Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall remains without doubt the most elegant music venue in the city, impressing thousands of visitors every year. The current building was opened in 1939 following the demolition of a previous concert hall after it caught fire and was damaged beyond repair in 1933. The new Philharmonic Hall was designed by Herbert J. Rowse and built in the Streamline Moderne style of Art Deco architecture. To enter the building for the first time is still as breathtaking as ever, with sweeping staircases, ornamental windows, beautiful lighting and an auditorium to rival any in the world. Its roster of performers continues to impress with the cream of the world’s music talent on a constant programme, alongside speakers, dancers and comedians. The building has undergone a number of renovations, most recently in 2015 which saw the addition of the Music Room, a smaller but no less appealing venue at the rear of the building.
One of the more endearing features of The Philharmonic’s main auditorium, which has remained since the new hall was opened, is the famous Walturdaw cinema screen. This wonderful contraption is hidden away beneath the stage and, when required, will gracefully emerge, as if by magic, in the centre stage of the stage.
Walturdaw screens were a popular feature in theatres and concert halls for many years, via the genius of early cinema pioneers J.D Walker, Edward George Turner and G.H Dawson. Turner and Walker started out as a touring film show in the 1890s, exhibiting silent films all over Britain with Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope machines and phonographs. In a rather bogus fashion they called themselves The North American Touring Company and, with a Wrench Cinematograph, boasted an early touring projector that could actually play to massed audiences.
In 1904 they joined forces with school teacher G.H. Dawson and formed the company Walturdaw, turning to film production with their own synchronised sound system, the Cinematophone. Working through the 1920s, the company also provided equipment to theatres and cinemas, including the wondrous Walturdaw cinema screens.
The screen at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall is the only working model of its kind in existence, and is not just there to sit pretty. It is used on a regular basis as part of the Phil’s rolling programme of classic film screenings. Making full use of its home, screenings are often backed by a live orchestral score and shows are constantly sold out.
The charm of the screen very much lies in the fact that it rises from the stage as the audience watch, retaining much of its magic. Its majesty is heightened by the live accompaniment by resident organist, Dave Nicholas. Dave paid us an evening visit at the Bido Lito! office to tell us more about this unique attraction and his long and successful association with it.
At 82 years of age, Dave is as sprightly as you would imagine for a man of his profession and he has a twinkle in his eye from years of magic and memories. Swapping his trademark kilt for a smart suit, he looks the part with a tie emblazoned with musical notes. He’s a real local character with a fascinating story to tell. “I’ve been there 28 years, I don’t think they’ve found out yet,” he laughs.
Dave’s tale is a long one, reaching back to 1960 when he was an entertainer at Butlins in Skegness, working alongside names like Bud Flanagan, Johnny Ball and Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies. It was there that he learned the trade that he is so celebrated for ‘til this day.
“On a rainy Friday I would get through 500 tunes,” Dave remembers, and he lists the many musicians he played with, many who have gone on to play with prestigious orchestras worldwide. “They would film everyone at Butlins through the week, then on Friday morning they would have a film show, and I would accompany it. It put me in great stead for doing the silent movies.”
After his stint at Butlins, Dave worked in Liverpool’s famous Rushworths store in the city, a music shop with strong connections to The Beatles’ legend. It was by chance that his presence there would lead to his career at the Philharmonic Hall. “I was working in the organ department one day when Jack and Sally Bennet came in with their daughter, Myra. Jack ran an organ society in Halstead and was looking for a new organ, so I gave a demo. Myra came over as she had never heard an electronic piano sound like a church organ before.
“Myra went on to be principal flautist at the Phil, she’s retired now, and her husband David Piggot plays the horn there still. Anyway, Jack asked me if I’d make a cassette of my organ playing and at first I thought, ‘You’ll never sell the bloomin’ thing!’
“They came to my house on Boxing Day of 1987 and said, ‘We can’t record it here, let’s do it at The Phil’. Well I couldn’t take my organ there as it wasn’t insured outside of the house, so we used The Phil’s organ. When I came to try the organ, it was 31st January and some of the management came in – they were preparing for the 50th anniversary the next year – and they wanted to raise the screen up. Well, I didn’t know anything about the screen, and as it started to come up, just for fun I started to play the Gaumont British News music.
“I did the recording and that was the end of it until I contacted David in April to see if we’d sold any cassettes. He asked if I’d heard from The Phil and I said ‘No’, and he said, ‘Well, you’re playing there three nights in June,’ and I’ve been there ever since.”
Dave is still eternally grateful for that chance meeting in Rushworths and for the result of what was meant to be a bit of a joke on that fateful day at The Phil. “When I’d been there 25 years, they gave me a vase. I’d done 500 films in those years.” He is also very proud that he was the first person to record the Philharmonic organ on cassette and CD.
Dave is known mostly for his work playing before film screenings and, in the case of older films (with no long credit scrolls), playing them out too. He has played accompaniment to silent films too, including a special screening of Of Time And The City, Terence Davies’ paean to Liverpool, in November 2008. Dave is also proud to have played at the premiere of Hilary And Jackie, the 1998 film penned by Frank Cottrell Boyce about cellist Jaqueline Du Pré , and shot around Liverpool.
Not only playing alongside films, Dave has also performed prior to guest speakers and performers; I remember seeing him supporting cult filmmaker John Waters at Homotopia in 2013. “The film company gave me some music to play, it was all quite foreign to me, but I did it.”
He also fondly remembers supporting Anthony Wedgwood Benn, who he described as a very pleasant man, “I had to play half an hour before he went on. When he finished his talk, I had to play For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow, and he made all the dignitaries say thank you. Very nice.”
I asked Dave what his fondest memories have been and he states firmly, “The screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life.” Something of a festive tradition now, The Phil has been showing this Christmas favourite for a number of years supported by a full orchestra, and with Dave supplying the intro. “Everyone has it on DVD now,” explains Dave, “but they keep on coming.” The rising stage and Dave’s fanfare is an integral part of this annual treat.
I also ask what he still enjoys about his role, and with a sigh Dave tells me “at my age, it’s not going to go on forever, but it’s the place isn’t it? It’s so unique. Fortunately for me, I’m not into all the new music at all, I like the old standards, and they fit in with the décor. They get all the modern stuff on the screen, that doesn’t concern me. A lot of young people enjoy this as it’s something they’d not see anywhere else, I mean they hardly show anything like this on TV.” He smiles with some comfort as he tells how “there is a place down South that teaches young people how to play music to films.”
When I ask Dave what changes he has seen over the years he explains how the stage has grown, but the screen has remained in the same position. “It was never touched in the war you know, not many of the cinemas and theatres were damaged.”
This brings us to the fact that the screen is the only functioning model in the world. “Yes, there were three. One in Russia which was covered over and I think there was one in Morocco which was damaged. Liverpool’s is the only one that has been preserved.
Dave is a true professional and exceptional company on a cold winter’s night. “Audience rapport in The Phil has always been very appreciative, I always get the applause,” he says, smiling. “There’s never any music on my stand, I never know what I’m going to play, but I’ve been a pro for over 50 years and I’ve never missed a show. Even when there was a tummy bug going ‘round in Butlins, I nearly missed a couple, but I still made it in the end.” And his eyes are twinkling with memories once more.
Dave continues to accompany The Phil’s film screenings on his organ and will be accompanying Victoria And Abdul and two screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life in the run up to Christmas. He’s unsure what the future will hold, but it’s our guess that he will continue to be a vital part of The Phil’s legend for a long time to come.
It’s A Wonderful Life is screened twice on Christmas Eve, at 11am and 2pm.