A new chapter in Oldham's history books has just begun as Monday, July 8, will forever be remembered by generations and generations yet to come as the day the battle to save the Coliseum was won.

The famous 138-year-old Fairbottom Street theatre has officially been rescued in a shock comeback since it closed in March last year, and the restoration mission will resume "immediately" to the tune of a £10m investment from the council.

Ahead of the grand announcement, council leader Arooj Shah and Coronation Street star, Julie Hesmondhalgh, who spearheaded the Save Oldham Coliseum campaign alongside a hefty group of dedicated theatre lovers, spoke to The Oldham Times in the empty auditorium about the exciting and "emotional" rescue.

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The pair said it had been "many, many months" in the making, packed with meetings and tough conversations to reach this pivotal moment to reopen "the OG" which this time last year, seemed a pipe dream.

Julie and Arooj unveiled new posters outside the ColiseumJulie and Arooj unveiled new posters outside the Coliseum (Image: Newsquest, Olivia Bridge)

However, the reopening is backed by the council in a tremendous U-turn decision, as well as the Oldham Coliseum Theatre board.

The plan supposedly has the "very keen interest" of Arts Council England, too.



The sun beamed down on the Coliseum on Monday, a sign the duo said that "everything is falling into place" and a metaphor for the theatre's exciting beginning, which will spring into action on time for pantomime season in 2025.

Kickstarting the new era with the panto is also significant, Julie said, as the show transcends ages and has touched the lives of generations of Oldhamers who have come with their parents, nans, carers and friends or through school.

But many didn't realise what they'd lost until it was gone.

Julie and Arooj spoke to The Oldham Times ahead of the big public announcementJulie and Arooj spoke to The Oldham Times ahead of the big public announcement (Image: Newsquest, Olivia Bridge)

After the final curtain closed on the Coliseum in its fittingly named "Encore" show, campaigners said it felt as though the heart had been ripped out of Oldham. The Christmas spirit was dampened as residents mourned the loss of their beloved and often sold-out panto.

Over the course of the last 12 months, it's undeniable that the closure has had a domino impact on the town centre's nighttime economy. Several pubs and bars have since closed their doors. Residents feared the centre would become a "ghost town", populated only by the Coliseum's homeless poltergeist, Harold. 

A touching moment as Julie was driven to tears making the announcementA touching moment as Julie was driven to tears making the announcement (Image: Newsquest, Olivia Bridge)

Depressingly cold reports about the boarded-up and gutted-out theatre came to light, suggesting it had asbestos, was "at the end of its life", was 'beyond repair', it was no longer financially viable; it was just not worth investing in.

The leader of Oldham Council at the time, Amanda Chadderton, said it was "reckless" to save it.

The charming theatre was dubbed a decrepit, unsafe and soulless structure that residents had given up on anyway.

But Oldhamers and creatives whose careers flourished out of the Coliseum flatly disagreed. The magic of the auditorium is irreplaceable, they said.

When 400 members of the public attended a meeting at the Coliseum, people suggested organising a mass sit-in to protest the closure, chanting "hands off Oldham". Campaigners teased taking it in shifts and glueing themselves to the rafters if they had to.

'Hands off' rang through the auditorium 'Hands off' rang through the auditorium (Image: Equity UK)

Meanwhile, its proposed replacement, a £24m theatre, didn't have a fly-tower, wing space or rehearsal space, making it unfit for panto, and generally lacked capacity amongst a hefty long list of reasons residents rallied against it.

Julie said it wasn't as "like-for-like" as was initially planned, due to austerity cuts and the cost-of-living crisis, which "scaled it right down".

But even if it did have those things, it was not the Coli, where Charlie Chaplin, Eric Sykes, Dame Thora Hird, Dora Bryan, Stan Laurel, Minnie Driver, Maxine Peake, Ralph Fiennes and a plethora of Coronation Street legends were born on its stage.

Julie added: "It was not the same. Not for Oldham. 

"I don't think people truly took on the significance of this actual building, of the unique connection people have to this place."

The new £24m theatre was proposed for Union StreetHow the proposed £24m theatre might have looked (Image: Oldham Council)

A second report commissioned by the theatre company's board published in September last year presented a glimmer of hope that it could be restored after all, with just a slice of the funding reserved for the new theatre and just a bit of TLC.

Another independent investigation cited that it was the previous Coliseum board and its leadership that had plummeted to the "point of collapse". So, not so much the building then after all.

As we stood in the auditorium, Julie commented: "It doesn't smell of damp at all, even after that brutal winter last year.

"Yes, there is a lot to be done, the seats have been stripped, the assets have been stripped, but actually, it doesn't look that intimidating."

Now, some of that £24.5m that was reserved for "Coliseum 2.0" will instead be spent on breathing life into the Fairbottom Street theatre -  £6m from the Towns Fund and £4m from the Town Centre Regeneration pot to make up the £10m refurbishment.

The flash panto mob took to the streets of Oldham last NovemberThe flash panto mob took to the streets of Oldham last November (Image: Newsquest, Olivia Bridge)

The 54-year-old and self-proclaimed "Oldhamer by proxy" through her marriage to the award-winning writer and playwright, Ian Kershaw, also gave her thanks to Oldham Coliseum Theatre Board for preserving the name and said a new chair and chief executive with impressive CVs, who both hail from Oldham, have been ushered in.

Julie said this "matters" to appeal to both the local audience and, hopefully, the Arts Council.

Meanwhile, Julie and Ian will be positioned as voluntary cultural ambassadors for their pivotal role in uniting the community - and the campaign.

Indeed, Save Oldham Coliseum group gained significant momentum with a Facebook group of more than 1,000 members, established a website, arranged fortnightly campaign meetings at Valentino's and had trade union backing, as Equity centred the many creatives who lost their jobs when the curtain closed.

One "flash panto mob" through the town centre and a short film later, the fight was fierce but optimistic. 

The group made a short film, Our Sleeping Beauty, about their beloved theatreThe group made a short film, Our Sleeping Beauty, about their beloved theatre (Image: Save Oldham Coliseum)

Cllr Shah said as a resident Oldhamer, she too was "upset" and made it one of her "political priorities" to reopen the Coliseum once she was voted in as council leader in May 2023.

However, she also acknowledged that "people have power", echoing her thanks to the campaign group for the "power they brought collectively, with their voices combined".

Fairbottom Street was rammed for the celebrationFairbottom Street was rammed for the celebration (Image: Newsquest, Olivia Bridge)

When asked if the reopening of the Coliseum would have been possible without the tenacious united voice of campaigners, Julie said: "No, I don't know where we would be."


A street party was then well underway outside the Coliseum, welcomed by the triumphant trumpeting of Boarshurst Silver Band and live performances from youth groups and Sue Devaney amongst others.

Julie and Cllr Shah broke the news to a tearful and overjoyed crowd who applauded, hugged one another and celebrated into the night.

And at the heart of this comeback is also a message to Northern towns, working-class creatives, and the wider arts and cultural sphere across the country - that theatre matters here and campaigning works.

Sue Devaney performed as Gracie Fields with a rendition of 'The Thingummybob'Sue Devaney performed as Gracie Fields with a rendition of 'The Thingummybob' (Image: Oldham Council)

Expanding on this to BBC Breakfast, Julie said the initiative has reinvigorated conversations about access to the arts for people "from less advantaged backgrounds" and about "what art and culture means in education".

She added: "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."

As for Arts Council England, which pulled funding from the Coliseum in March last year, it has ringfenced £1.845m to support a "creative and cultural programme" in the borough, delivered by Oldham Coliseum Theatre Limited and Oldham Theatre Workshop.

While it doesn't fund the Coliseum as the theatre belongs to the council, an ACE spokesperson said it recognised "what a well-loved landmark it is" and "the work the campaign group has been doing to preserve it".

Still, the U-turn to reopen the theatre falls on the shoulders of those relentless campaigners who met, mobilised and seemingly moved mountains behind the scenes with solutions and action plans. They never gave up.

It's entirely plausible that, without them, Oldham Coliseum would stay shut up and silent, just an empty shell of what it once was.

Now, it can look forward to many more stars emerging from its wings in the next century or so, and Oldham's broken heart can begin to heal with the safe return of its crown jewel.

As Julie said: "The future is ours. This is just the beginning."

 Got a story? Email me Olivia.bridge@newsquest.co.uk