Knightstone’s past explored in poignant new book

PUBLISHED: 10:00 19 July 2015

Knightstone theatre, pictured by Leslie G Sandys during an early 1960s Gaytime season.

Knightstone theatre, pictured by Leslie G Sandys during an early 1960s Gaytime season.

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THE colourful history of a once-beloved Weston theatre has been explored in a ‘joyous and well-illustrated’ new book.

Former journalist Jonathan Shorey has spent much of the past two years immersed in researching Knightstone: The Story Of Weston-super-Mare’s ‘Island’ Theatre.

The fruit of that research has now been published, and serves as ‘a poignant and lasting reminder of summer holidays, Christmas pantos and autumn evenings spent shivering in England’s best-ventilated seafront theatre’.

The book recalls how Knightstone Pavilion And Opera House was opened amid great fanfare in 1902, and lovingly charts the 2,000-seat venue’s decades at the forefront of the town’s theatre industry.

It revisits long-forgotten shows and unearths bygone pictures and memories, including some shared by the likes of Weston-born comedian John Cleese, who fondly recalls regular family visits and the fact that ‘we always went to the pantomime’.

Performances by famous showbusiness names like Norman Wisdom, Ken Dodd, Morecambe and Wise, Max Miller, Oswald Mosley and Diana Fluck (later Diana Dors), plus the occasional royal visit, are all recalled in vivid detail.

Some 60 years of local opera, great impressarios and top-class variety are shared too, before attention turns to Knightstone’s inevitable sorry decline.

BBC televsion reached Weston in 1952, and ITV six years later. The two combined to sound the death knell for variety theatre.

While that meant the writing was on the wall for Knightstone, Mr Shorney writes that the venue’s decline was ‘complex and bitter – intimately hitched both to changing tastes and civic hand-wringing over the future of Weston as a resort, and the resources available to maintain and adapt an ageing building’.

As many Westonians will know, Knighstone was closed by 1991, and reborn in 2007 (after what Mr Shorney describes as ‘endless false starts’) as 26 flats and a café.

Although Mr Shorney is a Bristolian, his father Fred was born in Weston 100 years ago, while his great-great-uncle Jesse Shorney was one of Weston’s Victorian town commissioners, and his knowledge of – and passion for – Weston’s former theatre shines throughout.

Jonathan Shorney’s Knightstone (ISBN 978-1-908326-72-0) is published by Redcliffe Press and is available from Knightstone Island’s Stones Café, priced at £12.99.

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