A view of the seating in the auditorium at Oldham Coliseum theatre. The seats are red, and there's a gallery level above the main seating level.

Oldham Coliseum played host to a star-studded line-up on 21 February, but it wasn’t the usual entertainment on offer. Actors from the North West joined members of the public to save the venue from closure. Coronation Street’s Jane Hazlegrove attended, and we caught up with her after the meeting to talk about her connection to the Coliseum.

At the public meeting held by Equity at Oldham Coliseum on Tuesday 21 February, I met Jane Hazlegrove who raised a good question about what Oldham Council would be spending the £1.8 million Arts Council funding on, a question we still don’t know the answer to. What we do know after last Monday’s cabinet meeting (27 February), is that Oldham Council’s knowledge when it comes to the arts is not their strongest suit. “Running theatres and theatrical organisations are not the expertise of the local authority, they never are. We empty bins and we cut grass,” said council leader Amanda Chadderton. 

Jane is angry about the closure of the Coliseum and rightly so, not just because the community is losing this great institution that provides so much for so many, but because the Coliseum was a puzzle piece that helped to shape her as a person and as an actress. “It’s always been a place where people have gathered down this funny little alley, and you’re taken into this world of light and music and drama, there’s something so magical about that.”

Jane’s journey with the Coliseum began when she was a child living in nearby Middleton, but she fears that today’s youth will now no longer get the opportunities she had. “The kids don’t know how to go to the theatre. My niece and nephew don’t go to the theatre unless I take them. They’re depriving a whole generation of accessible arts, of ambition, of hope and storytelling, vocabulary and the chance to meet like-minded people and feel included.”

The arts and theatre in particular is hard for the younger generation to access in this day and age. The cost of living is having a massive impact on what disposable income families have and what they can do with it, and it has always been a struggle removing the stigma around who theatre is for. However, Oldham Coliseum has always been mindful of the northern, working-class people that make up the majority of the town and catered for their needs. Their learning and engagement department has been successful in making the theatre accessible to all and that’s the beauty of a producing, subsidised community theatre.

The exterior of the Oldham Coliseum theatre, taken at night from Fairbottom Street.
Oldham Coliseum

Jane retells her early experiences in acting and how she first got involved in Oldham at 13. “Once a week I used to have elocution lessons with this woman who was a friend of my mum’s and I used to do poetry with her and drama and I loved it. It was my hour of the week where I was just so happy. I started doing these LAMDA exams and it became apparent that I was actually quite skilled at it. I wasn’t bad at it, there was something I was actually good at.”

Upon finding her passion she began to look for places where she could hone her craft. “There was an amateur dramatic group at my church, I was the only kid there and they used to sit and drink wine and things and they asked me to leave. I was like, well hang on a minute, why are they allowed to do theatre and I’m not allowed? So they set up a youth theatre,” she reflects. “There was a Rochdale-based theatre company called the M6 theatre company who were looking for kids to be in their production of ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ and my school secretary had seen me in one of the youth theatre productions I’d done and put me forward and I got the part. I met an actress there called Sue Johnston and an actor called Andy Hay and they became friends with my parents as they had to chaperone me because I was a minor.”

Sue Johnston and Andy Hay encouraged Jane to take part in another project they were a part of. “The following year, in Oldham Wakes week, the Coliseum put on the Wakes workshop. It cost my mum ten pounds and Sue and Andy were tutors on the workshop. They called me up and said, ‘Why don’t you come hang out with a load of other kids?’ We spent a week rehearsing, playing games, and just having a great time and we took over the theatre. There were about 130 of us that were put into four groups with professional actors and we were all given the same theme. Then on the Saturday night, we were told to perform our 15-minute play and our friends and family paid to come and see us.”

The performance Jane and her fellow budding stars put together was based around the theme ‘Them and Us’. “It’s quite apt. It was about a factory closing and people getting angry about that. I played a cleaner who overheard management talking about the factory closing and I had to smoke a cigarette and I lit the cigarette away from my face, I didn’t know that you have to inhale it to light. And it brought the house down and I didn’t know that I was being funny by being an idiot. But that was it then, I was hooked! My ego had landed and I was asked to audition for a part in a production the Coliseum was putting on the following year.”

It was there at Oldham Coliseum at just 13 years old, that Jane met Sue Devaney who she now shares a dressing room with on Coronation Street. A production of ‘Me Mam Sez’ performed by Oldham Repertory in 1986 which starred Sue Devaney, has stayed in Jane’s mind as one of the best productions she’s seen. “That entire company, everyone who was in that, was absolutely brilliant.”

After Jane got her Equity card, a whole world opened up for her and she found herself working in theatre and radio. “There was a big radio department, drama department that used to take loads from the Coliseum, casting directors would come and hire us which was of course brilliant for us and our careers and our bank balances.”

Then Jane was cast to play Dixie, the paramedic in the national television serial drama Casualty, a role she was reluctant to take at first. “Dixie was a big deal because as a gay woman, I was quite hesitant actually to play her. I overshare but when it comes to my personal life, I do like to keep it private. I was worried what it might mean. Then I just thought, no, hang on a minute, you’re in your late 30s, why shouldn’t you play a gay woman because you are a gay woman, you’ve been on the end of all of those things that people say and all of that bigotry. Once I got my head around it, which took around 10 minutes, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to play Dixie.”

The response was much more positive than Jane had initially thought. “I was really worried about what I might be subjected to. There was a bit of homophobia, but there always has been, there’s always going to be some, sadly. I don’t think I quite understood the enormity of it and then the fan mail started coming in. It really was a big responsibility.” 

Even now, four years after her last appearance on Casualty, Jane is receiving messages of how her portrayal of an LGBT paramedic has inspired and shaped the lives of others. After leaving social media due to some nasty messages sent to her following her father’s death, Jane returned to find a message that spoke louder than all of the hate. “There was a private message on my Instagram, from this person who, like you, watched when he was a kid. He is a gay man and he’s now a fully qualified paramedic and that just made me so happy.”

Now, Jane is brightening up our screens as she plays the bubbly and comedic Bernie Winter on Britain’s longest running soap Coronation Street, but it wasn’t her first stint on the beloved show. “I joined Corrie when I was 16 as part of a family called the Claytons. I was in Middleton re-sitting my O-Levels because I hadn’t done terribly well. I got a call from Granada to audition and I got it but we didn’t gel with the British public. We were brought in under one producer and then a new producer came in and we were sacked. I was absolutely devastated. The plan was to go there for two years, get some money to go to drama school, and then take over the world. But I was sacked at sixteen which was a little embarrassing, but I picked myself up and two weeks later I was back in theatre.”

Whilst working on Casualty, Jane got a call to audition for a part in Coronation Street. “I was asked to audition for another character and I came up and did a screen test and I knew it wasn’t right. It wasn’t where I saw myself and I didn’t get it. So they said to me, we’re gonna write you something and I thought, yeah whatever, I’d heard that before. I came back to the north and was in a play by Maxine Peake, and the following February I got a call asking if I wanted to play Bernie and it was a part they’d written for me. They wanted me to do 10 episodes. I was doing up my house at the time and I’d run out of money and I thought, well this could be a new bathroom. I went to do ten episodes and I’m still there four years later.”

“I love everything about Bernie. She’s very irreverent. She’s just out there. She’s completely out there. I knew she was going to be a bit Marmite to begin with, the fact that she’s abandoned her children, we still don’t know where she went, and then we had the whole business about Paul being abused by her boyfriend. But people are really quite fond of her. The writers have done such a brilliant job with her. I just have to say the lines really, and they’re brilliant lines.”

A whole community of skilled professionals will surely be driven out of the town to seek work elsewhere even if the new build goes ahead. There will be no local people left to operate it as 70 people officially will be made redundant and several more freelancers will lose their main income stream. “It’s all the creatives; It’s costume, design, lighting, sound. All the other outer bodies that the theatre would use to scavenge for props, it’s peoples houses where actors would stay, landlords that would host these creatives – it’s a whole chain you’re putting the kibosh on for at least three years.”

Oldham councillors sat around a horseshoe table in a council meeting.
Oldham Council cabinet meeting in session.

Jane was enraged by Councillor Chadderton’s comments at the cabinet meeting and believes they should take more responsibility for what goes on in their borough. “It’s not enough to say we only empty bins and cut grass, if you’re a leader of the community you have a responsibility. I’m in a company, I’m not a leader but if there’s things wrong within that company, I go to management and talk about those things. That’s what anybody who has a conscience in society does. If something’s not right, you talk about it. She’s the leader of the council. If you’ve got a theatre in your borough, you should know about the workings of theatre. She should meet actors, she should meet directors, she should meet costume makers. She has a duty to know what that place does.”

What the solution to this crisis is, nobody knows, but Jane feels like the powers that be could all do more to find a solution. “What I would like to see is the Arts Council give some money to the theatre to continue for another year or so. If it can continue to do something brilliant for the next year to show not only Oldham Council and the Arts Council, what creatives in the North West are capable of, but to put it out to the people too. There were 400 people in that meeting and it was actually very funny, there were some brilliant one-liners! The North is rich in people that are not frightened of campaigning, of being straight. We’re all happy to say our bit if something’s unjust and unfair.” 

She concludes, “I’d love the Fairbottom Street theatre to be made safe and maybe given to the people to see what they come up with. From what I understand it’s been a bit of a debacle for the last couple of years. But in the interim, the council, the board, the Arts Council has to give the people of our community a viable option.”

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Images 1 & 2: Oldham Coliseum

Third image: Zoe Hodges

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  • Zoe Hodges

    Zoe has been a journalist for over eight years specialising primarily in music and sports. She has had the pleasure of interviewing some of the biggest artists in the country music genre and covering major sporting events such as the Women's Euros and the Commonwealth Games. In her spare time she enjoys writing and composing her own music.

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