Film ID:
NEFA 9087



Visitor Tabs


The filmed element of an edition of the Tyne Tees Television programme 'Access' transmitted 26 July 1974 made by campaigners in support of the Sunderland Empire Theatre who discuss the reasons why their theatre is overlooked by both the Arts Council for funding and by many of the main touring theatre companies.

The film opens on a ship sailing up the river Wear and travelling under the Wearmouth Bridge. The film cuts to general views of the exterior of the Empire Theatre from positions on High Street West.

There are various archive photographs of the Sunderland Empire taken around the time it was opened in 1907. The film cuts to show various historic programmes relating to other theatres that existed in Sunderland that are now gone. These include the Avenue Theatre and Opera House, King’s Theatre, Theatre Royal Sunderland and The People’s Theatre. There are further archive photographs of ‘The Empire Theatre of Variety’, as it was called, around the time it was opened including shots taken inside showing the plush interiors.

On the wall of the theatre is a plaque to Vesta Tilly who opened the theatre on the 1st July 1907. There is a view of her portrait hanging on the wall.

Outside in the street stands the first presenter who says that the Sunderland Empire is the last remaining theatre in the town thanks to the ‘prompt, imaginative and unprecedented’ actions of the Sunderland Corporation who bought the theatre for the town in 1959. 

Photographs follow showing various theatres around the country being demolished.

The presenter walks up the steps towards the entrance of the theatre, stops and to camera says that ‘Sunderland acts, Sunderland leads the way’. As a local authority the Empire is the first number one touring theatre in civic hands. He continues into the theatre walking through a set of double doors, one of which is being held open by a concierge.

Inside the theatre the presenter climbs a set of stairs towards the dress circle. As he climbs his voiceover says that ‘since 1959 the Sunderland Corporation has spent over £1 million on refurbishing and running the theatre… today it is one of the largest and best equipped theatres in the country.’

The presenter walks through the public restaurant where three men sit around a table talking. He then walks though the coffee shop where another man takes a cup of coffee from the bar, walks over to a table nearby and sits down.

The presenter comes and stands outside the entrance to one of the theatre boxes. On the door is stencilled ‘Box D’. Behind him a second man hangs his coat on a peg and places a chain through the sleeve which is attached back to the peg. This, the presenter says, is the theatres new automatic cloakroom. A woman appears and while he is talking to camera he takes a pound note from his pocket and gives it to the woman as if buying a ticket. He then gives her a few coins and purchases a theatre programme.

The presenter walks into the box and takes a seat looking down onto the stage. The film cuts to an empty stage below. The camera comes back on the presenter who says ‘so what went wrong?’

‘I’ll tell you what went wrong’ comes a voice from the stage where a second presenter is seated on a sofa. He continues by saying that most of the national companies refuse to come to the Empire.

The film cuts to the stage and to the second presenter who says that the Empire has been ‘snubbed financially and theatrically’ and ‘treated like the owners of a second-rate provincial theatre’.

The first present joins the second on the stage and holds up a copy of the Arts Council report for 1960-61 entitled ‘Partners in Patronage’. He reads a passage from the report that says that assistance primarily should be given to those theatres that show a ‘sturdy sense of self help’.

The second presenter says that in 14 years the Arts Council has contributed a grand total of £25,000 – less than £2000 per year. No other theatre in the country receives as little.

General views around the theatre auditorium.

The film cuts backstage to where the two presenters are standing. The first presenter advises that for every pound we [Sunderland Corporation] spend the Arts Council has contributed two-and-a-half pence. ‘Some partner, some patronage’ he concludes.

The second presenter says that they are also being ‘snubbed theatrically’.  The film cuts to a lighting technician works at a set of controls. On stage the lights come up and there is a close up of one of the lights with a voiceover from the second presenter saying that they are ‘one of the most well equipped theatres in the county, but none of the big four national touring companies will play here’. There is a photograph of a two actors in Victorian costumes performing on stage.

The film cuts to show the front cover of a Sadler's Wells Opera programme. There are photographs of dancers from Royal Ballet and Festival Ballet. The sequence ends with a photograph of Paul Schofield playing King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The film changes to a poster for ‘DALTA in the North’. DALTA, explains one of the presenters, is the organisation through which all the touring companies make their bookings.  There is a second poster for DALTA advertising performances at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.

The film cuts to an office where a third man sits behind a desk speaking to camera. He says that DALTA offered Newcastle Theatre Royal no less than 25 weeks of productions, more than they could cope with. The Theatre Royal offered some productions to the Sunderland Empire, but when they contact DALTA in London they were told this wasn’t true. It is as if they won’t go to anywhere else in the north east but Newcastle. The man holds up a number programmes for DALTA productions at the Theatre Royal.

Back on the stage the first presenter walks towards camera and says that they have offered these companies ‘anything they could ever want but they still won’t come’.  The suspicion is that ‘overfed on grants, pampered by the London tourist audience they getting rather finicky about where they want to play’. There is also a strong suspicion that DALTA are encouraging them in their ‘geographical snobbery’.

The presenter walks off stage and the film cuts to him entering one of the dressing rooms. Someone can be heard in the shower as he walks across the room and leans again the dressing-table. The second presenter, who is in the shower, says that when speaking with Lord Harwood he was advised that the theatre’s audience figures ‘don’t justify any future visitors from Sadler's Wells Opera’. However, says the first presenter, they have played Billingham Forum which ‘has less than half our seating capacity’.

The first presenter hands a towel to the second who come out rubbing his hair; a second towel around his waist. Both men look disappointed.

The film cuts to the bar where the man seen previously in the office takes two pints of beer and places them on the table where the two presenters are sitting. The first presenter is smoking a cigarette as the third man sits down.

There are various photographs of famous names that have played at the Empire including Marlene Dietrich who said of the theatre that it was one of the best theatres she had ever worked in. There are various photographs of past productions.

Back in the bar the second presenter takes a swig from his beer and to camera says that ‘they can get the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow to come, but can we get the Royal Shakespeare Company from the Aldwych? Not a chance’.

The film cuts back to the auditorium as the second presenter walks down the aisle towards the stage. To camera he says that ‘those institutions from whom we expected help have offered the most tenacious opposition’.

The film cuts to an empty stage filmed from the upper circle. As the camera pans back the first presenter is seen seated. He gets up and to the camera concludes the film by asking the question that in 1974 the Sunderland Empire ‘have kept their side of the bargain, when are they going to keep theirs?’ The film ends with the presenter walking out of shot and the curtain coming down on the stage.