A theatre provides life at the heart of a community and there has been a Theatre in Tidworth which has been doing exactly that for more than a hundred years ...
The old Garrison Theatre at the top of Lowa Road opened on 25th May, 1909. It was called, "The Tidworth Garrison Concert Hall", and designed in the style of a music hall which was very fashionable at the turn of the century.
Herbert (Bert) Pickernell (Manager 1909 - 47) (Picture right) was persuaded to leave the Empire Theatre in Swindon (Left) to come to the Theatre in Tidworth, which opened to a packed house with an inter-regimental boxing tournament - the winner of the final bout received the princely sum of £10 and the loser £5!
Over the next 104 years, the life of the old Theatre was to become closely linked with the Pickernell family ...
In the early days, the theatre showed Silent Movies, with Bert’s young son, Ken, responsible for providing some of the sound effects, for example, rattling the chains behind the scenes for the chariot race in the original film of Ben Hur !
The Tidworth Theatre was at the forefront of entertainment and was the place to see all the latest shows : live plays from the Strand Repertory Co; ballet from the Sadlers Wells Ballet Company and Big Band Concerts from the Southern Command Symphony Orchestra conducted by conductors such as Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult.
In June 1926 Dame Nellie Melba, the world famous Australian opera singer, (of Peach Melba and Melba Toast fame), came to Tidworth to give her final performance in this country before retiring to Australia - three days after her last London appearance at Covent Garden in the presence of the King and Queen.
BBC radio programmes such as “Any Questions?”, “The Frankie Howerd Show” and “Music while you work” were also recorded here.
The Second World War saw Tidworth Garrison turned into an American Army base. Tedworth House became the US Red Cross centre run by the daughter-in-law of US President Teddy Roosevelt. Her husband, Teddy Jnr, was based in Tidworth with the 29th Division and landed with them on Omaha Beach on D-Day. At the time, it was said that the American troops based in Tidworth introduced the first doughnuts and hamburgers to England !
Wartime Commanders such as Montgomery, (Left) Alexander and Eisenhower (Right) used the theatre to address the vast numbers of troops passing through the Salisbury Plain Garrisons, during the War and in the run-up to D-Day.
The Theatre was used by ENSA to entertain the troops, with big stars of the day such as James Cagney (singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”), Bob Hope, Carole Landis, Alistair Sim, Will Hay and Robertson Hare all performing here.
(Left) James Cagney
(Right) An audience of GIs at the Old Garrison Theatre
One of the Theatre’s more unusual uses was as a Briefing Centre for the “GI Brides”: hundreds of British girls came here for lectures about American life before emigrating to the USA to join their new American GI husbands.
The majority of women had only ever seen America in the movies and had visions of life in Hollywood, California or Florida - the authorities were trying to dispel the myths the women were building their dream futures on. Thousands of women went out to America, but hundreds returned. Many had found themselves living in the back of beyond in log cabins - and some had found out the hard way that their marriages were bigamous after discovering their 'husbands' already living with their real wife and children when they reached the USA.
(Left) GI brides arriving at Tidworth Station
Army boxing competitions continued to be held here and Henry Cooper, Joe Erskine and Dick Richardson all fought here during their National Service days.
(Left) A young Henry Cooper, taking part in a boxing match in the Garrison Theatre
(Right) Henry Cooper shakes hands with Ken Pickernell
Dancing to the “Big Time Bands” and ballroom dancing competitions for teams from all over the South West of England were held at the Theatre during the 1950s and “big names” such as Frankie Vaughan, Frankie Howerd, Norman Wisdom, Eric Sykes, Roy Castle and Max Bygraves all performed at the Garrison Theatre.
Ken Pickernell, (Manager 1947 - 87), was a member of the Variety Club of Great Britain and was awarded the BEM in 1955 for his services to Tidworth Garrison.
(Left) Picture taken at the Centenary Concert in 2009 of Ken and Tony Pickernell beside some of the posters for shows from the 1950s.
(Right) Max Bygraves with a young Tony Pickernell taken in the 1950s.
Another unusual use was found for the Theatre in the 1950s when Hungarian refugees were lodged there for a while after fleeing the uprising in their own country.
The BIGGEST performer, however, must have been the elephant which appeared on stage when the Chessington Circus put on a show at the Theatre !
Tony Pickernell, Bert’s grandson, became Manager of the Theatre in 1987, handing over to Julie Pickernell in 2010, who continues as Manager to this day.
(Left) In December 2000 Tony Pickernell was awarded the Commander-in-Chief’s Award for Meritorious Service.
(Right) Tony Pickernell with his father, Ken, and grandson, Lewis, at the Garrison Theatre in 2001.
(Left) The BBC filmed the Theatre when they were in Tidworth for "The Antiques Roadshow" at the Tidworth Leisure Centre in April 2002.
(Right) Tony and Julie Pickernell with the presenter of the programme, Michael Aspel
The old Theatre still hosted the ever-popular Regimental band concerts, children’s concerts and Army boxing competitions.
(Left) The Band of the Prince of Wales's Division performs at the Garrison Theatre
(Right) A Regimental boxing match takes place at the Garrison Theatre
The theatre has also been the venue for lectures by personalities such as the inspirational ‘War Walks’ historian Richard Holmes and Bravo Two Zero author, Andy McNab; for another theatre-centenary recording of the BBC radio programme, ‘Any Questions?’; and an inter-unit fundraising talent competition called “Garrison’s Got Talent”, inspired by a TV programme with a similar name!
(Right) Sig Emily Gurton, the winner of "Garrison's Got Talent", performing on stage at the Old Garrison Theatre
A concert was held at the Theatre on 27th May, 2009, to celebrate the Centenary of the Garrison Theatre.
(Left) The audience at the Centenary Concert
(Right) Gwen and Ken Pickernell, with Julie and Tony Pickernell at the Centenary concert.
Being one of the only places in the South West of England that can hold such a large number of people, the Old Theatre was in great demand for deployment briefings, for both World Wars, Suez, the Mau Mau crises in Kenya, EOKA in Cyprus - and more recently, deployments to Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2006, Project Allenby/Connaught began and management of the old theatre was taken on by Aspire Defence Services, although the day-to-day management remained in Pickernell hands.
Gradually, the garrisons on Salisbury Plain were modernised: old Edwardian buildings were demolished and replaced with new living accommodation and working areas, other listed buildings were refurbished. The last of the new buildings to be completed in Tidworth was a new Garrison Theatre, built in St Andrews Road, officially opened by the Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire, Mrs Rose Troughton, on 1st November 2013.
The New Garrison Theatre has a proud tradition to uphold and for this reason its auditorium will be called, “The Pickernell Auditorium”, in honour of the family whose history has been so closely intertwined with the Old Garrison Theatre for 104 years.
There are two parts to the new building : the largest part is the Theatre, which comprises a main entrance, reception and lobby areas on the ground and first floors, a 700-seater auditorium and 5 conference/meeting rooms, four of which can be merged to form one large meeting room. The new theatre is provided with state-of-the-art IT equipment with surround sound as well as an enormous 36’ x 19’ screen.
The second part of the building, with its own separate entrance and reception on the west side of the building, is an office complex on the ground floor which is used primarily by the Army Welfare Service.
The new theatre will be managed on behalf of the MOD by Aspire Defence Ltd and, being located in St Andrew’s Road, ‘outside the wire’, it will be available for use by both the military and civilian communities.