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A review, and heritage piece, provided by Kieren Spencer, of School for Stage.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that some of my fondest childhood (and recent) memories have been created at Preston’s Guild Hall & Charter Theatre. Here is where I experienced watching my first live play and where I performed in front of a live audience for the very first time.

It was tough to hear that the multifunctional complex, which includes a 780 seat theatre and a 2000 seat arena as well as a shopping arcade, came close to demolition in 2013 due to the running costs that Preston City Council said they could no longer afford.

Building of the iconic structure began in 1969 with it due to open in 1972 – to commemorate the Preston Guild. However, a builders’ strike delayed proceedings making it open in ‘73.

Preston Guild Hall building site – Photo by Norman Askew; courtesy of the Preston Historical Society ©

 

The building landed on Lancaster Road like a spaceship nestled between traditional rows of terraced buildings on either side. It faced the Town Hall & Harris Museum; which all still stand today. It came in an era of dramatic change in our town centre, alongside other large developments through the ‘60s & ‘70s including St George’s Shopping Centre, St John’s Shopping Centre and the now Grade II listed bus station; currently undergoing a redevelopment also. The architectural style of these two beasts is referred to as ‘Brutalism’: bold, brass & modern – notably characterised by their expressive use of reinforced concrete.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the Guild Hall as a building is like Marmite, people either love(d) it or loathe(d) it. When it was first built, the octagonal shape was radically different for Preston; over the years it has possessed various nicknames such as ‘the Preston Pomegranate’ and ‘the Terrible Toadstool’.

She established a strong reputation for hosting top class musical & theatrical productions. As well as welcoming acts of worldwide renown, including Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Jacksons, she was home to the UK Snooker Championships for nearly three decades until ’97.  Additionally, she’s opened her doors to an abundance of local groups of armature enthusiasts; Preston Musical Comedy Society perform here every year, plus she’s home to UCLan’s degree & awards ceremonies.

Today the Guild Hall stands as boldly as ever & has remained largely unchanged through the decades. For many years, she looked worn out & unloved. But not now, and certainly not for much longer. Plans passed to give the building a new lease of life, including a facelift to the exterior & an overhaul inside, are well underway.

Local business man Simon Rigby bought the Guild Hall in 2014 for a pound, under the condition that he would invest at least 1 million pounds enhancing the space. It seems he is truly putting his money where his mouth is, having already spent 5 million+ on his transformation plans; the old rundown shops have made way for tapas & Italian restaurants, plus a coffee shop & a cocktail bar have long since opened. The first floor now boasts a 350 capacity performance venue with the old balcony a picturesque dining terrace; looking out on to the Market Place conservation area.

Rigby has ambitious plans to turn the site in to Lancashire’s number one entertainment destination and, in case you missed it in the news, has obtained planning permission to add a casino, hotel & a bowling alley to the complex.

Preston Guild Hall’s proposed future look – design courtesy of Frank Whittle Partnership.

 

Once a remodel of the façade is complete, I’m sure the Guild Hall will proudly continue to welcome visitors old & new. The existing bulky & intrusive exterior staircases are being replaced by a striking new entrance; planned with a stunning, modern atrium that will breathe light into the building’s previously underused first-floor area. The giant high-level digital screen & state-of-the-art lighting should look good too!

I truly hope that the Guild Hall continues to strive in the direction that it is going. If it does I see bigger and better things on the horizon. I hope that she will live on & become a family venue that Prestonians can continue to be proud of. Most of all, I hope that more fond memories will be created here.

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