(First published in 1991 in volume 5, pp. 89-90, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)
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Domes of Delight: the history of the Bradford Alhambra
Peter Holdsworth. Bradford Libraries and Information Service, £8.95.
By the end of the nineteenth century living conditions for most Bradford people were noticeably better than they had been fifty years before. The town had passed the worst of its industrialisation, and was entering what has been called its 'Indian summer' with a still prosperous, though troubled, textile industry providing employment for a population which was earning better wages and working shorter hours.
More time and money meant that leisure activities assumed an increasing importance in people's lives, and there were various organisations who were eager to provide opportunities for worthwhile recreation. The church or chapel provided a range of useful activities, the Mechanics Institute ran courses of lectures on subjects of varying degrees of seriousness, the mill might have a band or choir, and the local authority supplied parks, libraries and museums. All these institutions were seen as worthy, however, and most people wanted to spend their spare time having fun. The most popular place of entertainment was the pub, but watching and playing cricket, football and rugby were popular, as was going to the music hall and the theatre.
In Bradford the theatre meant Francis Laidler At various times he owned the Prince's, the Empire, and the Theatre Royal in Bradford, as well as the Theatre Royal, Leeds and the Hippodrome, Keighley. His most important theatre, however, was the Alhambra, and this is what he and his successors retained when the other parts of his empire were closed, sold or otherwise disposed of In his own world he was a figure of great regional and some national importance. In particular, he was renowned for his pantomimes. which subsidised his theatres during the rest of the year. He produced over 250 of them, more than any other producer before or since, and it is fitting that Bradford became a centre for this kind of entertainment which appeals to all kinds and classes of people, for the town has never been a place where birth or class counts for much.
After Laidler's death, his widow Gwladys took over, and when the Alhambra became too great a financial burden for her, Bradford Council purchased it, and put Rowland Hill, who had been associated with the theatre since 1914, in charge. It was he who managed to keep the Alhambra going through the difficult years of the 1960's and 1970's when the structural problems of the building and its general lack of facilities made its future seem doubtful. Finally, Bradford Metropolitan Council made the, then brave, decision to refurbish the building as part of its general strategy of appealing to the growing tourist market. In 1986 the new Alhambra was re-opened, providing Bradford with one of the finest theatres in the north of England.
Peter Holdsworth has long been associated with the performing arts, being the film and theatre critic of the Telegraph and Argus for thirty years. No one is better qualified to tell the story of the Alhambra and he tells it with great authority, and perhaps more important, great affection. In doing so he illustrates not just the history of one theatre, but also an important part of the history of Bradford.
The book is very well produced and Bradford Libraries are to be congratulated on the quality of the reproductions. It is also gratifying to see a proper index. At a time when indexes are so often an afterthought and compiled in a hurry this is a bonus indeed.
© 1991, David James and The Bradford Antiquary