OSCAR-winner Julian Fellowes is backing a bid to turn a historic building into a new multi-million pound arts centre for Dorchester.

He is keen to see the former Victorian brewery building transformed into a top performance and arts venue as part of a major town centre development on the former Eldridge Pope site.

And he hopes Dorchester’s most famous son – Thomas Hardy – will be commemorated as part of the scheme.

The actor, author and screenwriter was speaking as developer Andrew Wadsworth lodged a planning application for detailed planning consent for converting the Maltings building. Mr Wadsworth has given the building – last valued at £1million – to the town to be an arts centre and theatre.

If it gets the go-ahead from West Dorset District Council planners the next move is to raise £6million to convert and equip the building.

Mr Fellowes, who lives near Dorchester and is a member of the steering group for the Dorchester Arts Action Group, said he believed the money would be found.

He said: “I hope the Thomas Hardy name can be involved in some way, perhaps as the Hardy Auditorium. Hardy was interested in drama and he worked for the architect that built those brewery buildings so it would seem right.

He added: “This would be a major bonus for the town and attract professional actors. And it would allow businesses and schools and amateur groups to use it. It’s a wonderful thing for the town and I applaud those who are doing this.

“I am pretty hopeful we will get the money. We must always travel hopefully.”

He said the town has halls and venues used for performances but the last town theatre – now the Horse with the Red Umbrella café – closed in the 19th century.

West Dorset MP Oliver Letwin, also on the steering group, said he was delighted the application has been lodged.

He said: “It’s obviously a considerable challenge to raise the money in these circumstances. But this is a really important project for Dorchester and we’re all going to do everything we can to make it happen.”

Clive Gameson, chairman of the action group, said members had vigorously supported the Brewery Square bid for planning consent at an earlier stage of the development. He said: “It’s good news that this detailed application has been submitted. We’ve been waiting for this. Andrew Wadsworth has spent a lot of money already on the building and making it safe.

“It’s a great gift to the town. We all know there’s a recession but Dorchester is expanding. It needs an arts centre and theatre and west Dorset will look to it as well. But it’s going to cost a lot of money and that’s the next stage – the building has got to be viable.”

Alastair Nisbet, chairman of the board of Dorchester Arts Centre, said: “Everybody will be excited to see this project moving forward – there’s no question that there’s a need for a building of this sort in Dorchester. I think it will need financial support and there’s a role that the district council could play here.”

He believed that centre would need a coalescence of arts groups to make the venue viable rather than relying on performances.

ANDREW Wadsworth, co-developer of the former Eldridge Pope brewery site in Dorchester, said the detailed planning application had been drawn up with input from experts including theatre designers and sound engineers.

He said he had spent around £200,000 in stripping out the building and putting the planning application together.

The latest design shows a fly tower for theatre use at one end and an extension in keeping with the Victorian building.

The arts centre and theatre would incorporate other facilities for use by arts groups. It forms part of a major mixed-use development on the site to renovate and convert the Victorian buildings along with new buildings. Shops, homes, a hotel, a square with a distinctive fountain feature, cafes and restaurants are planned.

The site is one of two shortlisted as equal contenders for a possible relocation of West Dorset District Council’s offices from Stratton House in High West Street.