HALF-WAY up a street in Little Germany stands a theatre that changed the lives of several Bradford youngsters.

It was where a teenage Duncan Preston decided to become an actor, rather than work for his dad’s Eccleshill haulage business. It was where 11-year-old Mary Tamm joined Saturday drama classes, later leaving Bradford for RADA. She went on to win the hearts of Doctor Who fans as Romana, assistant to Tom Baker.

Other young actors on the Playhouse stage included Bernard Hepton, acclaimed actor and theatre director and star of Secret Army and Smiley’s People; Peter Firth, Emmy-winning star of TV’s Spooks and Victoria; Billie Whitelaw, whose films included The Omen and The Krays; ‘Allo ‘Allo star Gorden Kaye; director and producer Tony Richardson, whose films include A Taste of Honey and Oscar-winning Tom Jones; Edward Petherbridge, who worked with Laurence Olivier and the RSC; George Layton, star of Doctor in the House; and former Coronation Street and dinnerladies actress Thelma Barlow.

Now, after a gap of more than 10 years, youth theatre is returning to the Chapel Street venue. The Bradford Playhouse Academy (BPA) is a new performing arts venture for youngsters aged nine to 18, offering singing, drama and dance lessons. Students will also perform annual shows on that well-trodden Playhouse stage.

“It’s an exciting time to be involved in BPA,” says drama tutor and professional actor David Ayres, who has performed at the Playhouse as well as London’s West End, in Les Miserables, and on TV for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Amazon Prime.

“We have an incredible team at the Academy, including singing tutor Poppy Jo Lumley, dance tutor Jessica Hannah Rose Sweeney and Steph Hindle assisting with drama. All the tutors have a wealth of professional and industry experience.

“To see young actors take to a stage this size and do what they love will be incredible, and it will be exciting to see how much the Academy will grow over the years. Covid and the lockdown period have left creatives eager to get back out there and perform - and if BPA can help with that, then that’s amazing.”

Playhouse manager Megan Wilson adds: “We are super excited to have a theatre school after so long and can’t wait to get Bradford’s budding young talent on the Playhouse stage. This is our first step back to some form of normality in a post-Covid world and hopefully the signpost for more fabulous work we have coming up over the next few months.

“We can’t wait to get back to making theatre for the people of Bradford.”

The theatre started out in 1929 as the Bradford Civic in rented premises at Jowett Hall. JB Priestley became its president in 1932 and remained a friend of the theatre until his death in 1984.

After a fire destroyed the original site a new venue was built in 1937 as a combined theatre and cinema. Bradford Playhouse would go on to survive a series of troubled periods, including financial struggles, a 1996 fire and temporary closures. In 2001 the Telegraph & Argus launched a Save the Priestley campaign, helping to raise £25,000 to rescue the struggling venue.

Paying tribute to such “small intelligent repertory theatres”...”of immense social importance”, Priestley said that “the people who work for these theatres are generally hard-working men and women whose evenings are precious to them...and they are tremendously enthusiastic”. Theatres like the Playhouse, he said, “have to fight for their very existence, but I see them as little camp fires twinkling in a great darkness”...”These theatres have opened little windows into a world of ideas, colour, fine movement, exquisite drama, have kept going a stir of imagination for actors, helpers, audiences”.

Mary Tamm grew up in Bradford’s Estonian community and was introduced to theatre by her mother, a Russian-born opera singer.

In 2009 Mary, who got her break in 1974 film The Odessa File, told the T&A of joining the Civic as a child: “It was a fantastic, semi-professional theatre. I was there the day Kennedy was assassinated. We stopped rehearsals.”

Duncan Preston is known for roles in sitcom Surgical Spirit, Victoria Wood comedies and Emmerdale. It was at Civic drama classes that he “realised that acting was something I enjoyed and could do”. He told the T&A: “People encouraged me. Someone said: ‘You could do this professionally’, which is something I’d never considered, next thing I was being accepted for RADA. I was a bored teenager when I discovered the Civic. I didn’t know what to do with my life. Those drama lessons gave me a purpose.”

Now the historic theatre has opened its doors for a new generation of acting talent. Watch this space.

* For more about the Bradford Playhouse Academy or to enrol, message via the Facebook page or email boxoffice@bradfordplayhouse.org.uk