Celebrations and ambitions as Delph’s Millgate turns 50

EVERYONE and everything at Saddleworth’s iconic Millgate Arts Centre could be forgiven for having a  golden sheen as the venue turns 50-years-old.

And one man who has been there from the start has as much of an eye on looking forward as he does on what has been achieved.

On November 3, 1973, John Tanner featured on the stage in the inaugural production at the Delph venue after Saddleworth Players moved from the Mechanics Institute on the site of what is now a car park.

Playing a butler called Felix in The Italian Straw Hat, he was looking up at the ceiling he helped paint after joining the push to convert the Co-Operative building.

John Tanner

Five decades later, the 72-year-old is able to offer a unique perspective of its history and also its future.

Looking back, he said: “I came in in 1972, I was told by a relative of mine.

“I’d always enjoyed dramatics, from school and through university and I knew I was going to live in Saddleworth anyway.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you join the new theatre that’s being built across the rod?’ So I did.

“I applied to act and had to sign this form, I was terrified really, and the first thing I was told was, ‘Here’s a paintbrush. Get on with painting the ceiling.’

John Tanner (left) in Pride and Prejudice

“And I was lucky enough to get a part in the first play as the butler called Felix. It was The Italian Straw Hat, a costume farce with quite a large cast and I’ve done plays here every year since.”

Even with a career as long-lasting as Mr Tanner’s, certain moments stand out. Appearing in Abigail’s Party and playing King Henry in The Lion in winter, which he described as ‘quite good fun – growing a beard and being generally kingly’ to name two.

But seeing Millgate and Saddleworth Players adapt to changing times, yet still maintaining their place in Saddleworth’s society, has been arguably the highlight.

Mr Tanner added: “It always had a local following but then, like all societies, you start needing more members because you need volunteers and it’s difficult to get younger players involved.

“That’s why we introduced other societies, such as the film group, the chamber orchestra and Saddleworth Live, which brings professional theatre to us – that brings a different audience.

“People come and realise we’re doing plays. They don’t see us as Saddleworth Players, they see us as part of the Millgate.

“That has rejuvenated the theatre enormously and people want live theatre. They won’t necessarily see is as Saddleworth Players. People will say, ‘There’s a play on, let’s go and see it.’

“For one play, we had more than 1,000 people in the place, we were full every night. People don’t just think, ‘We’ll always follow Saddleworth Players.’ They’ll come because they see a play they’d like to see.”

Saddleworth Players may have been at Millgate Arts Centre for 50 years but it can be traced back to the 1920s after the Girls Friendly Society at St Thomas’s Church in Delph decided to start up evening dramatic art classes.

Millgate Arts Centre in 1992

In 1951, the Mechanics Institute’s committee was quite happy to let Saddleworth Players have the lower floor at a rent of £30 per year – provided they obeyed the rules formulated in 1876.

By 1972, the old Co-op across the road was empty and unsuited to modern retail use – and Delph desperately needed a car park, so they moved.

As part of the changes since the switch to what was then known as the Players’ Theatre, Millgate Centre, SCS (formerly Saddleworth Chamber Concerts Society) was formed in 1975.

In June 2014, the name was simplified to Saddleworth Concerts Society, That and Saddleworth Film Society, established in 1978, still bring people flooding through the door.

But now the venue has turned 50-years-old, what next?

Well, Mr Tanner would like to see it host different groups while the formation of SPY – Saddleworth Players Youth – is so important.

Millgate Arts Centre Delph

He told Saddleworth Independent: “I’d like a continuation of including societies in this building, the building is outstanding but we’ve ambitions to make it even better. We’re always trying to imoprove it.

“Most importantly, we’ve started SPY. By doing that we hope to capture and hold on to some of the young people for plays going forward.

“It’s absolutely vital.”

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