In the heart of Brighton's Old Town, in the middle of Middle Street, is a building of national importance. You may never have noticed the Hippodrome. It's been dark since 2006 after 41 years as a bingo hall. But before that, from 1901 to 1964 it was the most important variety theatre on the Sussex coast, with a national reputation and recognition.
The picture above shows the Hippodrome auditorium in 1902, when it was remodelled by the great Frank Matcham. The one on the right shows the proscenium arch in 2013. The interior is still intact and mostly in excellent condition. Many more pictures in the Gallery.
Sources: company annual reports, Land Registries (Jersey, Dublin).
A timeline of the Hippodrome history.
Some basic facts
The Hippodrome and Hippodrome House were Grade II* listed by English Heritage on 20 December 1985.
In 2007 the Rank Organisation, parent of Mecca Bingo, sold the Hippodrome to Derwent London. The value of Dukes Lane and the Hippodrome site at 31 January 2007 was £13.1m.
On 16 February 2007 Academy Music Group (AMG) took out a 30-year lease. AMG currently operates 26 music venues around the country, branded as O2 Academy. Its principal shareholder is the American-owned concert promoter LiveNation.
In October 2007 Derwent sold Duke's Lane and the Hippodrome site to Cheval Properties for £20.0m. The properties totalling 5,950m2 were then producing an annual return of £0.9m.
Cheval apparently immediately transferred ownership to a Jersey-registered company called Kuig Property Investments No 6 Ltd. This is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kuig Property Investments Ltd, also registered in Jersey, which in turn is a wholly-owned subsidary of The Fifth Belfry Property Investments (UK) plc, which is registered in Ireland. The Fifth Belfry was set up to attract private client investors of Allied Irish Banks. Its portfolio of mainly retail properties is managed by Cheval Properties. However, because its debts far exceed its asset value, Fifth Belfry was required by its lenders to conduct an orderly disposal of its assets with a view to winding up the company.
In April 2015 Kuig sold the Hippodrome, Hippodrome House and 20-21 Ship Street, which is the essential access yard at the rear of the Hippodrome site, to the former leaseholder, Academy Music Group (AGM).
Kuig also sold the nearby Duke's Lane to a property company.
Our Brighton Hippodrome began in autumn 2013 when the plans to convert the unique Hippodrome building into an eight-screen cinema became more widely known. A meeting was convened by Professor Gavin Henderson, former director of the Brighton Festival, one very wet Sunday afternoon in October 2013. The meeting room at the Friends' Meeting House was unexpectedly packed to the rafters. Among the audience were architects, performers, historians, members of amenity groups, local residents and members of the local branch of the actors' union, Equity.
An ePetition was opened on the Brighton and Hove City Council website urging the council to use its best endeavours to ensure that the Hippodrome was restored for live performance. The petition was presented to the Economic Development and Culture Committee of the council on 23 January 2014, having gathered 1,099 signatures.
Over the following weeks, thanks in no small measure to the initiative of Jevon Antoni-Jay, the present campaign group was assembled and plans began to evolve. The first objective was to lodge an objection to the planning application for a cinema conversion.
We also set out to raise public awareness of the plans. Pretty well everyone is in favour of restoring the Hippodrome and cannot understand why anyone would want it to be turned into another cinema.
Meanwhile, our evolving business plan shows how the Hippodrome could be used round the year for a wide variety of live performances—top-class theatre, music, dance, opera, West End musicals, ballet, variety, stand-up—as well as for snooker, wrestling, conferences, even large-screen prestige cinema presentations. The Hippodrome's unique circular layout means it could also be used for theatre-in-the-round, circuses and 'roundhouse' productions like the Cirque du Soleil. Think Brighton's answer to the Sheffield Crucible, Strictly on the South Coast, our Albert Hall.
Use of the building on this scale has not been contemplated since the heyday when the Beatles topped the bill. Unfortunately, the developers haven't really considered it either. Yet this is what the Hippodrome was built for.