How Harrogate Theatre staged greatest comeback in its 119-year history

Inside Harrogate's greatest venue - Jim Clark who is proud of what he helped achieve at Harrogate Theatre as chairman for 10 years. (Picture by Gerard Binks)
Inside Harrogate's greatest venue - Jim Clark who is proud of what he helped achieve at Harrogate Theatre as chairman for 10 years. (Picture by Gerard Binks)

Looking back on his ten years as chairman of Harrogate Theatre, Jim Clark feels a sense of immense pride in the role that he played in reviving and transforming the 119-year-old institution.

The long-standing councillor was well aware of the topsy-turvy nature of its fortunes before he took on the role at the theatre which first opened its ornate doors in the heart of Harrogate on Oxford Street in the late Victorian era.

Flashback to his early years as Harrogate Theatre chair - Jim Clark, left, with the theatre's chief executive David Bown.

Flashback to his early years as Harrogate Theatre chair - Jim Clark, left, with the theatre's chief executive David Bown.

Having helped preside on a new golden age for the town’s most popular arts venue as part of a strong team, the culture-loving Scotsman can scarcely believe himself how it has all changed so much since the dark days of the early Noughties.

Mr Clark said: “If the theatre had closed in the period when I first became chair, people in Harrogate wouldn’t have been bothered. If the theatre were to close now, there would be a riot.
“I think my main achievement has been ensuring that people of Harrogate are now proud of their theatre and are attending in much greater numbers.
“It’s been a great team effort by the professional management at the theatre, a veritable army of volunteers, the Friends of Harrogate Theatre and not forgeting donors.”

Now that he has stood down from the role to become chair of North Yorkshire County Council, he can admit to how bleak the situation looked at the start of his tenure. In fact, he was even warned off taking the role.

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Mr Clark said: “Harrogate Theatre was the most challenging job I’ve ever done but the most rewarding job I’ve ever done.
“My great mentor was the late Fred Willis, a fellow councillor. I said to him ‘I’m thinking of becoming chair at the theatre’.
“He said ‘I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole’.
“The year before I arrived, the trust had a loss of £212,000 and 40 per cent of its income was from grants from the Arts Council, Harrogate Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council.
“The turnover was £1.5m. We had to cut costs and staff numbers and get bigger audiences by reconnecting with our market.”

Taken over by Harrogate Borough Council in 1960 before being run by the Harrogate (White Rose) Theatre Trust as a charity, Harrogate Theatre survived a funding crisis in the mid-eighties which resulted in it closing briefly in 1987.

Having recovered, it found itself in jeopardy once again in the mid-Noughties and dangerously reliant on grants just as the public purse began to shrink.

Part of a fresh team at the top of Harrogate Theatre which also included chief executive David Bown, associate director Phil Lowe and then-executive producer Kevin Jamieson, who is now senior producer at HOME in Manchester, turning the ship around meant embracing a business approach while increasing the range and quality of shows and improving the theatre’s facilities.

Mr Clark said: “It was very different times for Harrogate Theatre then. The chief person in the theatre was the artistic director. We decided not to replace the role. We needed a more business approach.
“The then-finance director at Harrogate Borough Council John Sowden supported the idea. When I saw David and Kevin’s business plan, I thought to myself ‘we can make this work’.”

With audiences up to record-breaking levels, a flourshing youth theatre and a packed programme of events to suit most tastes, the Harrogate Theatre has gained a national reputation while also staying in profit.

Eleven years ago it launched Harrogate Comedy Festival which has made the town a real comedy capital.

Mr Clark said: “In my first meeting with the Arts Council, they said that Harrogate Theatre seemed to devote a lot of time to productions by amateur companies and the annual pantomime.
“We brought in young stage directors, which is how we got to know Joyce Branagah, the current chair who is the sister of Kenneth Branagah.”

Having restored the auditorium, the circle bar and the foyer, Harrogate Theatre has rarely looked as good.

Jim said: “The theatre is now a major contributor to the economy of Harrogate and district.
“The last full year I was chairman in the year ending March 31, 2018 the theatre’s turnover was £3.9m and surplus of £33,000 and less than seven per cent of income came from the Arts Council and Harrogate Borough Council.
“It is calculated Harrogate Theatre contributes more than £18m to the local community.”

He may have left for pastures new but Jim still thinks the potential of Harrogate Theatre has yet to be tapped fully. As someone who trod the boards himself as a youngster, he believes culture has a bigger role to play in the future of Harrogate’s town centre than has been scripted so far.

Jim said:“Culture makes a major contribution to the health and wellbeing of whole communities,” he said.
“Harrogate Theatre is such a beautiful building but it’s hemmed in Oxford Street by the back of shops. It needs to be opened up for the good of the town centre.”

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How Harrogate Theatre became comedy capital of the north

When superstar comic John Bishop steps onto the stage at Harrogate Theatre this October, it will signal the start of the hugely popular Harrogate Comedy Festival’s 11th year.
The annual event not only attracts the big names who even come to the theatre to shoot their videos, last year’s event saw 21 shows with 60 performers across 12 days and 6,485 tickets sold.
As successful as the festival is, part of the thinking behind the event was very practical.
Jim Clark said: “I’m not a great fan of stand-up comedy but we did it partly because all a comedy show needs is a microphone, a glass of water and a comedian!
“Now we’re in our 11th year of Harrogate Comedy Festival which has been a tremendous success in the town and has won a national reputation.
“We’ve had everyone from Eddie Izzard and Jimmy Carr to Sarah Millican coming here.
“Ken Dodd says he loves playing Harrogate Theatre.”

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