WHEN a group of Robin Pemberton-Billing’s students approached him more than 40 years ago to ask for his advice on building a studio space for actors the former drama lecturer thought they had bitten off more than they could chew.

Little could they have known that their idea for a modest performance space was to grow into the Octagon, one of the country’s best-respected theatres.

Now Robin is close to finishing a book detailing the fascinating story of how the theatre came into existence — and how its supporters had to use every trick they knew to make sure it was built at all.

The Octagon Theatre: Concept to Reality covers the first four years of the Octagon’s history.

After students Phil Butterworth, Gerry Russell, John Wood, Robin Howarth and John Sermon approached Robin for advice, he thought that would be the last he heard of the matter.

“They told me they had found a possible venue — the old Hippodrome,” says Robin. “I told them it would be cheaper to build a theatre from scratch and suggested they should speak to the borough architect.

“Three weeks later they turned up again saying the had organised the meeting but they needed a design — could I do one?”

Robin agreed, and found himself plunged into a theatrical adventure.

“We had a lot of support from Geoff Brooks, the borough architect, who was fascinated by the idea, and from the Mayor Harry Lucas who was very interested in all the arts.

“A businessman friend of one of the student’s fathers,Tom Markland, heard about what we were doing. He had lots of money floating about that he wanted to put into charities.

“We went for a drive so I could ‘show him around Bolton’. He wasn’t interested in seeing the sights at all, he wanted to see what made me tick.”

Markland had initially decided to donate £100,000 to the University of Lancaster, but after talking to Robin changed his mind and pledged the cash to the new theatre project instead.

“It fell into our hands,” says Robin.

Lancaster’s loss was Bolton’s gain. However, the plan still needed the approval and support of the council — which was by no means guaranteed.

“Harry put it through right at the end of a meeting when everyone was fed up and wanted to go home,” says Robin. “It got through without them really realising.”

Finding himself with the chance to build the country’s first flexible theatre that could show plays in the round and on a thrust stage, Robin quit his lecturing job and moved up to Bolton — much to his wife’s horror.

Six months later, the Octagon was built and ready for its official opening, with guest of honour HRH Princess Margaret.

“It was absolutely unheard of. No-one had ever built and opened a theatre that quickly,” says Robin.

The story behind the creation of the theatre is a remarkable one, but there is also a little known coda to the tale.

“There could have been a children’s theatre as well,” says Robin. “Tom Markland had agreed to finance it if Bolton Council made more of a commitment.

“They had put comparatively little money into the Octagon, compared to what he had invested, and he said if they were willing to put between £10,000 and £20,000 into the idea it would go ahead - but they backed out.

“They weren’t prepared to put £20,000 in to have the only dedicated children’s theatre in the country.”

• Robin is currently trying to trace any relatives of his student Robin Howarth living in Bolton. Anyone with an information can ring Robin on 01204 524450.