In 1976, Belle Vue, Manchester, was operated as an independent unit within THF Leisure. Its status as "playground" for Manchester, much of Northern England and parts of the North Midlands is well documented elsewhere on this site.
By 1976, however, public tastes were changing, costs were rising and the management, both locally and at the THF offices in Jermyn St., London, were operating a property whose constituent parts were showing distinct signs of geriatric crumbling and malaise.
The Forte empire had purchased Belle Vue before the take over of Trust House hotels. Charles Forte, the Milk Bar King would have been very comfortable with the mass market ethos of Belle Vue in the early 1960s.
But by 1976 he had taken THF to the top of the market as an international hotel group and Belle Vue, along with other mass market entertainment properties, had been hived off to a wholly owned subsidiary, THF Leisure, which operated piers, fun fairs and entertainment centres, mainly at seaside resorts. It was often said that Belle Vue would have had more favourable attention from its owners had the Redgate Lane car park been flooded and sand been dumped, dune like, around the Longsight entrance.
Whilst no longer viewed as a major part of the Forte empire, Belle Vue was still expected to be profitable and visitors to the myriad facilities had to be attracted in numbers to match the ever more optimistic forecasts of the Leisure Company's Board.
The first thing any visitor, no matter how young and wide eyed, would have noticed when entering the grounds at Easter the start of the 1976 season was the generally shabby state of the whole property. True, many of the rides had been painted over the winter and the whole place had been swept clean of the detritus of winter. Spring flowers were beginning to peek through the soil but the general air was one of faded glory and inattention to maintenance.
This air was accentuated by the attractions themselves, many of which had been completely bypassed by the 1960s, the development of tourism and modern advertising and marketing techniques. Visitors were still offered the entertainment of the 1950s using the same typefaces, colours and illustrations that had been modern at the accession of Her Majesty, twenty five years before.
Whilst much of the blame for this can be laid at the door of the London Head Office, the staff at Belle Vue had to take some of the blame as many had long association with the "park" and had become institutionalised, doing things the "Belle Vue way" whilst ignoring that the mass market had moved on and the remaining patrons were often those whose spend per head potential was minimal.
Sometime in 1975, alarm bells must have been ringing in Jermyn St. as a new General Manager, Chris Hind, was appointed with a brief to pull the complex together and to turn a loss into a profit.
In this he would have the assistance of a great number of experienced staff including two, very much older, ex-General Managers still on the full time payroll and with very definitive briefs to handle in specific areas.
Chris's views on this state of affairs is not recorded but he set about recruiting a number of young departmental mangers and convinced the Board that he needed a senior management team of his own choosing to both augment the experience already in being and to drive the place forward in a way which would ensure short term profitability and the development of a long term future for a new Belle Vue.
The posts of Catering Manager, Operations Manager and Sales Manager were advertised in early 1976 with the idea of having them filled for Easter. In practice there was some difficulty in filling all three posts and it was well into the season before all the new incumbents were to hold their first departmental meetings, confronted by staff that ranged from the bemused to the downright hostile.
Whilst Belle Vue was very much a
piece of real estate with an amazing diversity of attractions, from
animals to amusements, speedway to hit parading groups and solo
artists, from a sales perspective the product was an intangible.
Brochures, photos and relying on people's memories to build an
anticipation formed the basis of the standard sales pitch and the time
honoured market was approached repeatedly to provide bodies that would
spend to both enter the premises and to participate in the attractions.
There was a real belief that Belle Vue had a right to exist as it was, preserved in aspic (which failed miserably to protect the fabric) and that it had the right to expect loyalty and repeated custom from its public.
Throughout the rest of 1976 the complex continued to attract declining visitor numbers to the amusements and the zoo. It offered major star acts in concert at Kings Hall. Jack Fearnley booked and produced another truly international circus and the old tyme and ballroom dancers would be seen arriving with their costumes in suitcases, sometimes alongside Freemasons carrying their smaller cases as they arrived for major meetings in either the banqueting suites or Kings Hall.
Exhibitions continued to be booked in and, in the offices close by the Hyde Road gate, there was a great deal of brain storming done to create ideas for fresh revenue streams.
The Bier Halle held a beer festival with prizes of a trip to Hamburg. Johnny Hamp was persuaded to bring his Comedians to film the TV show in the Bier Halle. Punk Rock was emerging and a certain Tony Wilson (now more formally addressed as Anthony) launched many bands in the Elizabethan ballroom and its annexe disco.
Some product launches and sales conferences were attracted and a major attempt was made to replace the very dilapidated zoo signage with a scheme linked to sponsorship of individual animals.
What no-one seemed to want to hear, either at Hyde Road or Jermyn St., was what the new management team saw as blatantly obvious. Traditional zoos were becoming politically incorrect. Conference and exhibition organisers were looking for modern, purpose built premises. Amusement parks had become high tech. The young wanted specialised discos, not ballrooms converted once a week with a few streamers and lights. Circus was as non-PC as zoos and, even five years before Thatcher set about demolishing British industry with her handbag, companies were drawing in their horns and the days of the 500+ attendee company banquet were fast waning.
Speedway and stock cars had a bright future and, had the Board had the vision, the Stadium could have become a very profitable, long term, asset. As it was, apart from a few licks of paint and a little investment in some new seats in one stand, nothing new was agreeable to the Board so the same programme continued as ever and the same few companies were approached for sponsorship. The chance to inject new ideas and extra excitement was missed.
Wrestling, fast dying on TV, still attracted reasonable crowds but, again, ideas akin to those, which have made wrestling such a big moneyspinner in the USA, were dismissed as fantasy.
Figures for just about every operation failed to meet their 1976 targets. In early 1977 the new Catering Manager gave up the unequal struggle and went back to industry from whence he came. John Hampson, later to head up Little Chef in the UK, took over and injected a great deal of flair even with ever shrinking budgets. Michael Hirst, Divisional Manager with responsibility for Belle Vue to the Board, left the Leisure Board and went on to a great career with Ladbroke in casinos and hotels.
Spring and summer 1977 were damp and cool. After the long, hot, summers of 1975 and 1976, which had failed to boost visitor figures, the weather hardly helped what many were beginning to believe was a lost cause.
Everything proceeded "as normal" however normal often meaning less than 1000 through the gates on a summer Friday and barely more on a Saturday or Sunday and management meetings, which should have lasted only a couple of hours, often continued through the afternoon, some not finishing until after midnight as means of reducing costs and meeting hopelessly optimistic targets were sought.
The message was always the same - bring in more bodies, spend less money and put off any capital repairs.
Much of the summer traffic on weekdays had been generated by groups from company social clubs, miners' institutes and working men's clubs, which would send one or more coach loads of children and adults as a "wakes week treat".
Belle Vue competed with seaside resorts and other entertainment complexes for the traffic. Five coach loads more, or less, on a given day would hardly be noticed in Blackpool, but for Belle Vue such a variation could be critical. No one wanted to believe that the developments 60 miles to the North West and 60 miles to the South would damage Belle Vue, but Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers understood what Jermyn St did not the times they were a changing and investment in a radical reshaping of Belle Vue would be required if the complex were to survive.
It is difficult to know if the Board were deliberately determined to sink Belle Vue at that time. On balance, the probable catalyst that led to the final demise was not even on the Board's event horizon in 1976 and did not appear until early 1977. More likely there was some antipathy toward Belle Vue from the seaside orientated Board and a loss at BV could be set against profits elsewhere to allow some creative accounting and reduction in tax.
Every piece of elastic has a point at which it will snap and, for Belle Vue, this came in the summer of 1977 when it was announced that the zoo would close. The cost of feeding a vast array of animals and the poor repair of much of the fabric of the zoo, set against declining interest and visitor traffic sounded the death knell.
The staff were only told at the time of the press announcement and the Sales Manager learnt of the closure by reading "Belle Vue to close" as a headline over a very small piece in the London edition of the Daily Express, which went on to state that "Belle Vue Zoo, Manchester, will close at the end of the season, THF Leisure announced yesterday." As he was on a hovercraft between Dover and Calais at the time and had been in contact with his office only 24 hours before, this came as a shock, particularly as "Belle Vue Zoo" was often used as a generic term for the whole complex.
A couple of phone calls soon clarified the situation but, given the hard work and lobbying that he had done to develop and market the zoo signing scheme, the "shock decision", as it was called in the Manchester Evening News, did not add to his, or anyone else's faith in the Board when it was realised that the closure idea had been around for over twelve months.
To add insult to injury, the decision was eventually presented to the staff as the first step towards a new, redeveloped Belle Vue. What they forgot to add though in fairness even they probably had this as only one of a number of options - was the eventual redevelopment was to be a housing estate and light industrial units!
Peter Grayson, the Zoo Manager, was an enlightened and hard working animal enthusiast. He had striven against insurmountable odds to provide a humane, comfortable and well presented zoo a task in which his failure can only be laid at the door of the Jermyn St Board.
Peter's own contribution, often 24 hours a day, was Herculean and ever enthusiastic. He was supported by an equally devoted staff and his partner Rose, the first British girl ever to appear in Playboy magazine, accepted the fact that their bungalow in the grounds was often a nursery for the odd lion cub, baby crocodile and a range of snakes, as well as a second home for Peter's son's girlfriends.
Peter had the sad task of dispersing the animals to good homes elsewhere and, where these could not be found, watching whilst his charges were dispatched with either a needle or a bullet. Many of the management and staff were equally saddened.
Much midnight oil was burnt during the remainder of 1977 in meetings design to work out replacement attractions.
A Star Wars exhibition and an Aviation Museum were two major projects on which much work was done but to no avail as the Board repeatedly killed off idea after idea, often on the most spurious of excuses.
One major investment did take place, however. The Bobs, that world renowned roller coaster, had long been demolished and the demise of the Scenic Railway, not as fast but now also condemned as dangerous, had left Belle Vue with no ride faster than the Water Chute. Even the Board could not countenance a zoo-less, fast ride-less Belle Vue and the Jetstream, a pre-fabricated German built tubular steel ride, was installed behind Kings Hall. Rising to around 70 feet on the first climb, the following descent was, to say the least, rapid and the ride was certainly exciting.
Some expenditure was also evident in the banqueting suites, which were repainted. The "soundproof" dividers were refurbished and chairs and tables were replaced. This improvement, whilst cosmetic, was well directed but could not on its own change the tide of unfilled banqueting diary pages that was now becoming a flood.
Kings Hall received a phased reseating during the period, more for safety reasons than to improve the facilities. As a concert venue it was without parallel in Manchester nowhere else could accommodate 3000 in concert format.
The facilities were, as they say, "something else". The staging had to be erected at the Longsight end of the circular auditorium. The increasingly large lighting and sound rigs popular with major artistes tested the 3 phase electricity supply to the limit and the "crush bars" were often swamped by the interval demand for drinks.
Shortly after the 1975-76 Circus, Shirley Bassey had appeared at Kings Hall and had publicly stated that the Hall smelt like an animal house (the wooden structure did seem to hold all sorts of odd odours) and the dressing rooms were a disgrace. The "dressing rooms" such as they were, and the adjoining "lounge" were, to say the least, spartan and the floor of the lounge sloped alarmingly.
The booking of Andy Williams and Bing Crosby for 1977 concerts, coupled with Shirley's comments, drove the Board into acceding to Chris Hind's request for funds and the dressing rooms and lounge received some paint and furnishings. The slope remained, however, and the joke was that this was kept as a way of keeping down the hospitality tab. After a couple of G and Ts the slope assumed Matterhorn proportions!
One other cosmetic change also took place. The Lake public house at the corner of Hyde Road and Kirkmanshulme Lane was closed. Badly run down and, in recent times, never a profit maker, the licence was sacrificed in the knowledge that the small clientele would transfer to the absurdly named Caesar's Palace.
That property, which fronted Hyde Road by the main gate and above which were housed the management offices, attracted a lunchtime trade from both Belle Vue workers and some locals year round and these numbers were enhanced by reasonable numbers of park visitors and a good youth clientele on nights when the disco or concerts were held in the Elizabethan Ballroom or Kings Hall.
A major facelift was commissioned, the interior was gutted and brought up to date, i.e. plush carpets, subtle lighting and dark woodwork. A really excellent range of lunchtime food was offered. The façade was also repainted and the whole operation, whilst showing exactly how the rest of the complex could be refurbished, served only to highlight the shabbiness of the rest. To complete the picture the property was renamed Jennisons. Whilst some small increase in trade was initially evident, there was no massive gain as there were plenty of competing premises in the locale.
The new senior management team tried various other attempts at income generation. Phil Blinkhorn, the Sales Manager, arranged a series of lectures by Johnny Morris and David Bellamy aimed at primary and secondary schools respectively. Featuring live and interactive appearances by the two nationally known personalities and the inclusion of zoo animals in close proximity (one of which was a lion eighteen months old, on a lead and without any cage or firearms present) the 1977 series was extremely successful but the demise of the zoo negated the chance of a second series in 1978.
With Mike Dudley-Heath, the Operations Manager, Phil also arranged for use of various parts of the grounds to be used for new vehicle demonstrations, rides were hired to television companies for filming sequences in various comedy and drama series and, for nearly two years, many of the management and staff could be seen riding the waterchute on a nightly basis in a station identity sequence used by Granada Television.
Mike also had given a great deal of thought to entrance prices and multi ride tickets and these became more important as the task of attracting people to an amusement park and charging an entrance fee to gain access to rides (which also had to be paid for) was addressed. This piece of Alice through the Looking Glass madness was imposed from Jermyn St.
In the past, the entrance fee was seen as payment for access to the zoo. Payment booths were so arranged that visitors to exhibition, banqueting, speedway and Kings Hall functions did not have to pay unless they wished to visit the zoo. Now the idea was that an admission charge would be made to gain access to the grounds where you would be asked to pay to go on each individual ride, many of which were less exciting than those available at a travelling fair. The multi-ticket was designed to maintain the imposed target revenue whilst hiding the cost of entering the premises.
By the beginning of 1978 confidence in the future was at a low ebb but throughout the complex there was a pervading feeling that a holding operation had to be maintained. Phil Blinkhorn was having some success with attracting product launches and small conferences to the banqueting suites. The exhibition calendar continued to prosper with the lack of any competing venues closer than Birmingham and Harrogate (City Hall having been moribund for a year or so and about to close).
The talk was of a new, smaller complex with an hotel, new exhibition facilities, conference suites, a new concert hall and the possibility of a new up to the minute amusement park.
All this was not to be. Central Station, behind the Midland Hotel on the western edge of the City Centre had, for many years, been abandoned by British Rail. Long the subject of repeated purchases and proposals from a variety of entities, the City and County Councils had been expected to take over the property and its environs in a joint venture. In the event, in 1978, the County Council paid the massive sum of £1 to acquire the whole site and announced its intention of developing a major exhibition/event site with the possibility of including the Midland Hotel, the Free Trade Hall and various other buildings in a complex which would offer conference space, bedrooms and banqueting facilities. Twenty three years later this scheme, much modified, has not yet come to total fruition but the very fact that the purchase had taken place spooked the Jermyn St Board.
All planning for the future involving the retention of Belle Vue came to a halt. Instead of maintaining the high ground and building on an established exhibition trade and THF's expertise in hotels and conferences, the company surrendered and sought ways of divesting itself of the property.
The Belle Vue staff and potential visitors were not the only ones to suffer in the eventual closure. Many exhibitors remained loyal to the bitter end but had to leave Manchester when the sale of the property was finalised some four years before the opening of G-Mex (the Central Station site).
When it opened, G-Mex and its management's links to a particular event organiser, were not to everyone's liking and some of the exhibitions stayed in Birmingham, Harrogate and Glasgow. Others were unable to afford the charges at the new venue. The loss of business hit the hotels (some of which belonged to THF) and many of the service industries in the city.
The National Brass Band Contest, masterminded by the indefatigable Harry Mortimer, left its real home for pastures South and has never returned nor have the test pieces ever sounded as well as they did in the damper Northern atmosphere.
In early 1977, the Round Table looked at Belle Vue as a site for the 1982 National Conference. Much hard work and liaison involving Chris Hind, Mike Dudley-Heath, Phil Blinkhorn and officials from the City and County ensured a successful bid was mounted and a contract was signed.
Without the zoo, the summer season of 1978 was a non-event. A large number of previous loyal customers genuinely thought the whole place had closed with the zoo. Many of the sales staff had gone and the desultory trickle of visitors to the complex both depressed the staff and complained bitterly about value for money.
Phil Blinkhorn left in July to set up the Greater Manchester Conference Office. Four years on he headed the County Council's team which, with the Round Table's national officers, ran the Round Table National Conference based in a large marquee village in Heaton Park in a month which also saw his team handle both a Royal and Papal visit.
How much it cost THF Leisure to vacate the contract with the Round Table is not recorded but the problems caused to the event by the closure of Belle Vue were picked up by the Conference Office and other Council agencies, which had a difficult time in keeping the event in Manchester, and the problems led to the eventual 8,000 attendance being the smallest Round Table National Conference for many years.
What happened during the remainder of the demise of Belle Vue is outside the scope of this article. Many of the staff of the period used their experiences at Belle Vue to great effect and, learning from adversity, built successful careers elsewhere.
As in any adverse situation, there were arguments, recriminations and frustrations between members of staff at all levels. However, once the zoo closed there was a change in attitude across the whole personnel and a feeling of real teamwork was engendered.
In retrospect it must be said that the sadness felt by so many people at the demise of the institution that was Belle Vue was only exceeded by the shortsightedness of the Jermyn St Board. Sitting on a site almost identical in size to the original Disneyland site in Anaheim, California, they failed to look beyond their limited vision of what the public had once wanted and offer what might, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, excite them.
Belle Vue in 1976 had a population of about 7 million in its catchment area and an established, if rapidly declining, customer base. It was well served by public transport and there was a history of visiting Belle Vue in the majority of families in the region. With everything in their favour, the THF Leisure Board lacked the vision to capitalise and use the 70 acres to their, and everyone else's advantage.
Disney, in 1955, opened his amusement park in a then remote part of Orange County with a catchment of around 6 million people then resident in Greater Los Angeles. Transport links, visitor patterns and visitor needs had to be established. Disney's 77 acres thrived and ever since has kept a core of attractions which maintain a continuity whilst replacing, refurbishing and building whenever necessary. Hotels, exhibitions and conferences have all flourished at Anaheim and every other Disney site.
Manchester and the UK as a whole, is the poorer now Belle Vue has gone. With the hindsight of 25 years since the start of this overview, it is possible to know that a major error was made in not grasping the nettle before it was too late. The Board must have made the authorities aware of any plans they had to redevelop into a major events centre, as no project of the kind supposedly envisaged could have progressed beyond the pipe dream stage without consultation with the local planning authority (City) and Regional Structure Plan authority (County). Indeed, the talk in Belle Vue was of a joint funding venture.
Board ever seriously talk to either? Did the board immediately give up
at the time of the Central Station purchase in the hope of securing
some involvement with that project?
Was it made clear to them that no backing or permissions would be forthcoming for any new Belle Vue plan involving conference and exhibition facilities?
If so, why did they surrender so quickly and not rally the customer base round them and fight what could well have been a winnable war?
There have been many questions asked about how the first management structure for G-Mex came about. This is not the place to enter into that contentious debate. It may be that the County's deal with the operators of City Hall had already been struck and this was made clear to the Board in no uncertain terms.
More likely is the possibility that the payment by Greater Manchester Council of £1 for the Central Station site and environs sealed Belle Vue's fate by giving the seaside orientated Board every justifiable reason to say to the main THF Board "Belle Vue has no future, but we can sell the land and make money".
The pity is that Belle Vue, as an out of town events centre, could have emulated Disney at Anaheim. There was space on the site to build the new complex before demolishing the old and thus the continuity of events would have been maintained. By now the venue would have been getting its second refurbishment and would have been a pristine additional attraction to add to Manchester's "must visit" list for the Commonwealth Games visitors.
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