Fun was order of day until last curtain call at Torquay’s Pavilion Theatre

The Marine Tavern - popular with theatre goers and artists alike

The Marine Tavern - popular with theatre goers and artists alike - Credit: Archant

Second of a two-part series in which Keith Perry recalls the Pavilion Theatre in Torquay:

Before the outbreak of the Second World War the Pavilion’s productions had largely reflected the conservative tastes of its audience.

But in the post war era with the nation recovering from the dark of days of war and austerity, some comic relief was called for - and the Pavilion responded accordingly.

So it was that Torquay theatregoers were able to put faces to the voices that came over the airwaves. Beryl Reid, Norman Evans, Jimmy Edwards, Harry Worth, Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warris, Arthur English - just about every radio celebrity of that period trod the Pavilion boards during the 1950s.

And fun was to remain the order of the day until the last curtain call.

From 1962 The Pavilion changed the format of its summer shows, abandoning variety in favour of plays showcasing the talents of the comedy heroes of the day. Arthur Askey, Jack Douglas, Thora Hird, Jimmy Clitheroe, John Slater, Sid James (twice), Mollie Sugden, John Inman and Dickie Henderson were some of the comics who spent their summers beside the seaside.

In 1972, the ‘Carry On’ crew of Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor and Bernard Bresslaw,starred in Stop It Nurse and the following year the On The Buses team of Bob Grant, Stephen Lewis and Anna Karen enjoyed a Busman’s Holiday.

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Out of season, amateur shows took to the stage. TOADS put on their annual production until moving to the Princess Theatre and The Gang Show and was a regular attraction.

Towards the mid-1979s, in a bid to attract a new audience, pop concerts were introduced on Sunday evenings with Leo Sayer, Thin Lizzie, Stone the Crows, Alvin Lee’s Ten Years After and Steeleye Span among the gigs.

But they couldn’t save The Pavilion as just along the prom the Princess Theatre, managed by a former Pavilion under manager John Burden, was attracting bigger names and bigger audiences.

Some of its flawed a design elements did the Pavilion no favours. For instance, the stalls were set on a floor that was almost flat so the stage was viewed through a sea of heads and viewing was even more severely restricted if you were unlucky enough to have a seat near one of the massive pillars which supported the balcony.

When it closed in 1976 The Pavilion was leased to the Rank Organisation and became a bingo hall and casino.

Torquay-born Di Feasby, who had worked in the Pavilion box office since 1960, was kept on by Rank but didn’t much enjoy the experience.

“I didn’t want to work in a bingo hall,” she says. “We had to wear skimpy dresses and you had your hair done, your nails done - everything done!

“In the interval punters played the fruit machines and there was a game of quick bingo. But you had queues miles long of people wanting to get in.”

The Pavilion played a special part in Di’s life and she has vivid memories of its oak-panelled public areas, the sweeping, plant-lined staircase to the circle and, on the ground floor, the bar, sweet kiosk and a very classy silver service stylish restaurant with meals served on bone china.

The toilets were also on the ground floor and the ladies’ toilet was subject of controversy when Torquay council installed penny machines on the doors. There was outrage among regular theatregoers and they were vocal in their protestations - but despite their protests, if they needed to spend a penny they had to do just that!

Sadly, the Theatres Trust records that the panelled and elegantly plastered interior has gradually been destroyed in the building’s adaptations for various types of amusements including skating and little more than the shell of the original remains.

It’s most recent use was as a shopping arcade which closed in 2013.

Planning permission was granted in 2016 to convert the former theatre to a hotel foyer and construction of an adjacent hotel but this was blocked by a protest group and so far there have been no viable suggestions on what role the theatre might have should it be restored.

The area in front of the Pavilion has changed dramatically since its closure.

The original approach to the theatre from what was once Abbey Place, at the bottom of Fleet Street, was through a beautiful avenue of flowering cherry trees which led to the front of the theatre on Vaughan Road - a spectacular sight in spring.

Between this avenue and Cary Parade, was Cary Green, a grassy oasis popular with sunbathing students in the 1960s.

In his meticulously researched history, ‘Torquay and Paignton, The Making of a Modern Resort’ (Phillimore and Co Ltd. 2003) Henry James Lethbridge recalls that in 1859 a large gun, a trophy of the Crimean War, was placed on Cary Green.

However, ‘members of the town’s elite objected on the grounds that this display of Russian ordnance might offend members of the Imperial Family living in the town.

“The gun was moved to Ellacombe Green - a working class area - where it was unlikely to be seen by any strolling Russian duke.”

However, in 1875 the gun was returned to Cary Green.

By the mid-20th century Cary Green had gained an altogether less salubrious reputation - as the preferred pick up point for Ladies of the Night.

“Even as late as the 1950s,” writes Lethbridge, “a few ageing tarts could be found at night, the last survivors of a long tradition, loitering around Cary Green.”

Cary Green and the cherry trees were bulldozed into oblivion in the early 1980s during the Fleet Street redevelopment project to be replaced by what we have today, designated Palm Gardens or Cary Palm Gardens by the developers.

Some have wrongly assumed this area to be the original Cary Green. In fact, it has no historical significance whatsoever other than to serve as a painful reminder of what many would describe as the worst piece of planning legislation the town has ever seen - the demolition of Swan Street, George Street and much of Fleet Street!

Palk Street served as the Devon General bus terminus and behind its large bus shelter stood the single storey Marine Tavern pub, which was a Plymouth Brewery house and which was a popular drinking hole for patrons and performers.

The tavern was demolished in the late 1970s or early 1980s and the buses moved to their present location on The Strand.