Dudley Hippodrome

A late-1930s purpose-built variety theatre, recently leased to a local group looking to restore and reopen the building as a theatre.

1995 dudley hippodrome 12 iangrundy detail
Address
Castle Hill, Dudley, West Midlands, DY1 4QF
Risk Rating
8 (Community Value: 3, Star rating: 2, Risk Factor: 3)
Architect
Archibald Hurley Robinson
Date of Construction
1937/8 – opened 19 December 1938
Listing
Not listed
Capacity
1,752 (originally)

Significance

The Hippodrome is Dudley’s only remaining lyric theatre. Its external styling is of a 1930s super cinema in buff brick. It was well-maintained while in bingo use, and the interior still has a theatrical feel. Later alterations within the auditorium are fully reversible and it would be possible to return the theatre to use for live performance.

Why is this theatre at risk?

Dudley Hippodrome has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2010.

The Hippodrome had been in bingo use up to as recently as 2009 and during this period it was well-maintained. However, the building has been vacant since bingo closed and considered under threat of demolition since its purchase by Dudley Council in November 2010. The council’s intentions at the time were to knock down the building to create a new entrance for Dudley Zoo. The site is no longer required for this purpose and the council has been seeking alternative uses for the site. In August 2013 and then again in 2016 the council submitted plans to demolish the building and replace it with open public space. Both applications have since been withdrawn.

Since acquiring the Hippodrome the council has invited expressions of interest in the building on several different occasions. The latest expression of interest, publicised in 2018, has seen a driverless car consortium granted the right to develop their proposals. If progressed, it is understood that this scheme will see the Hippodrome demolished and replaced with a test track for driverless cars.

In the meantime, the building is vacant and deteriorating. There has also been a build-up of waste in the building’s vicinity detracting from its amenity value.

Dudley Hippodrome

Theatre potential

The theatre is situated in a prominent part of Dudley that has been highlighted for regeneration, and a revitalised Dudley Hippodrome could make a significant social and economic contribution to the local area. It is also known that the council are currently considering plans for a large multi-purpose entertainment venue within Dudley, a role that could be fulfilled by the Hippodrome.

Current situation

There had been some positive news for the Hippodrome when in 2016 local elections resulted in a political shift within the council and the subsequent agreement to lease the building to community group The Black Country Hippodrome Ltd (BCHL) for five years - a relatively short timescale that was feared challenging for project fundraising. The keys to the building were officially handed to the group on 19 December 2016. BCHL also appointed an architect to draw up proposals for their vision of a restored Hippodrome reopened as a cultural hub for the community. The concept designs included a large extension on the right side of the building next to Trindle Road to house a new entrance, café and box office, as well as a first floor bar and restaurant hub.

However, at the same time the council submitted further plans for the demolition of the building and replacement with a new scheme for public space. Theatres Trust strongly objected to these plans, because they were contrary to the leasing of the building to BCHL and would adversely affect any funding bids. The plans were subsequently withdrawn.

In addition to its relatively short term, the lease between BCHL and the council contained onerous key milestones for the group linked to break clauses. Factors outside the control of the community group surrounding the discovery of asbestos and a subsequent council decision to disallow the group entry to the building, brought additional problems in meeting already difficult targets. In February 2018 the council took the decision for early termination of the lease, leaving the Hippodrome empty once again and without any agreement for its future – a move criticised by the Theatres Trust. Following the decision BCHL disbanded. However, a new group, Dudley Hippodrome Community Group, now renamed Friends of Dudley Hippodrome, formed and is continuing to campaign for the building.

The new group’s ambitions for the Hippodrome suffered a severe setback in 2018 when its bid to restore and reopen the theatre was rejected by the council and a scheme from the Dudley Driverless Vehicles Consortium (DDVC), backed by the West Midlands Combined Authority’s Transport for the West Midlands group, was taken forward in its place. It is believed that the scheme would seek to demolish the Hippodrome. The council granted the consortium 12 months to work up its business plan and fundraising strategy plus officer support for developing the proposals – an opportunity not given to community group. In January 2020 it was announced that the DDVC was seeking an additional nine-month period to develop its proposals – the extension of time was granted by the council on 6 January.

Meanwhile the building is vacant and deteriorating, presenting an increased challenge for any future occupant to restore. Theatres Trust has written to the council to request that it addresses this matter. We have also written to the council to urge it to reconsider both the ambitions of the Friends group, and the future of the Hippodrome as a performance venue. This is particular pertinent due to the October 2019 council announcement that it would be carrying out a feasibility study to explore potential site options for a new events hall for Dudley. The ambition is for a multi-purpose venue to focus on music, sports, theatre, comedy, exhibitions, conferences, and corporate events. Theatres Trust has strongly recommended that the council do not rule out the viability of the Hippodrome for this purpose and that they look at the reuse of Dudley Hippodrome as one of the options in the feasibility study. Theatres Trust offered to assist in the options appraisal process for this study and the planning of any proposal emerging from this, but we received a dismissive response from the council.

In the meantime, Theatres Trust will continue to campaign against the loss of the Hippodrome and to provide advice to the Friends of Dudley Hippodrome, focusing on the development of a business plan for the building and providing support and advice on these proposals.

Main photo by Ian Grundy

Concept illustration by Panter Hudspith