When enjoying the peaceful surroundings of the Hind’s Head Pub just off Manchester Road, it’s hard to imagine that you are relaxing on a site steeped in the popular cultural history of The Heatons. The pub was opened in 1987, replacing the legendary Poco A Poco Nightclub and finally bringing to an end decades of variety entertainment which featured some of the biggest stars of the time and a host of other local bands who sadly never rose to national fame.
The club had a rich and chequered history. It opened as the Empress Cinema on the 6th May 1939 and had a seating capacity of 1400. It was the last cinema to be built in Stockport for many years, given the forthcoming World War and the years of austerity which followed. The opening film was ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ starring Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, and Raymond Massey. However, over the next two decades financial difficulties resulted in it merging with The Savoy in Heaton Moor and its days as a cinema ended in 1959. Nevertheless, the ballroom remained open as The Empress Cabaret Club with another part of the building featuring The Flamingo Coffee Jive Club.
During the early 60s its main attraction was as a bingo club but, after been badly damaged by a fire in 1967, it re-opened a year later as the Poco A Poco Nightclub and Casino. Interestingly, the literal translation of ‘poco a poco’ is ‘little by little’ which was the title of the song Dusty Springfield was riding high in the charts with when she visited the club in 1966. As its reputation across the North West grew, it hosted a series of events featuring some of the biggest names in show business. On 7th May 1969 Frankie Howerd recorded a TV show there, and acts like Bill Hayley and the Comets, Billy Fury and Karl Denver (who is buried in Stockport Cemetery) often did week-long residences, drawing in the crowds which flocked from the towns and cities across the region.
Possibly its greatest claim to fame however, came on the 27th April 1970, when David Bowie took to the stage just a few days before receiving his Ivor Novello award at The Talk Of The Town in London, for ‘Space Oddity’, which had been voted the best original song of 1969. The concert was organised through Stockport Schools’ 6th Form Union by pupils from Stockport Grammar School. David Bowie was second on the bill to Barclay James Harvest and it is rumoured that he slept on Stockport Railway Station after the gig, having missed the last train back to London.
The club continued to be a top cabaret venue throughout the 70s and 80s hosting the likes of Mike Harding, Lyn Paul and The Fivepenny Piece. One of the DJs in the early 80s was an ex-pupil of mine from Peel Moat School, Michael Atkinson, who now runs the Merrie England Club in Blackpool. He was given his chance as a 17year old by long-term compere, Vince Miller, who, under the management of Joe Lamb and Mike Pickard, built the reputation of the club which spread far beyond the boundaries of Stockport. With their guidance, Michael went on to become one of the top comedians in the North West and, under his stage name, Joey Blower, not only has his audiences rolling in the aisles but raises thousands of pounds annually for local charities.
Its days ended in in May 1987 when it was once again damaged badly by fire and, later that year, it was demolished and the site acquired by Whitbread to build the Hind’s Head. Today the only reminder of its existence is in the name of the road on which the Hind’s Head sits. Empress Drive stands as a reminder of those distant days when crowds would flock along Manchester Road ready for an evening’s entertainment at one of Stockport’s most legendary venues.