If there's a story that captures the free spirit of the early days of the great Glasgow venue, The Arches, it's the one told by Raymond Burke.

Burke was one of a troupe of talented actors who were working with Andy Arnold, the artistic driving force behind the new venue.

Burke tells the story brilliantly in his 'unauthorised autobiography' of the Arches, but it involves him darting out of a parked at the bottom of Oswald Street and rushing, hungover and dressed in a three-quarter length black leather coat, back towards the Arches, where he urgently needed something for an offbeat corporate gig at the Moat House Hotel.

"As I reached the junction with Midland Street and was turning towards the Arches", he writes, "I heard a loud clumping behind me and turned to see a mounted policeman reaching down to grab me".

Burke knocked the man's arm away only to find himself surrounded by two police motorbikes and three squad cars, with sirens blazing. Burke needed his inhaler but when he reached for it, the officers ducked behind their vehicles.

He was handcuffed and bundled into one of the squad cars. Inside the white van, officers found Burke's colleague in top hat and tails and sitting on a coffin - both part of the corporate performance.

Burke was questioned in Stewart Street police station and learned that a bank near Central Station had just been robbed by someone wearing a long black leather coat. Eventually, his alibi established, he was free to go to the hotel.

The Herald: The Arches Theatre team in May 1991: House Manager Lawrence A.Watson, performer Raymond Burke and artistic director Andy ArnoldThe Arches Theatre team in May 1991: House Manager Lawrence A.Watson, performer Raymond Burke and artistic director Andy Arnold (Image: Picture taken by James Millar, Director of the Arches Theatre)

The Arches lost its licence eight years ago but nine club nights have been planned for there from 21 October. Tom Ketley, founder of events organiser Watchtower, told BBC Scotland that the project was designed to give Glasgow back "one of its sleeping giants". 

The Arches' distinctive story can be traced back to 1990 and Glasgow's epic reign as European City of Culture.

One of the highest-profile attractions had been the Glasgow's Glasgow exhibition, staged in the cavernous railway arches beneath Glasgow Central Station, and which received publicity over its attendance figures and finances - a £4.6m deficit was later reported.

In an article in November 1990 the Glasgow Herald said that in contrast to its 'razzamatazz Hollywood-style opening' the exhibition would shortly end its run in a low-key fashion - but urged that the venue itself, the Arches Theatre, remain.

The Herald arts writer added: "The quiet demise of the Midland Street site may serve as a warning that the year as European City of Culture could dissolve quietly without the citizenry concerning themselves with anything other than the question of how much the whole exercise has cost.

The story of legendary Glasgow venue The Arches

"As I've said before, whatever you think of the exhibition, there have been some fine nights in the Arches and it would be nothing short of a tragedy if the entertainment section of the Midland Street site disappeared from the cultural map of Glasgow".

As it turned out, the Arches Theatre found a new lease of life thanks to the enterprising efforts of theatre director Andy Arnold and a cast of talented actors.

One of the most popular aspects of the exhibition had been rolling promenade shows put on by a theatre troupe, directed by Arnold.

After the exhibition, he began working on a theatre adaptation of an acclaimed anthology of Glasgow poems, Noise and Smoky Breath, at the Third Eye Centre (now the CCA) on Sauchiehall Street.

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"Noise and Smoky Breath was great to be involved in but we were still a theatre company without a home", recalls Burke in The Arches Theatre, his book about the venue's earliest years.

"Then, a few weeks later, I got a phone call from Andy saying he had the keys to the old Glasgow's Glasgow exhibition and wanted to have a go at reopening the theatre. Would I like to be involved?"

The Herald: Andy Arnold in the Midland Street building, in November 1989Andy Arnold in the Midland Street building, in November 1989 (Image: Don Robertson)

Much needed to be done to get the Arches ready as a theatre venue. The Tramway donated some items, says Burke.

Another actor, Ronan O'Donnell, remembers helping to clear out the fire exits the day before a Fire Brigade extension: "In the chill dark, shovelling the stuff heaped behind those fire doors that lead into the back alley which ran behind the theatre made Paddy's Market seem like a high-class perfumery and brought my recent dinner of mince and tatties gagging onto my thrapple".

Arnold and his team performed minor miracles to stage the first plays at the new theatre, to the point where they won the Herald's Spirit of Mayfest award in 1991. One actor, Johnny Rodger, is quoted in the book as saying there was a "sense of anarchic co-operation, of everyone working together in a big open artistic enterprise".

Before Mayfest, Arnold put up his own money to keep the theatre afloat. His team did everything from selling programmes to cleaning the toilets. A small grant of £10,000 from the District Council helped.

"People often don't respond to something that involves risk, or to an initiative that doesn't go through the usual procedures", Arnold told the newspaper in June. "We broke the rules, because we didn't have anything set up, or any money.

The Herald: Andy Arnold, pictured at the Arches in 2006Andy Arnold, pictured at the Arches in 2006 (Image: Kieran Dodds)

"We just went at it and did it. We took out a lease [from British Rail] ourselves. And people don't do that sort of thing. In the theatre world, of all places, people are too safe. But you have to take risks and give something your best shot". 

Review: Behaviour

Burke details the plays that Arnold and the cast of actors staged in those first few years - David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Joe Orton's Loot, Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, Tony Harrison's 'V', Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Herald music writer (and Partick Thistle fan) David Belcher's Partick Thistle Football Crazy.

In his book Burke says the cast were taken to Firhill in Thistle strips to have their pictures taken with the actual players.

"When we arrived the real Patrick Thistle squad were warming up for an important cup game against Hibs. However, John Lambie, the manager, told his players to get off the pitch for ten minutes to let the actors get their photos done for the Herald.

"Thistle went on to lose the game 1-0".

The Herald: Performance artist Julia Bardsley on the set of her installation at the Arches in 2005Performance artist Julia Bardsley on the set of her installation at the Arches in 2005 (Image: Steve Cox)

Burke goes on to note that by the mid-Nineties, supported by clubs, exhibitions and other revenue, the Arches had an assured future and, in his words, "went on to do magnificent and groundbreaking work as a theatre and as an arts venue". A Banksy exhibition was held there in 2001, part of a larger exhibition headlined by Jamie Reid, designer of the Sex Pistols’ iconic Never Mind The Bollocks album cover.

The Herald: Banksy images in The Arches, GlasgowBanksy images in The Arches, Glasgow (Image: Images from The Arches Flickr account)

Other highlights from the Arches' time includes Alien War, theimmersive recreation of scenes from the Alien movies, and Mogwai’s first Scottish headline gig.

Over the years, the venue also became renowned for its club nights. At least 5,000 people queued around the block when the super-club Cream held a night there.

“It was such a cross-purpose place, multi-functional, but inclusive to everyone", the Arches' David Bratchpiece, co-author with Kirstin Innes of Brickwork, a 2021 book on the venue, said in an interview with the Herald.

The Herald: Brickwork authors Kirstin Innes and David BratchpieceBrickwork authors Kirstin Innes and David Bratchpiece (Image: Andrew Perry; andrewperry.co.uk)

"It had a sort of alchemy that no other venue has really matched. It’s best known for the big club nights, which in themselves had variety – there was no elitism – but there was also theatre, festivals, exhibitions.

The Herald: Artist Adrian Howells with a volunteer's footArtist Adrian Howells with a volunteer's foot (Image: PR)

It managed to pull off these things, often multiple events on the same day. You could be in the box office and there could be a theatre reviewer from Morningside in the queue alongside a guy from Blackhill getting his club tickets.”

* Raymond Burke's The Arches Theatre: The Early Years of The Legendary Glasgow Theatre by The Actors Who Made it Happen, is published by The Drouth, CCA.

* Brickwork: A Biography Of The Arches by David Bratchpiece and Kirstin Innes, is published by Salamander Street, £12.99).