ONE of the men instrumental to the survival of Winchester's Theatre Royal has retired after 40 years.

Phil Yates, who has worked as the honourary archivist at the theatre since the 1970s, says he will now be enjoying the theatre from the audience instead.

As previously reported, the 91-year-old was part of the 'Gang of Six' who saved the theatre when it was threatened with demolition in 1974.

The theatre had been earmarked for an Iceland, and after months of informal discussions and meetings, The Winchester Theatre Fund was created in August 1974.

Phil said: "It was (Winchester businessman) Richard Steele's father who started it all off. [He said] if we don't do something about it, it's going to go. Are you with me?"

The group raised money to buy the theatre for £35,000 in 1977, when it had been earmarked as the site for a new Winchester supermarket, and after a year of hard work refurbishing it themselves the Theatre Royal reopened on November 1 1978.

Phil said: "We had to decorate it ourselves. We were working our usual jobs during the day and decorating in the nighttime."

He added after their year of labour, the gang managed to get actor Robert Moorely, who performed alongside Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the Oscar-winning The African Queen, to open the theatre.

Phil said that after amassing 40 years of memories at the theatre, his favourite was last year's reunion of volunteers.

On November 1, 150 guests converged on the theatre for an evening of reminiscing and performances.

However, Phil said now is the right time to put his feet up. He said: "I feel I honestly can't go on much longer.

"All the archive material is now gathered together. There's no archive material left to look at."

As previously reported, the Theatre Royal building started life as The Market Hotel in 1850, before being sold to brothers John and James Simpkins in 1912 and reopening as a cine-variety venue in 1914.

In 1924, it converting to a full-time cinema which lasted for the next 50 years until 1974 when it closed.


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