Sunday 13 January 2008

From Grand to Grove - entertaining south Bedfordshire

From Grand to Grove Entertaining South Bedfordshire
by Eddie Grabham
published by The Book Castle, Dunstable in 2007 at £16.99

Eddie Grabham’s book was published to coincide with the opening of the new Grove Theatre in Dunstable (which, incidentally, is doing very well - 01582 609351).

It has been claimed that Dunstable was `the cradle of English drama`. This was because Geoffrey de Gorham’s miracle play, based on the martyrdom of St Katherine of Alexandria and performed in Dunstable in the twelfth century, is thought to have been the first English production in the vernacular.

In December 1898 the much-loved Grand Theatre was opened by Lillie Langtry. It was near the Luton railway stations and, therefore, easily accessible to people from the surrounding area. It was demolished in 1957 and remained the only purpose-built theatre in the south of the county until the Grove Theatre was opened. However, live theatre could be enjoyed at other venues, for example at Dunstable’s Little Theatre and Queensway Hall, Leighton Buzzard’s Exchange Theatre and Library Theatre and Luton’s Alma and Library Theatre.

The author goes on to describe the age of film going. The first permanent cinema in Bedfordshire was opened in Luton in 1909 with the unimaginative name of the Anglo-American Electric Picture Palace. Some doubted whether the new `flicks` would be popular but they certainly were as the title of the next chapter in the book indicates: `South Bedfordshire goes Movie Crazy`. The book names local cinemas which became significant parts of people’s lives in Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard, Luton and Toddington in the first half of the twentieth century, a real trip down memory lane! Cinemas certainly played a considerable role in boosting morale during the Second World War. They also provided `a valuable channel for essential propaganda`.

The heyday of the cinema was challenged by television. One by one the lovely old cinemas, with their beautiful artistic interiors, closed and took on other lives, for example as ballrooms, bingo halls or nightclubs. Films were still shown but were more likely to be found at multiplexes.

Eddie Grabham’s book is full of delightful photographs. There are also mentions of famous personalities who came to perform on a Luton stage: Julie Andrews, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Lane, Ken Dodd, Warren Mitchell and Sam Wanamaker to name a few. Recently, the actor Brian Blessed has shown a particular interest in the new Grove Theatre in Dunstable.

This book is full of memories but is also a social history of one aspect of Bedfordshire life in the twentieth century.

Reviewed by Anne Allsopp

Buy this book from The Castle Bookshop, Dunstable - see links to bookshops on the right.

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