Resorts come, and resorts go. Some find news ways of maintaining their glory days, while others eventually lapse into a somnambulist existence, trading on the grey pound and memories of what they once where. Torenton was a semi sleepy former spa town, grown on the back of Victorian bathes and water cures. Not a commercial attraction like Blackpool, but a more graceful alternative that appealed to residents and visitors who preferred a more sedate time. However, as holidaying fashions changed with cheaper flights to sunnier Spain, the place gradually retired from the tourist industry and, itself, became more of a retirement destination. However, things had not been so quiet of late, with the town’s populace now split in the biggest controversy they had known. And it was all over the former Palace Theatre.
Built in 1934, the Palace was originally an art deco theatre which, over the next 30 years, became known as the Grand Old Lady of Torenton. And this was a lady who boasted a fine array of leading players with many of the top names in the acting and entertainment world treading its hallowed boards, while still finding room to accommodate local talent shows and amateur dramatics. For decades, it was the heartbeat of the community. But by the late 1950s this heart was beginning to falter.
It proved a dream not destined to last and, in 1964, it shut its doors to the performing arts for the last time. Audiences had steadily dwindled, lured away by the burgeoning medium of television. Hopes of it adapting into a cinema evaporated when none of the major chains showed an interest, themselves struggling against the one eyed monster that had done for the theatre. However, fears this would mean losing the beloved building altogether were dispelled when a leisure firm took over and reopened it as a Bingo Hall. At least this ensured the building be preserved and the hope it may return to its original purpose in better times.
However, this life support had now itself run out of time. Bingo began going the way of the theatre, with membership numbers dropping badly as the pastime became unfashionable with a younger generation more interested in on line gaming. The management tried initiating some ambitious promotions to attract new punters in but, while this brought some second wind, the downward curve persisted and the writing was on the wall. Eventually, The Palace closed its doors for the second time, and were boarded up while its fate was decided.
It had been closed barely two days when the local paper revealed the council were considering a planning application from the European retail chain, Nosfra, to demolish the Grand Old Lady and replace it with a modern supermarket. The plan was championed by Councillor Doris Fletcher, who issued a statement claiming “Torenton is currently only served by a small retail outlets. Residents deserve a wider choice and Nosfra will deliver that.”
The claim was met with puzzlement by locals, as there was already a supermarket just a couple of hundred yards up the road, delivering pretty well the same sort of range Nosfra promised. But the councillor maintained a blind spot to this little detail, avoiding the question altogether. She stayed guarded as public knowledge of Nosfra’s discreet dealings with both her and several others in strategic places could very well jeopardise the project.
A barrage of letters began to appear in the local pages, protesting at the council even considering the destruction of the “iconic” building, and demanding it be re opened as performance and exhibition space run by a charitable trust. Doris quickly attempted to deflate the point with a reply claiming “The Palace is not an iconic building. It had its use, but has now outgrown it. I understand some people are upset about the impending demolition of the building, but that is progress. Live theatre ceased paying years ago and the current structure is no longer of use. I suggest they get over it and allow this town to get on.”
Her provocative words were blasted by local historians, demanding to know what qualified the councillor to declare the building as “not iconic.” A group called “Save the Palace” was formed, and quickly set about an internet campaign against the development, declaring “The show ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” The councillor retorted with the statement “It’s this lady who will be singing when the show is over.” Her lips remained tight in the fall out that caused, confident they would not guess the existence of a hidden agenda. And it was motivating enough for Doris, and her associates, to get the application approved by one of the most unpopular council meetings in Torenton’s history. Once it was rubber stamped, she discreetly exited the chamber via the back to avoid an angry crowd and went home gloating in triumph.
It was a gloat continued when the local press office unexpectedly phoned Councillor Fletcher and offered her a photo opportunity. One of her taking the first sledgehammer to the Palace building in a symbolic gesture of laying it to rest, and making way for the new development. It was an irresistible proposition, as this would seal her last word over those who tried to tried to stand in her way, and an extra piece of free publicity for her public profile.
The morning came and Councillor Doris Fletcher arrived at the site, delighted to see the building fenced off for demolition. Donning a hard hat, she was introduced to both the site manager and the press photographer, as well as being re acquainted with the area manager of Nosfra with whom she had been dealing. It was then explained what was to happen. “I’ll get a shot of you holding the sledgehammer, as if ready to deliver the first blow” the photographer proposed. “And then do I get to blow the place up?” Doris laughed. “Not in an area like this” the demolition manager explained. “Men are on the roof, ready to dismantle as soon you have done your bit. They will manually take down the exterior and then we will bulldoze the structure.” The area manager then chimed in with “As soon as the site is cleared, you can come back and lay the foundation stone.”
“Yes” the photographer added. “Another publicity shot for you.”
The posed photo was taken and the manager got onto his megaphone, ordering his men to start work. The photographer left for his next assignment, while Doris and the demolition manager stepped back to look up at the activity on the roof, the banging and crashing almost causing the area to vibrate. The councillor’s eyes glanced down the length of the building and caught sight of something in one of the upstairs windows. A shadowy figure looking straight down at her from behind dirty glass, or at least that is how it seemed to her. Strangely, while no face was visible, she could sense eyes straight at her, almost burrowing into hers. Then the shadow moved, as if walking away from the window and out of sight. She turned and shouted to the manager. “Should any of your men be inside?” He looked back at her, quizzically. “No, its not safe.”
“There’s someone in there. Just saw him through the window.” The manager looked up, asking “Where?” She strolled across and stood below the window in question, her hand pointing up and shouting “There!” That became her last word.
The vibration from the sledgehammers erupted into a rumble. Both figures on the ground looked around to see what was causing it when, suddenly, part of the side of the building came crashing down in an avalanche of bricks and concrete. The manager instinctively dived to the ground, covering his head until the deafening sound stopped. When it did he cautiously lifted his head and, through the thick fog of dust, could just make out a large pile of rubble where the councillor had been standing.
The emergency services arrived and, with the aid of the demolition crew, dug out the body that had once been Doris Fletcher. Mercifully, the coroner reported she had been killed in an instant and probably not known what hit her. An inquiry took place into the incident, but no one could explain why that section of the building should suddenly give way as it did. With no other conclusion arrived at, a verdict of accidental death was recorded.
It was a terrible tragedy for the town and tributes were paid from all sides, regardless of what they had thought of her personally. However, some opponents of the development whom Doris had alienated did secretly muse on her fate as poetic justice. But for those who were privy to the councillor’s last moments, and words, there was possibly something deeper at work. For her final performance, the Grand Old Lady of Torenton had sung the final song.
Originally appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post May 3 2014)