Want to save our Hippodrome? Then bring it back into use

Brighton Hippodrome first opened its doors in 1901, and has hosted some of the most famous actors, musicians and comedians in the world, including Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones.

However, this spacious and architecturally important building started to fall into decline in the sixties, before closing its doors in 2007.  Since then it has remained shuttered while various developers have mooted different plans for how to bring it back into use.

The façade of the Brighton Hippodrome from the northwest

The façade of the Brighton Hippodrome from the northwest

To date none of these plans have succeeded, and the latest setback came when the cinema company Vue pulled out of a deal that would have seen the space turned into a an eight-screen cinema with four restaurants.

According to a BBC article, English Heritage had decided that the proposal to turn the theatre into a cinema was likely to represent a “final chance to save the Hippodrome”.

But campaigners, including The Victorian Society, Our Brighton Hippodrome and Save Our Hippodrome opposed the scheme, saying they would rather the building remained in use as a theatre.

Obviously, the ideal option would be for the Hippodrome to be restored as a functioning theatre.  It is a performance space—one of only three remaining in the whole of the UK that still has a circular auditorium that could be used for a wide variety of shows.

Local campaigners have recently had some success in banding together to save their communities’ pubs from conversion into houses.

However, the Hippodrome was already judged to need £9 million in repairs by the events company Live Nation in February 2012, and that figure is going to keep rising as the building continues to age. Raising enough money to save a local pub is one thing, but raising upwards of £9 million is quite another.

David Fisher, campaign manager for Our Brighton Hippodrome, set the figure for restoring the Hippodrome as a working theatre at between £17 and £18 million, but told the BBC he was confident that the charity could raise the funds.  However, to date Our Brighton Hippodrome has produced no concrete plans for where this money will come from.

Our Brighton Hippodrome have put out a lengthy study arguing that the space would be viable as a live performance venue, yet without the financial backing of a large company such as LiveNation or Vue, it is hard to see how their dream is going to turn into a reality.

The awning of the Hippodrome in Brighton's Middle Street

The awning of the Hippodrome in Brighton’s Middle Street

The word ‘hippodromos’ was originally used in ancient Greece to describe the open-air arenas where horse and chariot races took place. Since then, the word has been re-used to describe theatres and other enclosed performance spaces. This reflects a fact about history – things change, and things are re-purposed.

I’m not arguing that all theatres should go the way of chariot-racing arenas, and that Brighton’s Cultural Quarter should consist of nothing but eight-screen cinemas.

What I’m saying instead is that an insistence on preserving the exact historical purpose of a building could in this case come at the cost of seeing that building return to active use.

Campaigners in the ‘Save our Hippodrome’ and ‘Our Brighton Hippodrome’ conservation groups should ask themselves – would they rather a derelict, crumbling old shell of a building, or a venue that is taken care of and contributes to the life of the city?  I know which one I would choose.

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