With one of Tyneside’s most iconic buildings undergoing a major refurbishment as well as celebrating its 175th anniversary, Liz Lamb, from the Evening Chronicle, speaks to one of the Theatre Royal’s biggest fans. John Dixon was only four when his grandfather took him to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle for the first time.

That day in 1964 was the beginning of a love affair and since then the dad-of-two has enjoyed hundreds of performances at the venue.

John has now turned this passion into a project to celebrate the theatre’s 175th anniversary and has been appealing through the Chronicle to people on Tyneside and actors who have appeared on the stage to share their memories.

The 51-year-old, of Cramlington, Northumberland, says: “My grandfather Albert Battman was a well-know businessman in Hebburn and he used to take me to the theatre every week.

“I am the biggest fan now. It is a beautiful venue. Having been brought up with this building, it has become an integral part of my life.

“It is the 175th anniversary this year and the theatre is undergoing a major refurbishment so it seemed like an ideal time to do it.”

Many of the great names of the stage have played at the Royal – from Keane to Irving, Olivier to Dench and the Hollywood greats Orson Welles, Charlton Heston and Jack Lemmon. In 2009, the modern great Ian McKellen described it as his favourite theatre. John, who recalls watching a Royal Gala performance at the theatre attended by Prince Andrew and his then-wife Sarah Ferguson, says: “It is the number one touring theatre and we have the best panto in the country. Vivienne Leigh appeared here in the 40s and Michael Redgrave in the 30s. Richard Burton was in Hamlet in 1954 and Dicky Valentine appeared in panto in 1955 and 1957.

“Lots of people have written in about performances they have seen and all the big stars that have visited, such as Orson Welles who appeared in Othello.

“I remember my grandmother was gobsmacked when she met Dame Anna Neagal, who was the biggest star in England at the time.

“The stage door keeper arranged it for her when the actress was appearing in My Fair Lady as Mrs Higgins in 1979.

“Not long after, my grandmother was assaulted in Wallsend and she received a Christmas card from Anna wishing her well, which was a nice touch.”

John has received dozens of letters from theatre-goers and many have sent him programmes of performances.

“It’s amazing that people have kept these programmes,” he says. “They bring back so many memories, stuff that you had forgotten. Some of the programmes from the war years feature air raid warnings.

“A lot of people say they remember it during the war and joining long queues outside to get a seat ‘in the gods’ as we call it at the top of the auditorium. Whoever got to the top quickest got the best seats in the middle.

“I heard from someone who dropped their gas masks in the gallery as well as someone who had an accident on the way to the theatre and missed the performance so the theatre staff sorted them out tickets for another performance.”

A lady from Gosforth wrote to John recalling how her dad was a butcher during the war. Because of rationing, he would be bribed by an usher at the theatre who would give him tickets in exchange for an extra string of sausages.

Bonnie Langford contacted John from New York to tell him about her performance in Peter Pan the musical.

In 1986 Bonnie stepped in to make Kibblesworth youngster Dawn Bailey’s dream come true. The star heard about the seven-year-old’s ambition and arranged for her to dance on stage at the Theatre Royal with her.

“A lot of people have commented on Bonnie’s performance, which I also recall, and it was brilliant,” says John, who is editor of whatsonstage.com north east.

“Paddy McGee remembers his parents winning two tickets for the Dicky Valentine panto and they bought an extra one so they could take him along.”

If you would like to share your memories of the Theatre Royal contact John at Theatre Memories, PO Box 246, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE12 6AE or email: theatre memories@btinternet.com

Article published with permission from the Evening Chronicle