consecutive run of 14 years, almost as long as famous Victorian pantomime dame Dan Leno.

With the Northcott Theatre being placed into administration in 2010 the yearly pantomime came to an end. It’s last outing, rather ironically, being that grand old dame of pantomime ‘Mother Goose’ (2009). But we end with a happily ever after as after after 6 years of absence the pantomime returned in 2016 with ‘Peter Pan’ under Artistic and Executive Director Paul Jepson, and even Steve Bennett has reprised his role as pantomime dame.

Cue: oh no he didn’t, oh yes he did…….

 

EUL MS 348 – Pantomime programmes from the 2000’s

 

Northcott Christmas Productions from 1967-2009

Run start date

Title

22 Dec 1967 Big Noise at Fortissimo
21 Dec 1968 Big Noise at Fortissimo
29 Dec 1969 The Adventures of Noah’s Ark
23 Dec 1970 The Fantastic Fairground
15 Dec 1971 Guys and Dolls
13 Dec 1972 Old Time Music Hall
20 Dec 1972 John Willy and the Bee People
12 Dec 1973 The Owl and the Pussycat went to see
10 Dec 1975 Big Noise at Fortissimo
18 Dec 1975 My Fair Lady
15 Dec 1976 The Adventures of Alice
22 Dec 1977 Rock Nativity
21 Dec 1978 Cinderella (Pantomime)
21 Dec 1979 Jack and The Beanstalk
19 Dec 1980 Godspell
18 Dec 1981 Aladdin (Pantomime)
16 Dec 1982 Treasure Island
22 Dec 1983 Showboat
20 Dec 1984 Toad of Toad Hall
19 Dec 1985 The Railway Children
17 Dec 1986 Pickwick Papers
16 Dec 1987 The Wizard of Oz
14 Dec 1988 Peter Pan
13 Dec 1989 Alice in Wonderland
12 Dec 1990 Sleeping Beauty (Pantomime)
11 Dec 1991 Merlin’s Dream
9 Dec 1992 Robin of the Wood
7 Dec 1993 The Magical Tales of the Brothers Grimm
14 Dec 1994 Toad of Toad Hall
13 Dec 1995 Peter Pan
4 Dec 1996 Cinderella (Pantomime)
10 Dec 1997 Jack and the Beanstalk (Pantomime)
8 Dec 1998 Dick Whittington (Pantomime)
9 Dec 1999 Aladdin (Pantomime)
14 Dec 2000 Sleeping Beauty (Pantomime)
13 Dec 2001 Cinderella (Pantomime)
12 Dec 2002 Mother Goose (Pantomime)
11 Dec 2003 Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood (Pantomime)
9 Dec 2004 Jack and the Beanstalk (Pantomime)
15 Dec 2005 Dick Whittington (Pantomime)
13 Dec 2006 Aladdin (Pantomime)
12 Dec 2007 Cinderella (Pantomime)
10 Dec 2008 Sleeping Beauty (Pantomime)
3 Dec 2009 Mother Goose (Pantomime)

#LoveTheatreDay 2018

It’s Love Theatre Day and what better way to celebrate than delving into the Northcott Theatre archives…

In December 2007 the Northcott was about to re-open after a 2.1 million pound refurbishment when it was hit with a blow out of the blue: the Arts Council had recommended that it’s £547,000 funding package be withdrawn. Without this money the Northcott faced potentially having to close it’s doors not long after re-opening them.

 

In reaction to the news the theatre staff, local politicians, community groups, schools and the residents of Exeter and it’s surrounding towns mounted a ‘Save the Northcott’ campaign to show how much they loved their theatre and to persuade the Arts Council to reverse it’s decision. The records from the campaign are a poignant display of the theatre’s loyal audience: petitions comprising a total of more than 17,000 names were collected, along with hundreds of letters and emails written in support of the theatre. Theatre-goers from all over Devon, and many from further abroad, voiced their personal connections to the theatre, their support for it’s writing and acting talent, and their worry that one of the few professional theatres in Devon would be lost.

 

Living in Newtown Ward myself, I was particularly pleased to see a letter from Richard Branston, councillor for Newtown ward, to the chair of the Arts Council enclosing a petition which all but 12 of the ward’s residents had signed. A turnout of 99%. Local schools and community groups that worked with the theatre also collected their own petitions, with one group assembling a book in which 630 young children signed their names on stickers in support of the theatre. My favourite item in this part of the collection however, has to be a tree assembled out of leaves on which people have written what the Northcott means to them. A striking visual representation of the support for the theatre.

Though the Northcott Theatre has faced a number of challenges in it’s fifty years of productions it is clear from the collection that it has loyal supporters in it’s theatre-goers. Love Theatre Day is the perfect day to celebrate both the Northcott Theatre and those who love it; the theatre-goers of Devon.

 

 

 

A not so sticky situation: conserving press cutting albums from the Northcott Theatre

Halloween may be over but i’m in the middle of an Archivist’s nightmare. Along with the other treasures in the Northcott Theatre Archives are 13 wallpaper sample albums crammed full of press cuttings. These albums are not only unwieldy due to their size, but many of the volumes have also had the cuttings taped onto sheets of plain paper which have then been taped into the albums.

 

As many of you will know, any kind of adhesive tape is a poor choice for long term preservation. The adhesive from the tape has stained the cuttings leaving brown discolouration and over the years the tape has dried out and many of the cuttings have come loose from the albums. At it’s worst this degradation has left us with some albums where there is simply a pile of loose cuttings in the front and in other cases the movement of the cuttings has caused significant creasing and tearing.

Staining from old tape and adhesive

The majority of the albums are not in a fit condition to be handled as they are without causing more damage and so the decision has been made to remove the cuttings from the albums where they are already coming loose. Once removed the cuttings will be stored in the order they were in the album (if this is still discernible) and the albums will be retained separately. It sounds simple but it’s delicate work and rather time consuming. With five albums completed I have enough loose tape in my bin to remake several rolls.

Loose tape from one album

The cuttings are a fascinating read: containing reviews and general news relating to Northcott Theatre productions, arts funding and other west country theatres, particularly the Plymouth Theatre Royal. The albums themselves are also incredibly interesting, I feel like I have taken a journey through wallpaper history in the past weeks. I’ve even recognised wallpaper from my parents house – further proof, if any were needed, that it’s time for them to redecorate. The presence of the albums is still a little bit of a mystery though. Were they simply a useful receptacle for the cuttings that someone happened to have lying around (perhaps from a second job moonlighting as an interior designer), or were they perhaps used by the set designers? The range is vast; spanning William Morris designs to the bobble textured wallpaper of the 1980’s and the office has had great fun revisiting the wallpaper highs and lows of the past. Only 8 more to go….

 

There’s no archives like show archives: Introducing the Northcott Theatre Archive

EUL MS 348 – Programmes from the Northcott Theatre Archive

It’s new cataloguing project time here at Special Collections and I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be cataloguing the Northcott Theatre Archive as part of our 21st Century Libraries initiative. It’s a fascinating collection spanning from the theatre’s opening in 1967, to its threatened closure in 2010. Quite simply, everything about it is appealing (alright, I’ll stop with the show tunes now!).

Exeter has a long history of theatre; with evidence of a possible Roman amphitheatre on Dane’s Hill. In 1721 the first regular theatre venue in Exeter opened in the Seven Stars Inn and a series of theatres followed (often destroyed by fire) until the Theatre Royal opened in 1889. Many Exeter residents still remember this theatre, which was demolished in 1962, and a small amount of records survive in the Northcott Theatre Archive relating to its productions.

EUL MS 348 – Printing plate for Theatre Royal jubilee production of Mother Goose

After the demolition of the Theatre Royal, G.V. Northcott was offered a site at Exeter University and the Northcott Devon Theatre and Arts Centre, as it was originally known, was established. The theatre opened its first production on 2nd November 1967, presenting The Merchant of Venice, which starred the theatre’s first Artistic Director Tony Church. The abolition of the official censor in 1968 enabled a new artistic direction and early directors fostered new writing talent. Edward Bond’s controversial play ‘Bingo’ was performed in public for the first time at the Northcott under Artistic Director Jane Howell. The theatre also fostered acting talent and many famous actors performed there early in their careers: including Honor Blackman, Celia Imrie, Robert Lindsay, John Nettles, Diana Rigg, Imelda Staunton and David Suchet.

EUL MS 348 – Production photographs by year from the Northcott Theatre Archive

In recent years the theatre has faced the threat of closure twice, in 2008 and 2010, both sparking community campaigns to save the theatre. On 5 June 2010 a new company was set up as the Exeter Northcott Theatre Company, formed with the University of Exeter, and the immediate future of the theatre is now more secure, with its fiftieth anniversary celebrations taking place last year.

EUL MS 348 – Tree from a campaign to save the Northcott Theatre with leaves written by the public saying what the theatre means to them

The archive contains a wealth of records relating to the Northcott’s productions and administration. Show files, prompt books, administrative records, programmes, posters, photographs, press cuttings, and much more illustrate the work behind bringing a production to the stage and the changing trends in theatre going. The archive is a wonderful piece of South West theatre history and I look forward to sharing more gems with you as the project progresses.

Caroline Walter (Project Archivist)