Thekla in 2005
|Current use||Music venue|
In 1982 the ship was bought by Ki Longfellow-Stanshall, the wife of Vivian Stanshall, refitted, and brought to Bristol in 1983 as the Old Profanity Showboat. It was used as a theatre to showcase music of every sort, including cabaret, comedy, plays, musicals, and poetry events. The ship also contained an art gallery. The living quarters were home for Vivian, Ki, their daughter, Silky Longfellow-Stanshall, and Ki's daughter, Sydney Longfellow, as well as a few key personnel.
During the 1990s, under new management, it was run as a rent-a-nightclub. The ship has now been returned to its original working name of Thekla and is run as a night club and venue for various bands by Daybrook House Promotions.
Built in Yard No. 185, Thekla was launched on 12 July 1958 by Büsumer-Schiffswerft W & E Sielaff at Büsum, Schleswig-Holstein for the Schepers family of Haren/Ems. One of the last riveted ships to be produced (the hulls of metal ships have long been made by welding plates), she measured 424 gross registered tons and had a deadweight tonnage of 718 tons. Her overall length is 52.77 m (173 ft 2 in) and breadth 8.82 m (28 ft 11 in), with a 3.21 m (10 ft 6 in) draft. Thekla's hold was lined with Australian red jarrah, one of the hardest woods. With a single screw propulsion, she was powered by a 220 kW (300 bhp) diesel engine made by Bohn & Kähler, Kiel and was said to be a U-boat engine left over from the Second World War, however these engines were not built until the 1950s.
Thekla was a coastal trading vessel carrying a variety of cargoes between northern and western European ports, particularly timber from ports of the Baltic Sea. During her trading life, she remained on the ship register of Haren/Ems, passing in ownership from Johann Schepers to Josef Schôning and then Bernhard Schepers but with no change of name. After running aground at Gatesend, Norfolk, she was left rusting away for seven years in the half-abandoned docks of Sunderland on the eastern coast of England, before being purchased by the Stanshalls for £15,000.
The Stanshalls obtained funds from The Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme, whereby a bank lends the money, and the UK government guarantees the loan. Thekla was considered ideal. Everything had to be refurbished from the U-boat engine (left over from the Second World War, as mentioned above), to the leaky hydraulics to the winch for raising and lowering the anchors. In the summer of 1983, she set sail for Bristol on the opposite side of Britain, a city chosen because Vivian had once played there as frontman for The Bonzo Dog Band, and because Ki liked the sound of the place.
Fresh out of dry dock with her bottom scraped, she was covered in a new coat of black paint and white paint over her original colours of pale blue and white, with red chosen for the stack. With all the ironwork and welding accomplished, Thekla sailed 732 nautical miles (1,356 km) to Bristol in six days and six nights.
She had sailed without ballast, without registration, without insurance, and without mishap, save for the half-day the crew spent mending the engine. Her conversion, sailing, docking, finishing touches, and opening night on 1 May 1984 was filmed as an Omnibus BBC 1 documentary by writer and film maker Tony Staveacre of the BBC. He called it The Bristol Showboat Saga and it was broadcast for the first time on 30 September of that year. This film can be found on YouTube here: [www.youtube.com]
For the next two and a half years, The Old Profanity Showboat put on over 240 theatrical productions, staging the varied efforts of theatrical troupes from all over Britain, plus the work of the students of the nearby Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. It was one of the first venues to stage Robert Longden and Hereward Kaye's Moby Dick the Musical.
To support its theatre and cabaret (which seldom paid for itself), the Old Pro also provided a stage for bands.
Within a year, the Old Pro was in use as a small theatre, jazz venue, folk club and cabaret. Across her stage came hopefuls who became "names," and often unannounced "names" who wanted to once again experience the intimacy of their first foray into show business. Many of Britain's best and brightest comedians either played there, or stayed there.
Many of the Old Pro's employees worked the bar or the box office or ship's maintenance to find themselves one day treading her stage. After two years of waiting, Ki felt they could wait no longer. No matter how much it cost to stage an original show, the time had come to reward their hard work and dedication.
Co-written by Vivian Stanshall and Ki Longfellow-Stanshall, Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera was a three-hour-long musical comedy (Vivian called it a "comic opera"), produced by Ki, directed by Vivian (working with both actors and orchestra at the same time), and performed on the Old Pro over a two-week run up to Christmas in December 1985. Stinkfoot's cast and orchestra consisted of the employees, as well as regulars who'd graced Thekla's stage. Its set made use of Thekla's curious layout. Its conception was based on a series of tales Ki wrote about a New York City alley cat and on Vivian's life as a Bonzo frontman. In its final form, it was a surreal and dazzling cross-cultural mix of music hall, Broadway, and Thirties screwball comedies. But mostly, it was "just being itself," as Vivian would say. It played to sell-out audiences every single night of its run, attracted people from Scotland to the US, and it garnered wonderful, if slightly puzzled, reviews from not only the Bristol press, but The Guardian and The Times.
Staged a second time in late 1988 at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, it lacked the cockeyed appeal of Thekla's unusual setting, and the hand-picked Bristol cast and orchestra (for which much of the material was specifically crafted).
Interest in restaging the show was maintained, and in late 2008 was partly realised. The comic opera was trimmed from three hours to two, and became a "Stinkfoot Showcase". The show played Thekla (where it was written and first staged), on 20, 21, 22 and 24 July 2010. This was a showcase of Stinkfoot's songs backed by a full band and selected cast members (including Nikki Lamborn and Vivian and Ki's daughter Silky Longfellow-Stanshall) plus special guests. Tony Slattery narrated and sang. Though open to the public, the showcase was intended to attract backers for the revival of the full musical. It attracted the attention of major press (The Word magazine, Mojo magazine, BBC London & BBC Bristol), and theatres like the Bristol Old Vic.
By early 1986, even though the ship had survived the expense of staging Stinkfoot, and even though there was a plan to sail Thekla at least to the port of New York City to try her artistic mettle there, Ki had become exhausted by the day-to-day running of such a huge venture. Vivian, buoyed by the experience of Stinkfoot, was eager to renew his recording career, and Ki to continue her career as a novelist. Ki was also experiencing ill-health due to the stress of managing something so complex as The Old Profanity Showboat. Announcing closure of the ship, there came a deluge of protest by artists and customers whose home it had become. Accordingly, the Old Pro continued to showcase theatre and bands until August 1986.
Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Thekla was taken over and run as an underground nightclub, becoming a cornerstone of Bristol's drum & bass music scene. Over these years some of Bristol's best known artists (including Massive Attack, Portishead and Roni Size) began by playing in Thekla's hull.
Work by the artist Banksy can be seen stencilled over the bulkheads inside the club as well as his much larger work on the outside of the hull at the waterline. This piece was painted over by the harbour master, much to the annoyance of the club's owners, who threatened the council and harbour master with legal action. Banksy returned to paint it again. The painting of the "Grim Reaper" is now on display at the M Shed.
A refurbishment of the ship was completed in October 2006 after being purchased by Daybrook House Promotions, owners of Rock City, Rescue Rooms, Stealth and The Bodega in Nottingham. She remains at the moorings in central Bristol where she was first positioned in 1983 and continues to function as a music venue and nightclub. Artists such as Franz Ferdinand, The New York Dolls, Pete Doherty, Tokyo Police Club, The Growlers, Santigold, The Chords in their final gig in the classic line-up, and local bands from Bristol and Bath have played at Thekla since DHP purchased the venue. The ship was repainted from black to cream and dark green.
In May 2009 Thekla celebrated its 25th anniversary with a day and night long event featuring bands selected to represent the best of what was happening on the Bristol music scene.
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