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From The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen to Ideal Home Exhibition and Balmoral Show: a nostalgic celebration of the King's Hall of Fame

The bulldozers have moved in to the historic south Belfast site, but as a BBC NI documentary proves tonight, the memories of concerts, shows and moments of political drama will live on

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The Beatles at King’s Hall in 1964

The Beatles at King’s Hall in 1964

Bruce Springsteen in 2013

Bruce Springsteen in 2013

The hall's demolition

The hall's demolition

The Beatles at King’s Hall in 1964

It was Belfast's treasured entertainment and sporting arena where thousands of people were rocked by The Beatles, were deafened by Ian Paisley, were knocked out by Barry McGuigan, and were even recorded saying yes to a brand new power-sharing future decades after vowing to fight "for God and Ulster".

But now the reign of the history-steeped King's Hall, where ice rinks, ideal homes, fun fairs and agricultural shows used to bring country and city folk together is over, though its heydays are anything but forgotten.

For even as the bulldozers raze much of the Lisburn Road complex to the ground, a fascinating new documentary about the astonishingly rich and varied backstory of the landmark venue has been produced by the BBC's Gemma Cunningham for transmission tonight.

The home of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society (RUAS) was opened in May 1934 by the Duke of Gloucester, but no one could have predicted what lay ahead for the hall over the next 86 remarkable years.

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The hall being built

The hall being built

The hall being built

The programme's narrator, comedian Jake O'Kane, marvels at the speed with which the 40,000 square foot King's Hall was constructed, taking just 11 months to complete, but he also points out that space on the frontage wasn't big enough to display the entire RUAS name, so they ditched the word 'Agricultural'.

The documentary records the recollections of a host of people as they wander through their pasts at the King's Hall and the footage of old concerts, rallies and exhibitions evokes memories of more innocent times in Belfast.

Nothing captures the spirit of those days better than the quirky archive material from the Ideal Home Exhibition, where huge crowds would meander at a snail's pace through a veritable maze of stands offering weird and not-so-wonderful innovative gadgets like magnetic window cleaners, knives that never got blunt and totally useless vegetable shapers.

Organiser David Robinson says that on one occasion his firm decided to drop the gimmicky gizmos because they didn't think they lived up to their standards, but such was the backlash from the paying customers that they were returned to the show the following year.

Former BBC journalist Wendy Austin remembers how she used to draw the short straw to cover the exhibition for years on end, visiting the swanky show house and sampling everything from nuclear bunkers to water beds.

The motor and boat shows, which were also staged during the same era at the King's Hall, were renowned for more than just their shapely new models for the road and for the sea.

For in the years before the #MeToo movement sex sold, and sexism was the order of the day as curvy young women who often weren't wearing enough clothes to be described as skimpily dressed let it all hang out at the King's Hall.

Wendy, who covered the uncovering at the shows, says: "If I'm being honest it was part of the culture at that stage. But I can't pretend that I was wildly comfortable with it."

Former model Maureen Martin tells the documentary the girls never thought twice, they were just there to do a job.

And the archive footage shows fresh-faced reporters like Nicholas Witchell and Noel Thompson (inset) popping up among the glamourazzi, the latter in an Ideal Home jacuzzi clutching a glass of bubbly among the bubbles alongside a blonde in a bikini.

He'd never get away with it now, of course, but a smiling Thompson said of his beautiful companion: "There are optional extras available that really do make it an Ideal Home."

For most people of a certain vintage, however, the real champagne moments were the concerts.

This reporter is interviewed in the documentary about the visit of The Beatles in 1964; about bagging an interview with U2's Bono before a memorable concert in 1987, and about nurturing a love of Irish traditional music at concerts recorded by the BBC by the likes of Planxty, The Bothy Band and The Chieftains, with a certain Van Morrison on drums.

The Beatles played two shows at the King's Hall on November 2, 1964, and I and another fan, Margaret Flynn, talk in the documentary about how we saw the Fab Four but we didn't hear them in the cauldron of hysteria. The only thing I made out was Paul McCartney saying goodnight.

"There was absolute mayhem and the screaming started and it went on the whole time," says Margaret.

"I remember thinking: 'Stop screaming, I can't hear'."

Footage of the hastily arranged concert by U2 in 1987 at the King's Hall also features in the documentary, as does the interview I grabbed for UTV at the airport with the band's singer, who said he knew Belfast audiences were the best in the world.

Later, Bono told people in the crowd flying flags to take them down.

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David Bowie in 1995

David Bowie in 1995

David Bowie in 1995

The documentary lists a who's who of the musical greats who played the King's Hall complex, including Bruce Springsteen, Cher, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks and Simple Minds.

The American grunge band Nirvana with their tragic frontman Kurt Cobain were at the King's Hall in June 1992 when members of the fledgling band Ash from Downpatrick were there to see their heroes.

For one fan it was an unforgettable night in more ways than one.

Chris Black was thrown out of the gig because bouncers wrongly identified him as an audience member who had been crowd-surfing from the stage.

Chris says that outside the hall two members of Nirvana came to his rescue and he was introduced to Cobain's partner Courtney Love, who loved his red and black jumper, which she bought for 37 punts.

Cobain wore the Dennis The Menace-style top in a music video, but two years later the singer took his own life and his clothes have fetched huge amounts at auction ever since. One cardigan he wore on an MTV session went for £260,000, leaving Chris wondering if he sold himself short with his jumper.

He says: "It must be (worth) in the region of a million now. It's iconic."

The documentary also focuses on the ground-breaking Irish folk music programmes made by BBC NI at the Balmoral studios, where the late TV producer Tony McAuley brought the likes of Planxty and Paul Brady to wider audiences.

The studios were also the home to comedy in the redoubtable shape of James Young and drama productions like the Billy plays, starring Jimmy Ellis and a youthful Kenneth Branagh.

The controversial BBC NI programme The Show was also filmed there - co-presenters Eamonn Holmes and Rhonda Paisley quit after just one episode in 1989.

For years the King's Hall and the Balmoral Showgrounds were synonymous with the more wholesome offering of the annual agricultural extravaganza that attracted tractor-loving farmers to Belfast with their prize-seeking bulls, cattle, horses, poultry and sheep.

Libby Clarke, chair of the RUAS cattle committee, recalls how the 72 hours of the Balmoral Show were the red letter days in the rural calendar, especially during the Troubles, when there weren't many excuses for outings anywhere.

"It was always a happy place to go to where the sun always shone," she says.

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Prince Charles at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Show in 2010

Prince Charles at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Show in 2010

Prince Charles at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Show in 2010

And the show was also an almost obligatory stop-off for the royal family, including the Queen and Prince Philip, and visiting politicians like Tony Blair.

The rivalry between 'ordinary' visitors who wanted to win the various competitions - compared by some to beauty contests - was intense.

And the documentary features farmers bedding down for the night in the stalls next to their animals to ensure that nothing untoward happened to them before they went into the show ring the next day.

Seven years ago the Balmoral Show bade farewell to Balmoral and moved to Balmoral Park on the site of the old Maze Prison near Lisburn.

Clarke says: "It took me a while to get used to the idea that we would be moving, but in my heart or hearts I knew it would be the right thing to do."

And the move has paid off handsomely, according to the RUAS, which says attendances are up by 30%.

Back at the King's Hall the massive redevelopment plans are dramatic, but the exterior of the famous old building will stay largely the same.

Inside, however, the £100m transformation will house a new hub for GP surgeries and other medical services.

As well as looking forward, the documentary - The King's Hall Of Fame - looks back with grainy film of a 1913 rally against Home Rule by the Ulster Volunteer Force in front of Sir Edward Carson, and footage of the Rev Ian Paisley in full flow at a service in front of thousands of his followers to mark the 40th anniversary of his Free Presbyterian Church.

His son Ian says: "All the ministers of the Free Presbyterian Church were sitting behind him.

"I'm not going to say they were like a politburo, but that's what it looked like."

The late DUP leader wasn't quite so ebullient in 1998 at the King's Hall, where the votes were counted in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in May that year.

The DUP had campaigned for a 'No' vote and Paisley junior tells the documentary: "Everything was waged against us.

"They did literally throw the kitchen sink at us - presidents, prime ministers, the media."

Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams says he thought the Agreement would win the day "but we couldn't be sure".

Former chief electoral officer Pat Bradley was the man who had to read out the results.

But he'd had an enforced sleepless night in advance of the count because the DUP wanted to stay with the boxes in case someone tampered with them. Which meant that Mr Bradley had to stay there too, instead of getting a few hours' shut-eye.

Former member of the Women's Coalition Jane Morrice says it was a nail-biting day.

But after Mr Bradley announced that 71.2% of the electorate had said yes, she was ecstatic. "We were here, it was peace," she says.

In a lighter moment, Jane also tells the programme makers about her memories of the ice rink, a popular draw for young people back in the day.

"It was the thing to do," she says. "It was great fun, you could listen to music and you could meet boys. It was a cross-community coming together."

The ice-skating stopped in 1969 after the King's Hall was requisitioned by the Army, who had been drafted into Northern Ireland in the early days of the Troubles.

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Barry McGuigan celebrates beating Valerio Nati with manager Barney Eastwood

Barry McGuigan celebrates beating Valerio Nati with manager Barney Eastwood

Barry McGuigan celebrates beating Valerio Nati with manager Barney Eastwood

Of course, another kind of fighting was also associated with the King's Hall.

Boxers including Rinty Monaghan, John Caldwell and Freddie Gilroy packed the crowds in and the atmosphere later became famous right across the world as Barney Eastwood brought championship boxing back to Belfast, particularly with Barry McGuigan, who united the city behind him at the height of the Troubles and refused to have any anthems on his big nights.

He says: "It was certainly a barbaric time.

"The atmosphere in the King's Hall was unbeatable. There wasn't a place in the world that was better."

But the documentary also includes film from a darker night when a full-scale riot broke out in the King's Hall among furious fans after Derry's world featherweight champion Billy 'Spider' Kelly lost his title to Glasgow's Charlie Hill in 1956.

The King's Hall Of Fame, BBC One NI, tonight, 10.35pm

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