A momentous season as Saddleworth Players celebrates 50 years at Millgate
For Saddleworth Players our 2022/23 season will be a truly momentous one as we celebrate our 50th Anniversary in residence at The Millgate Arts Centre.
Our history, however, can be traced back to the 1920’s with the “Girls Friendly Society” at St Thomas’s Church, in Delph. The society decided to start up evening dramatic art classes and sought and won sponsorship from the W.E.A. (Workers Education Association).
Over the next few years the girls were actively encouraged to extend their horizons by involving themselves in actual performances. This they did by putting on sketches and revues at suitable venues around the villages of Saddleworth.
By 1933/34 men had been welcomed in to the group, exactly when is unclear. At this time they were performing only one act plays and the first recorded one was the well known Victorian melodrama “The Monkey’s Paw”. It was a great success and many more followed.
In 1939 and still lacking their own performance venue, the group performed the Morality play, “Everyman” at no less than three different local venues and over the hills at Paddock Wood. The actors travelled by coach and a Leslie Whitehead brought along a large notice to hang on the side. It read “The Saddleworth Players on Tour”. The name stuck! Most of the plays at that time were performed under very challenging circumstances with many being outside in peoples gardens, open parkland, and wooded areas. Changing facilities were of course scarce or non-existent, so the actors used to travel to the venues in full costume as best they could. Part of Saddleworth Players folklore tells the story of an actor playing the part of an Angel who had to cycle from Delph in full costume to a production. Cycling back home still in full regalia and in failing light together with flat cap & bicycle clips, he came upon a man and his dog who had quite obviously spent a considerable time in the “White Lion” public house. The man let out one fearful shriek and ran away at great speed. The dog however chased the “Angel” all the way home.
Despite all the problems, the touring bug had bitten this young Company. They would build the set, gather the lighting and props needed, then pack the wagon Friday night, perform Saturday evening then after the show bring everything back home.
During the war the Company was becoming known and had their first contact with Oldham Rep. Since professional actors were in short supply some of our actors and actresses actually performed with the Rep. The boys were paid with real money, 1p and the girls, to their disgust, were given flowers.
There was a great enthusiasm throughout the war. The players contributed to the war charities and felt they were acting for Britain.
In 1946 youth returned to the society, and brought with them the ambition to build on experience, to make things happen. Charlie (Charles Winterbottom – builder of, amongst other things, the monument on Pots and Pans) gave the Company a house, the present site of Delph Band Club. It had been a long time empty, was not entirely decrepit and was affectionately known as the Dive. It could never have become a theatre but was invaluable as a Club House and set store come rehearsal rooms for a thriving dramatic society of about nine members.
Plays were performed anywhere that would have them. The Parochial Hall in Uppermill was an occasionally embarrassing venue. The stage lighting ran off a shilling in the slot meter. Sometimes the lights would go out and some member of the audience would be persuaded to part with the coinage.
By 1951 the Delph Mechanics Institute was targeted as a “place of our own”. Their committee was quite happy to let Saddleworth Players have the lower floor at a rent of £30 per year – provided they obeyed the rules formulated in 1876. Work on the first theatre began in earnest; everyone contributed, professionals and volunteers alike. A stage was erected from wormy wood and Alec Holland, (local chemist & magistrate, later to become Chairman of the Urban District Council), concocted a potion to polish off dry rot. Of course there was no money – well there was nine pence in the kitty – but people who submitted their bills knew that they would be paid as soon as the Players had some money in the coffers. Fortunately and generously many of the creditors become patrons, (not surprisingly for they did have a stake in the place). The theatre opened in 1952 with “The Paragon” entrance fee 11 pence.
The lower level of the Mechanics was home to Saddleworth Players for twenty years. The theatre part of the building, which was now owned by Saddleworth Players, was more or less in good order (except for the toilets which remained resolutely primitive to the end) but the building above was derelict and laying itself to rest. By 1972 the old Co-op across the road was empty and unsuited to modern retail use, and Delph desperately needed a car park. Stalemate!
Lord Rhodes of Saddleworth, a keen follower of the Players, banged a few heads together with the result that the Council bought the old Mechanics’ and the Co-op, the Mechanics’ was demolished to form a car park and the Players used the money to convert the Co-op into the present theatre, then known as the Players’ Theatre, Millgate Centre. Along with this, the West Riding County Library, a tenant of the Players, also transferred into the new premises.
Financial assistance was given by the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Arts Council and the Pilgrim Trust. The rest of the cost was raised by the 200 Club and various social functions. The whole of the internal surface finishes, stage and setting was designed, financed and constructed by members of Saddleworth Players aided by the at cost services of local contractors. The architect for the project was Tony Doherty, the chairman of Saddleworth Players, and the main contractor was John Winterbottom, a member of the Society.
After eighteen months of hard work for Saddleworth Players since their last performance in the Mechanics in Spring 1972, the Millgate Centre opened on 3rd November 1973 with its first production “The Italian Straw Hat” by Eugene Labiche.
Fifty years later “The Saddleworth Players” are still “at home” and still producing wonderful community theatre.
Millgate Arts Centre is celebrating 50 years! Saddleworth Players moved from the Mechanics Hall in Millgate in 1972 with the first show in 1973. Our Golden Jubilee will be celebrated throughout 2022 & 2023 culminating in a special performance in autumn 2023 to mark the 50th anniversary of We plan to run events through the year and gather memories of the last 50 years and share them with the creative community. If you have a story, photos or memories you want to share please get in touch. Verityjmann@gmail.com