Julie Hesmondhalgh: Oldham Coliseum campaign part of bigger conversation in arts

Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh has said the campaign to save Oldham Coliseum is “a part of a much bigger conversation” happening around access to the arts for working-class people.

Oldham Council announced on Monday that the historic theatre in Greater Manchester, which closed in 2023, would reopen following a successful campaign spearheaded by Hesmondhalgh and her husband, the writer Ian Kershaw.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, the 54-year-old actress, known for her roles in Coronation Street, Broadchurch and Mr Bates Vs The Post Office, said: “I think that nobody could really anticipate the outpouring of love and absolute sadness when it looked like it was going to be closed forever.

“And I think we’ve got the media to thank a lot as well because you didn’t let up on it.

“I think that people were quite surprised that two weeks after the closure people were still talking about it. (It’s) because of what the Coliseum represents.

“There’s a lot of conversation at the moment about access to the arts, especially for working-class people, people from backgrounds like ours (her and Kershaw), people from less advantaged backgrounds.

“And that’s a huge national conversation about what art and culture means in education.

“And Oldham Coliseum is very much a part of that conversation, because it is a working-class theatre for working-class people and so many people have started there that wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

“So it’s a part of a much bigger conversation about that as well.”

A string of celebrities offered their support for the theatre by appearing in a short film called Our Sleeping Beauty (True Love’s Kiss) earlier this year, including Suranne Jones, Christopher Eccleston and Siobhan Finneran.

The venue, which opened its doors in 1885, closed in 2023 due to a loss of funding from Arts Council England (Ace).

Ace announced in 2022 that Oldham Coliseum Theatre Ltd’s application for its 2023-26 National Portfolio had been unsuccessful and in March 2023 the theatre revealed it would close and make its staff redundant.

Oldham Council held a “special celebration event” on Monday where it revealed the theatre would reopen in time for the 2025 Christmas pantomime season.

A post to the council’s official X account read: “Tonight, at a special celebration event, we announced that the famous Oldham Coliseum Theatre will re-open its doors!”

It added: “Around 100 people, including local residents, performers, politicians and partners, packed out Fairbottom Street in Oldham to hear the good news first-hand.”

Hesmondhalgh, Kershaw and leader of the council Arooj Shah were among those who attended the event.

An Ace spokesperson said: “At Arts Council England, our priority is to work with the people of Oldham to make sure that they have access to the art and theatre that they want – which is why we’re investing £1.845 million over three years to support a creative and cultural programme in the borough, delivered by partners including Oldham Coliseum Theatre Limited and Oldham Theatre Workshop.

“While the Coliseum building belongs to Oldham Council and isn’t funded by the Arts Council, we know what a well-loved landmark it is, and recognise its link to the strong history of theatre in the town, and the work the campaign group has been doing to preserve it.”

Paul W Fleming, general secretary of Equity, the performing arts and entertainment trade union, said: “Equity is incredibly proud to be part of the coalition which has saved the Oldham Coliseum.

“We’re proud to have played our part with rallies, campaigning, and lobbying, but today’s victory lies with that community coalition.

“What is so inspiring is that they have put the workforce at the heart of this campaign – audiences want professionally produced work, at scale, in their communities to tell their stories.”