‘Hands off Oldham!’ The fight to save historic theatre

Entertainment

“Hands off Oldham!” This was the chant led by actress Maxine Peake at a public meeting held to save the historic Oldham Coliseum in Greater Manchester.

The star, known for TV programmes including Dinnerladies, Shameless and Anne, hailed local theatres as the “lifeblood” of communities as she spoke at the event.

She was one of several famous faces among an estimated 400 people supporting the campaign, following the announcement that funding will be cut.

Actress Maxine Peake poses for photographers upon arrival at the British Independent Film Awards in central London, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)
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Actress Maxine Peake. Pic: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

Oldham Coliseum, which was built in 1885, faces closure at the end of March. Arts Council England says the venue has been facing “financial and governance challenges for some time”, and that the building, which is owned by Oldham Council, is “reaching its natural end”.

The organisation is backing plans by Oldham Council for a new theatre in the town but says that after current funding ends for the Coliseum it has agreed additional support of almost £360,000 “to help with decisions about the future”.

But Peake, who is originally from Bolton in Greater Manchester, told attendees at the meeting on Tuesday: “It’s all about community and it’s about what this theatre means to Oldham. When I was a young actor, actors from Oldham gave me inspiration; it made me think, ‘you can do it’.

‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’

“There was this amazing talent with this theatre in the centre of it… and there’s a saying: ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. It’s about what spaces like this give to the audiences that come in.”

She continued: “As we have a government that is further and further dividing communities… theatres have become community centres.

“Even if I hadn’t been an actor, it gave me inspiration in my life to be braver, and watching theatre gives me inspiration to be braver.”

Actress Maxine Peake speaks at a public meeting to save the historic Oldham Coliseum in Greater Manchester. Pic: Equity/PA
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Peake pictured on stage at the meeting. Pic: Equity/PA

Oldham Council recently announced plans for a new theatre in the borough, reportedly costing £24 million, which is scheduled to open in 2026.

“They’ve got to pull their finger out, this is not good enough – a three-year wait? No way,” Peake said. “Art should not be for the elite, it should be for everybody.”

Following her speech, Peake led a “hands off Oldham” chant.

Other speakers at the event, organised by performing arts union Equity, included playwright Ian Kershaw, Tony Award-nominated actor Paul Hilton and Ackley Bridge actress Zoe Iqbal.

Oldham Coliseum. Pic: Courtesy of Oldham Coliseum
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Pic: Courtesy of Oldham Coliseum

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Paul Liversey, northwest regional official for Equity, said the theatre’s closure would create “a vacuum of arts access” in the town.

“While Oldham Council’s recommitment to building a new theatre is positive news, it still does not address the immediate problems that come with the Coliseum’s closure,” he said.

“These include the redundancies faced by Equity members who work there, alongside the fact that until the opening of the new venue – scheduled for 2026, so at least three years from now – there will be no theatre in the borough.”

‘The building is reaching its natural end’

A spokesperson for Arts Council England acknowledged in a statement that Oldham Coliseum is a “well-loved fixture” in the town and “understandably many people have strong feelings” about its future.

The statement continued: “Oldham Coliseum Ltd has been facing financial and governance challenges for some time and as guardians of public money we could not invest in an organisation which we assessed to be such a high risk.

“Their funding continues until the end of March after which we’ve agreed additional support of nearly £360,000 to help them with decisions about the future.

“Arts Council England is absolutely committed to supporting arts and culture for the people of Oldham, and we’re standing by our commitment to invest £1.85 million in performing arts in the town and overall our investment in the arts in Oldham will be higher than ever before.

“The Oldham Coliseum building, which is reaching its natural end, is owned by Oldham Council and has never been part of our funding to the company.”

The organisation says it is “fully behind” the council’s plans for a new performing space “that will be informed by the legacy of the Oldham Coliseum and which will ensure there’s brilliant theatre in Oldham for people to enjoy for years to come”.

Sky News has contacted Oldham Council for comment.

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