A blog post by Eleanor Woodward, Archivist, Archives & Collections, Library of Birmingham which originally appeared at The Iron Room on 20/12/2022. Reproduced here with permission
This autumn the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) has been celebrating its 60th anniversary with a programme of theatre, exhibitions, live events and creative courses. Founded as the Midlands Arts Centre for Young People in 1962, it was the brainchild of John English and his wife Mollie Randle.
Born in Dudley in 1911 into a family with a keen interest in theatre and the arts, English participated in amateur theatre productions from a young age. Educated at Dudley Grammar School and Bishop Vesey’s, Sutton Coldfield, from 1929 he was employed as an industrial chemist by the glass makers, Chance Brothers, Smethwick, until he took early retirement in 1948, at the age of 40, in order to dedicate more time to his life-long passion of theatre.
The Midlands Arts Centre seen from across the lake in Cannon Hill Park
During the 1920s and 1930s, he was involved in the amateur theatre group, the Highbury Players, which took its name from his family’s home where the group originally met. By the mid-1930s it had become apparent that a dedicated theatre space was required to progress the work of the Players and so between 1935-1942, English and the other members set about fundraising and constructing what became the Highbury Little Theatre.
Mollie Randle, a former student at King Edwards High School, also had a love of theatre and the arts as a child, and after leaving school became involved in amateur dramatics in her free time while working in an accountancy firm and as a civil servant. It was as a member of the Highbury Players, where she helped to establish the Highbury Little Theatre, that she met her future husband, John.
Despite the success of the Highbury Little Theatre, English recognised the limitations of the venue due to its size and traditional format. He wished to bring actors and audiences closer together and this aspiration led to the couple forming the Arena Theatre in 1947. They aimed to take plays to places outside traditional theatre spaces, using different theatrical formats. To this end, Arena Theatre toured parks across Birmingham during the summer months and indoor halls in the winter, performing a range of plays both for adults and children.
John English’s proposal for the Midland Arts Centre for Young People in Cannon Hill Park, August 1960 [Ref. BCC 1 BO/1/1/37]
Towards the end of the 1950s, at a time when such provision was limited, English and Randle began thinking about a more ambitious project aimed at fostering an interest in theatre and the arts among children and young people. They recognised that the dwindling audience numbers at many theatres could only be halted by ensuring that theatre became more relevant to people’s lives and that the best way to do this was by attracting children to the theatre and creative arts from a young age. They enlisted the help of Sir Frank Price (1922-2017), Alderman and Chair of the City Council’s Parks Committee who advocated greater provision in the arts for the working classes. Together, they campaigned and undertook fundraising for the creation of a new permanent youth arts centre which would serve audiences within a 25 mile radius of Birmingham. It was to be one of the first of its kind in the country.
In 1961, Royal Assent was granted to the Parliamentary Bill allowing for the construction of the Midlands Arts Centre for Young People in Cannon Hill Park. The site had for some years been the home of the Arena Theatre Company when not on tour. With the onset of the new arts centre, the activities of the company were either wound up or amalgamated into the new project.
The project was envisioned to take ten years to complete at a cost of one million pounds. The first stage was to be completed by 1965. Birmingham City Council actively supported the new scheme financially and through the allocation of 8.6 acres of parkland to the project. Work proceeded quickly and two theatres were operational by the mid-1960s including a resident professional troupe and the Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre, led by John M. Blundall (1937-2014), one of Britain’s leading authorities on puppetry. On 30 May 1963, English resigned from his position at the Highbury Little Theatre in order to devote his energies to the role of Director of the Cannon Hill Trust and Randle became MAC’s General Manager.
Proposed plan of the Midland Arts Centre for Young People in Cannon Hill Park, August 1960 [Ref. BCC 1 BO/1/1/37]
English retained the directorship of the MAC throughout the 1960s until his retirement in 1976. During this period, it was the scene of vast creativity and innovation. In addition to staging plays for children and young people from across Birmingham, the Black Country, Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire, it served as a venue for cultural exchange – in 1967 it was visited by Konstantin Chakh-Azizov, director of the Moscow Central Children’s Theatre. A number of well-known actors and directors passed through, including Mike Leigh and Bob Peck.
In 1968 English was awarded an OBE for his services to the theatre, but it wasn’t until December 1999 that Randle was recognised for her contribution with an MBE for her services to the community.
You can watch John English talking about the MAC on the BFI Media Player for free – search for John English. The catalogue for the John English archive (MS 2790) comprising material from his time at the Highbury Theatre and Arena Theatre, can be viewed on our online catalogue. For archives of MAC (MS 2691), a box list is available – please contact staff via firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
We wish the Midlands Arts Centre a happy birthday. Here’s to at least another 60 years of theatre, music, dance, comedy, exhibitions, creative workshops and community activities for all ages!