Barrfields Pavilion, Largs
Celebrating 75 Years: 1930-2005
By Ryan Moir
"We’re playing the Barrfields this summer!"
This was the response from many comedians, musicians, actors, singers and entertainers who played during the Summer Season in the Clyde Coast holiday town of Largs at the Barrfields Pavilion Theatre.
Mansfield (also known as Mansefield) was a Victorian mansion in Largs owned by Dr Hugh Lang - it stretched from the putting green to the sports ground and included Millennium Court Housing Complex at the north side of the Pavilion. In 1925, Local Largs man Mr Robert Barr purchased Mansfield House and donated it to the Town Council with £1,000 towards development. The development of the Mansfield land was to add popularity to the town as a holiday resort. In honour of his generosity, it was decided to rename Mansfield as Barrfields. A sports ground was built and in 1930, a pavilion was built. Largs was an extremely popular resort for holidaymakers and day-trippers from ’doon the watter’ and it was felt somewhere was needed for them. Originally to be called the Barr Hall, the Pavilion was to be used as a place for holidaymakers on wet days (quite common in Largs!) instead of them standing on cold street corners. The theatre would not just provide summer entertainment, but act as a "town hall", a venue for amateur productions, the local dance hall and a receiving house for shows.
Planned in 1929, opened on 11th April 1930, the Pavilion was set with a wonderful walled rose garden to the south east and a quick addition, was the 18 hole putting green to the west. It was formally opened in 1930 by the wife of Robert Barr. The theatre had a fully equipped stage, dance floor, tea and luncheon rooms and seated 1003 people exactly on three levels- the stalls, the balcony and the gallery. Reflecting the 1920’s with art deco architecture it was designed by local architect William Barclay. For summer 1930, the theatre was leased to Mr John Robertson Mungo of Prestwick who was to provide summer variety entertainment in the form of "Largs Entertainers of 1930." The theatre’s first summer season was a financial disaster and a great loss for Mr Mungo and the Town Council. In the winter of 1930, the Largs Choral Society ‘Musical and Dramatic Junior Section’ presented the first pantomime at the theatre- ‘Aladdin.’ The advertisement stated ‘with full orchestra, scenery and effects. The theatre was leased to Mr Harry Kemp (Mungo’s offer was refused) in 1931 for 10 seasons at £600 per year. Harry, who leased and owned a chain of cinemas, theatres and amusements arcades from Dunoon to Troon , was renowned for his all-Scottish shows like 'Scotch Broth' at the Barrfields' sister theatre La Scala in Saltcoats and 'Sunny Days' at the Barrfields Pavilion featuring George West, Dave Willis, Pat Kirkwood, Jack Radcliffe and the Tiller Girls.
"HALF PAST EIGHT"
Soon, many Scottish stars preferred ’the Barrfields’ to other Scottish theatres outside Glasgow. Many performers would follow a routine of pantomime in the winter and summer shows like Half Past Eight in Glasgow [began in 1933] and perform spots at seaside theatres. Having to live up to Kemp’s standards of entertainment, George B Bowie leased the theatre in 1940. George B Bowie like Kemp, also had many entertainment buildings in the west of Scotland. During the war years, the Pavilion was used as a maintenance and repair base for Catalina RAF seaplanes. The putting green at the front was actually laid out as a runway. Somewhere was needed for the summer shows when Barrfields was unavailable, so a large marquee was set up outside the council chambers further along the Largs seafront
In 1951, Louis Freeman leased the theatre but despite booking stars such as Mary Lee and Hector Nicol, the promising venture lost money. In 1952, George Bowie took over the lease again with his son Ross producing the spectacular productions. Ross, by the sixties had took over the entertainment empire his father once had. In the late fifties, the theatre was enhanced with the stalls seats becoming a permanent fixture replacing wooden benches.
During the 1960s Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy as ‘Francie and Josie’ proved popular. "People were literally hanging from the rafters" quoted Mr Fulton who referring to the audience’ laughter remembered the theatre from a young age visiting Largs with his family. Other popular regulars were Johnny Beattie (referred to in the Largs and Millport Weekly news as the ‘king of comedy’), Andy Stewart, Calum Kennedy, Una McLean, the Alexander Brothers and Clark and Murray. One thing is - what Scottish stars didn’t perform there! "They like saying we’re playing the Barrfields!" said Mr Bowie. However by the late sixties popularity of Scottish seaside holidays was fading out. One factor was the power of television. Variety theatre suffered severely from this as most of the population could now get stars in their own homes via the box. But the biggest blow to Barrfields, came when package holidays abroad began to replace seaside excursions. By the early seventies, the summer show as it once was had vanished. Originally a routine would be long running shows from June until September with a resident cast of up and coming performers, with a new change of programme on a Monday and on the complimentary ticket evening on a Thursday. And of course a big Scottish star (or two!) would perform often to packed houses. However this was minimised on certain years in the sixties and particularly the early seventies to one night performances per week. George Bowie led the theatre through these times with his more cabaret style show ’Big Night Out.’ In 1967, numbers were reduced to 800 to provide more comfort for patrons.
In 1970, the foundation stone for the Barrfields Swimming Pool was laid to the left of the Pavilion in place of the garden. A major event took place the following year. As well as the pool opening in March 1971, it was to be the last ever year since 1930 that a summer show was to be produced. In 1971, the only remaining summer shows in the West of Scotland were at the Gaiety Ayr, the Winter Garden’s Rothesay and the Barrfields Largs. This was soon reduced to just two. After the departure of the summer show, the Pavilion was kept alive through the Largs Players, Largs Amateur Operatic Society and the North Ayrshire Arts Centre - and of course touring productions and one night concerts. But a few years later in replacement of the summer show, all touring companies and performers that booked the theatre during the summer, were to be publicised as part of the ’summer season,’ hoping to attract audiences- but the project wasn’t as popular as ‘the summer show.’
However, certain one-night shows did bring audiences into the area. 70’s regular’s included Dorothy Paul, ‘the big yin’ Billy Connolly and of course, local boys Gallagher and Lyle. Graham Lyle began life in a local Largs band called ‘The Bluefrets’ and soon met his fellow musician Benny Gallagher. They moved to London and their success grew with countless top hits. Graham has written music for artistes such as Cliff Richard, Wet Wet Wet, Tina Turner and Diana Ross - but they don’t mind popping back to Largs for a performance now and again! Converting the theatre into a community centre was one option. Another option was a sports hall. But many theatre-goers, performers and residents of Largs disapproved. The solution was that the theatre would coincide as a cinema and projection equipment was installed- this action saved the building.
For health and safety reasons the gallery, the highest seating level was removed. Still, the theatre was suffering from lack of maintenance. The theatre had been hardly been updated since its beginnings in the Britain of George V and it became clear that something had to be done about it. Approaching the nineties, 60 years after building, rules and regulations regarding public entertainment buildings had changed. So while planning on bringing safety up to date, probably the biggest development in the theatre’s history was about to take place.
In 1993, work began on developing the Barrfields grounds. It was revealed that the Barrfields Pavilion Theatre and swimming pool was to be built in a new complex, joining the two buildings with other facilities in the middle of the two. In 1263, 730 years previously, the people of Largs fought out the Viking invaders. The new Barrfields centre was to be entitled the ‘Vikingar.’ The Barrfields Pavilion is today almost unrecognisable from before work began in 1993. Several windows were removed from the new restructured theatre façade and the entrance room to the theatre was demolished. Theatre numbers were reduced to 500 with disabled access and the stage was updated with new technics. In place of the Pavilion tearoom, the Vikingar reception was built. During an interval in the new look Barrfields - ice cream could be bought from the new Winter Garden café or drinks could be ordered from the beautiful theatre bar, built on the first floor, overlooking picturesque horizons of the Firth of Clyde. The caretaker’s flat at the back of the theatre was demolished to extend dressing rooms, build administration offices and to build a soft play area. The new Vikingar attraction, incorporating the Barrfields Pavilion Theatre, was opened in 1995. 20,000 people visited the theatre itself within one year of refurbishment. The original box office in the theatre foyer is a reminder of former days at the Pavilion. Inscribed above it and at the balcony entrance foyer are the words ‘Pavilion Theatre’ which are familiar to so many who holidayed in Largs.
"THE PRIDE OF THE CLYDE"
Despite the summer shows long gone, the theatre is extremely popular. Touring theatre companies like Borderline and Scottish Opera are regular visitors, as are variety shows like the ‘Pride of the Clyde’ and concert parties. Every Monday there is a tea dance for older citizens of the town. Local societies like the Largs Players, Largs Amateur Operatic Society and Largs Youth Theatre are also popular with One Act Comedies, musicals, light opera and variety shows. The Players produce and perform the annual pantomime at the Pavilion, that has run since 1972 and the Operatic perform an annual Spring musical production.
Many variety theatre’s in the past forty years have went the unfortunate way - into bingo halls, permanent cinemas, nightclubs, dereliction or even demolition. But it is good to know, as we approach the theatre’s 75th Birthday, that even in the smallest community, there is still a place for live theatre entertainment.
It is regular productions by local societies these that ensure the Barrfields Theatre still thrives and it is up to them to ensure that future generations share many happy times as generations did before.
Here’s to many more happy years at the Barrfields Pavilion!