Suffolk theatre is 'one of the best'

GEORGE Baker – known to millions as Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford – knows a thing or two about the theatre. West Suffolk news editor James Mortlock spoke to him about his passion for a Suffolk playhouse he describes as one of the "best in the world".

GEORGE Baker - known to millions as Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford - knows a thing or two about the theatre. West Suffolk news editor James Mortlock spoke to him about his passion for a Suffolk playhouse he describes as one of the "best in the world".

IT COULD easily have been Kingsmarkham.

Wexford and his long-suffering wife were walking in the rain - deep in conversation. He was probably trying to figure out the latest grisly murder to blight the town and using her as his ever-trusty sounding board.

But this was the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds and there were no film crews or directors and Wexford is no more.

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However, it was George Baker, the actor who played the gentle giant and made him one of the most popular TV policemen of the last 20 years -alongside Morse and Frost in the hearts of the nation.

He was with his wife - Louie Ramsay - who starred as Mrs Wexford - and the pair were in the town to support the £6.4 million appeal to restore and develop the historic Theatre Royal.

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Baker lightly brushes aside the importance of his influence, but he was instrumental in making the theatre the place it is today.

In 1966, the actor and boss of the theatre company Candida, began to put the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on the map.

Only a few months earlier it had been used as a barrel store by Bury brewers Greene King. But Baker was approached by the theatre's bosses to bring his touring productions to the playhouse and over the next five years he brought 37 plays to Bury.

Ranging from Ibsen to Charlie's Aunt, the productions more often than not played to packed houses. Baker is proud of his achievement - rarely bettered today, even by the more popular West End musicals.

"I ran the company which supplied the theatre with product. When we did School for Scandal we ran at 98% (capacity) for three weeks," he says.

But his fondest moment is the reception Noel Coward received at the playhouse on the opening night there of Private Lives.

"Noel was a good friend and came up for the gala performance to give the production some publicity. He sat there on our first night, 42 years after he had written the play and the entire audience got up and shouted 'author' and insisted that he came up on the stage.

"I think he was a bit surprised that after 42 years it was still such a wonderful success. That was a great evening - a treasured evening. And there were many more - considering the first time I saw the theatre it was a barrel store."

The playhouse, which is one of only a handful of Grade 1 listed theatres in the country capable of being returned to a unique Georgian design,

The 73-year-old actor said: "It's incredibly important - it's one of the most beautiful theatres in Europe and even the world, certainly not just England.

"It's a gem. The auditorium is a wonderful horseshoe shape and the acoustics are perfect. The Georgians did exactly what the Romans and Greeks did with their amphitheatres. You can whisper anywhere on the stage and what you say can be heard by everyone in the theatre."

But with only 360 seats, he says the theatre could never make money without "astronomical" ticket costs and desperately needs the help of the local authority. He called for St Edmundsbury Borough Council to help fund the restoration programme with a £1.5 million grant.

Despite unease from a number of councillors at helping the venue, which the council already subsidises, Baker said it was an asset which benefited the whole community.

"When I was involved the parsimony of the borough council amazed me but I don't think much has changed. But this is a community theatre and the borough council should be putting its hands in its pockets.

"The importance of the theatre as a building alone must be huge for tourism - that's not something that can be ignored. And the restoration is going to be terrific for the town as well as terrific for the theatre."

Baker said the theatre would attract even better companies, be able to put on more high quality productions of its own and use top quality actors. But he said the real benefit was to local children.

"Education is not just about GCSEs and A levels and going off to university. It should encourage the love of knowledge and one of the things theatre does is give us an opportunity to learn - to explore fantasy and humanity.

" It shows us how badly we treat each other and how badly we treat ourselves - it's the study of man and humanity. And Bury's is one of the best in the world."

He said getting school children into theatres was in its infancy when he was working at Bury but gradually youngsters were brought in and eventually became a crucial part of the productions by helping with things like set changes.

"What we wanted was for young people to come into the theatre so they knew where the lavatories were and how the box office worked. It's important for people not to be afraid of the theatre and many were because it was not known to them."

The actor said the theatre had broken down many barriers and the restoration and expansion could only add to its importance to local schools and youth groups.

Baker, who is writing a play and adds that there will be no more Inspector Wexford mysteries, was at the theatre on Friday with actors Sir Donald Sinden and Timothy West to support the restoration appeal. Other celebrities there included TV journalist Martin Bell OBE.

Theatre director Colin Blumenau thanked for stars for generously donating their time to help raise the profile of the fundraising campaign.

Once complete, the restoration project will have revived the 19th Century relationship between audience and actor in the restored auditorium, said Mr Blumenau.

Future theatregoing in Bury would mean the playhouse would be the only UK venue able to combine 19th Century authenticity with state of the art 21st Century facilities, he stressed.

The cost of the project is £6.4 million and building work is scheduled to begin next year. The theatre has raised £2.9 million with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Trust.

Timothy West used Friday's gathering to launch the theatre's Royal Million club. He is patron of the scheme, which aims to recruit 1,000 members to collectively raise £1 million for the appeal.

Membership costs £16.30 a month and members will receive an exclusive range of lifelong benefits including having their names etched into the glass walls of the new Courtyard Foyer development.

West said: "As a past visitor to the Theatre Royal, on both sides of the footlights, I am delighted to give my full support to the current restoration programme. This fine old playhouse, with its perfect dimensions and unique design features serves a vital purpose in the community."

With actors such as Baker, West and Sinden willing to give up their time and sing the theatre's praises it's only a matter of time before the appeal target is reached.

For more information about the Royal Million or to make a donation to the appeal contact Claire Glazebrook, development manager, on 01284 755127.

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