From the Empire to the Playhouse

Sunderland Empire was the first variety theatre (for it was built as a Music Hall although its owner, Richard Thornton, preferred the term “Variety” to “Music Hall”) to become a civic theatre, owned and operated by the Borough Council, opening—appropriately I always think—in its new incarnation on Boxing Day 1959.

The Empire had had its ups and downs in its 117 years and the period from 1955 to 1960 is generally thought to be the time it hit rock bottom—although teenage me certainly didn't think that way.

My family were devoted Methodists, attending Thompson Memorial Hall in Dundas Street on the north side of the town, and, although we lived on the south side, I was still expected to attend TMH's Sunday School. I was given my tram fare but if the weather was good I would walk—and not just to save money!

You see, that walk took me past the Empire which at that time was hosting "nudie" shows with titles like Bubble and Peep and The Naughtiest Girls of All—and there were production shots outside!


I didn't dare stop and look closely in case someone I—or, much worse, my parents!—knew should see me but I slowed down to take in as much as I could. And sometimes I would walk back as well!

(At that time, hormone-driven teenage lads had no way to satisfy their burning curiosity other than ogling the bikini-clad beauties in “Tit-Bits” in the barber’s or looking at underwear ads in women’s magazines! Did we ever really think ads for corsets were sexy?)

So overnight, Sunderland Borough Council rescued an ailing commercial theatre and it became publicly funded, although its programme continued to be that of a commercial receiving house. So it wasn’t until I started work as the photographer for the Tynewear Theatre Company in Newcastle that I truly appreciated the difference between the commercial and the subsidised sectors.