The ongoing planning travesty that is the Hippodrome

The Hippodrome opened in 1897 as an ice rink and was converted into a theatre in 1901
The Hippodrome opened in 1897 as an ice rink and was converted into a theatre in 1901

Plans to convert the derelict former Hippodrome building have been approved by the city council.

Plans to convert the derelict former Hippodrome building in Middle Street into an eight-screen cinema, restaurant, and shopping complex have been approved by the city council; they have not been approved by the general public.

More than 14,000 people signed a petition demanding the building be restored as a live-performance venue, and 12,000 emailed the planning committee, apparently the biggest -ever postbag relating to a planning issue. The Our Brighton Hippodrome campaign group (OBH) has held demonstrations by the Max Miller statue in New Road (Miller being one of the galaxy of stars who formerly appeared at the theatre) and again outside Hove Town Hall. They rightly feel the building, which is listed Grade II*, is ideally suited for large spectacles such as ballet, opera, musicals, and even as a conference centre. They point out that Brighton already has a multiplex just down the road.

Ah, but we now know (following this newspaper’s exclusive article on November 28) that the council wants to get rid of the Kingswest complex in order to open up Churchill Square to the seafront and make space for a 20-storey apartment block. Could this pharaonic and, to my mind, unappealing proposal - which presumably has been hatching behind the scenes for some time - by any chance be why they have been so keen to establish an alternative cinema complex nearby?

The word “hippodrome” derives from Greek - “hippos” means horse, “dromos” a course. Originally, it meant a racecourse for horses and chariots or, in later usage, a circus venue or variety theatre. The earliest place in Brighton that met this definition was the Royal Circus and Amphitheatre, which opened on The Level in 1808 under the Prince of Wales’s patronage (nearby Circus Street recalls its location).

In 1840, William Barry opened a circus in Edward Street, where the Amex building now stands. Then, in 1876, JF Ginnett opened his Royal Hippodrome in Park Crescent Place. This held 1,700 people, had a complimentary omnibus service, and from 1878 was illuminated by electricity (preempting the London theatres). Here the audience could watch vast numbers of horses, elephants, and other animals, as well as clowns, jugglers and acrobats. In 1891, Ginnett opened an even larger venue, the New Hippodrome, in North Road, seating 5,000 and featuring even more dramatic displays. Unfortunately, he died soon afterwards and the place went through various incarnations, including as a furniture warehouse, before burning down in 1961.

Meanwhile, the building we now know as the Hippodrome had opened in 1897 as an ice rink, to be converted into a mega-theatre in 1901 by the celebrated Frank Matcham, architect of 150 theatres, including the London Coliseum. It still boasts the country’s only surviving equestrian entrance, leading off from the stage into what is now a car park. It soon became the most celebrated variety theatre in the south of England.

The stars who have trod its boards include Houdini, Laurel and Hardy, Lillie Langtry, Fats Waller, Buster Keaton, Chaplin, Olivier. Here, in 1964, the Beatles - and, a week later, the Rolling Stones - played to frenetic audiences, with the streets outside blocked by screaming fans. Alas, from 1968, the place more dully served for decades as a Mecca bingo hall. Since 2007 it has been empty, boarded up - yet another in that sad category of neglected heritage buildings our city seems to specialise in.

Well, I align myself with the two Gavins - Henderson and Stamp, who have both spoken out about this planning travesty - and with OBH, the Theatres Trust (which currently places the building top of their list of theatres at risk), the Victorian Society, and those 14,000 signatories, in thinking Alaska Development Consultants’ £35 million scheme an unworthy solution.