The Octagon Theatre is truly one of the jewels in Bolton's crown and it was great to see the Bolton News including a 36-page supplement celebrating its 50th birthday in last Saturday's edition. I began my career in theatre as a stage carpenter at the Octagon in 1971 and over the years have been privileged to see a number of my plays produced there, including this year's 'A Christmas Carol'.

The thing that most inspired me to first try my hand at writing plays was undoubtedly the work being done at that time by the Octagon's Theatre-in-Education team which existed for the first ten years of the Octagon's life and was seen as an integral part of the Octagon's operation. Consisting of a core professional team of five or six actors, it provided a free service to schools and colleges throughout the area. The plays and education programmes the company produced were exciting, imaginative and highly innovative. For thousands of Bolton children and young people they provided a first introduction to live theatre and frequently made impressions that would last a life-time. It was a great loss to the town and to the Octagon itself when the company lost its funding and had to close down. Such was its reputation, however, that it was immediately snapped up by Rochdale who gave it a continued life as M6 Theatre, which is still in operation today. Bolton's loss was certainly Rochdale's gain.

One other aspect of the Octagon's last fifty years which, I think, needs to be acknowledged and celebrated was in 1999 when the theatre was threatened with funding cuts which would have ended its work as a producing theatre and reduced it to the status of being simply a receiving house for touring productions - something like the Bury Met. A campaign was launched, led by the theatre's then artistic director, Lawrence Till, under the title of 'Keep Theatre Made In Bolton'. It quickly grew in size and influence, bringing together theatre professionals from around the country along with local people, trade unions, and theatre-goers from across the region. Marches and rallies were held, letters written to MP's, councillors and funding bodies. It was a wonderful and inspiring demonstration of how important a theatre like the Octagon can be to life and economy of a town like Bolton. And it succeeded. The campaign forced funding bodies into a re-think and the Octagon continued to receive enough funding to allow it to continue producing theatre made in Bolton. I think it's no exaggeration to say that without that campaign the Octagon would not exist in the form it does today - as one of the most respected theatres in the country. And long may it remain so!


Neil Duffield