Failing Fairfield Halls is limping along on borrowed time

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Long gone are the days when the Fairfield Halls could attract some of the biggest acts in the world, such as the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, says DAVID CALLAM. These days, the only beetles at the arts venue are deathwatch

The Fairfield Halls have a lacklustre programme for the next two months

Fairfield Halls has a lacklustre programme in the next two months

Fairfield Halls has passed its use-by date and we are allowing sentimentality and the usual lack of municipal leadership to coax us into throwing good money after bad.

A glance through the February and March diary shows how difficult the Fairfield Halls is finding it to attract star names. It also shows the depressing number of days on which this once vibrant arts venue is now “dark”. As Inside Croydon noted in the past, the Fairfield programme these days sometimes look as if the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s never happened.

The future is all too easy to predict: the dilapidation will worsen as the gap between income and expenditure widens until Croydon Council is forced to withdraw public subsidy and Fairfield goes the way of the Warehouse Theatre.

Like so many people I have happy memories of time spent at Fairfield; my first visit was as a soon-to-be secondary pupil impressed that my new school could hold its annual prize-giving in such grand surroundings.

There was a time when the line-ups at the Fairfields were the height of entertainment

There was a time when the line-ups at the Fairfields were the height of entertainment. The Beatles played the new Croydon venue twice in 1963

My fondest memory is watching my young sons chortling at a Chuckle Brothers performance in the Ashcroft Theatre; my most magical moment is seeing and hearing Nigel Kennedy fiddle his way up and down the aisles of the concert hall. I have been a patron over almost the whole 50 years of the Fairfield’s existence, but I won’t allow that to blind me to reality: circumstances have overtaken the place in a way that nobody could have predicted.

It’s inconceivable that today’s big names would play as small a venue as Fairfield – less than 2,000 seats – but 1960s idols, the Beatles, Cliff Richard and the Rolling Stones did. They were the money-spinners who subsidised less commercial acts.

For many years classical music fans could smile smugly as they took their seats, knowing they would enjoy a far better acoustic than those who attended concerts at Fairfield’s bigger sister, the Royal Festival Hall.

Recent refurbishment of the Thames-side venue has put an end to that distinction and last year’s addition of a second entrance to Blackfriars station on this side of the river makes the whole South Bank arts complex – three concert venues, the National Theatre, an art gallery and an IMax cinema – much easier to reach from Croydon.

When Fairfield opened in 1962, the O2 didn’t exist, nor did the Jubilee Line that connects it so quickly to Croydon via London Bridge. As for Wembley Arena, at the other end of the Junilee line, that was still the ageing and unlovely Empire Pool.

Fifty years ago, the Churchill Theatre in neighbouring Bromley didn’t exist either, while Wimbledon Theatre was a draughty Edwardian monument to the days of variety. Both are now fierce rivals for the attention of theatre-goers in Croydon, offering pre- and post-West End productions that Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre can rarely match; since the advent of the tram, Wimbledon is more easily accessible, too.

Home entertainment in 1962 consisted of just two television channels, both broadcasting in black and white. BBC2 didn’t arrive until 1964, with colour programmes following three years later. And video was unheard of outside professional recording circles.

We had just three radio stations, the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme – four if you include the intermittent Radio Luxembourg.

The market has changed completely in the past half-century and Fairfield – the building, not the team who run it – is too inflexible. Anyone who has watched staff struggle in vain to compensate for the building’s shortcomings during a less formal show or an exhibition will appreciate my point.

We need a building that suits the entertainment and exhibition market; a building we can adapt easily to meet future needs. But what precisely is that market in Croydon? Do lovers of music, whatever the genre, want a concert hall in Croydon, or would they rather go further afield where they have a wider choice of favourite artists?

Do play-goers want a theatre of Ashcroft proportions? Would they perhaps prefer a performance space the size of the Warehouse? Or do they want both, and if so, are there enough of them to put bums on seats throughout the year?

Do audiences want to watch art-house movies in the vastness of a concert hall or would they prefer somewhere of similar proportions to the David Lean Cinema at Croydon Clocktower?

Do we expect our entertainment venues to pay their way, or are we happy to subsidise them, even if that may mean unwelcome increases in taxation? Is a major arts complex a must-have accessory as a status symbol?

I have my own thoughts, but no idea of the general view. And I don’t think Croydon Council has either. It glibly spends our money to prop up the status quo, when it should be considering as wide a cross-section of alternatives as possible.

In a recent written exchange with Councillor Tim Pollard, he tells me he receives more letters in favour of subsidising the Fairfield than of stopping it. That’s not a good enough reason to spend increasing amounts of public money.

We need independent research to determine exactly what the market will support. Assuming we want a major arts complex in Croydon – and I hope we do – I imagine it will be a flexible building able to offer performance spaces of widely differing sizes and varying degrees of formality.

If so, we need a developer and operator who will build and run it without subsidy. Indeed, I expect there to be profits and I think the people of Croydon should share them, which would help to keep council tax lower than it might otherwise be.

Glasgow's new venue, the Hydro. Croydon has the Fairfield Halls

Glasgow’s new venue, the Hydro. Croydon has the Fairfield Halls

I have no wish to anticipate the outcome of such research any further, but I do think we need to be bold in our response.

Let me offer an example of what I mean by boldness: at the time we were arguing about a possible 12,000-seat arena in central Croydon, Glasgow decided to go ahead with a very similar project.

The city’s new arena, The Hydro (naming rights sold to Scottish Hydro, an electricity company), opens in September. Acts booked for the final quarter of 2013 include Andrea Bocelli, Peter Gabriel, Mickey Flanagan and JLS. As an example of its “flexibility”, in 2014, it will stage netball and gymnastics at the Commonwealth Games.

Developer, Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre Limited, expects the new venue to contribute £130 million annually to the local economy and to create 1,400 jobs.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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7 Responses to Failing Fairfield Halls is limping along on borrowed time

  1. South Croydon Community Association have set 21st March 2013 7pm (venue to be announced) as the date for a Borough-wide meeting of interested parties to discuss what we as Croydon residents want of Fairfield Halls.

    A huge number of local residents are employed or are interested in the arts industries we want to see them come together to set a vision for our central arts facility that genuinely reflects the aspirations of the local community and creates a vibrant centre to the town.

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  2. Jonathan Law says:

    I agree that it is really sad to see Fairfield closed most nights of the week. As an actual concert venue with great acoustics it is pretty wonderful, and it is a shame that they never seem to book any major bands there anymore.

    However I really disagree with the author’s thoughts that we need a concert venue the size of the Hydro in Croydon – what a white elephant that would be.

    Huge arena venues are pretty hard to fill, and most concert-goers hate seeing bands in vast halls where you can’t see the stage without a pair of binoculars.

    Such venues are absolutely wrong for stand up comedy where the intimacy of a smaller venue pays dividends.

    Also Croydon’s infrastructure (transport or otherwise) couldn’t cope with the demands that a venue the size of Wembley Arena would put on the town.

    East Croydon Station certainly couldn’t cope with 10,000 people all at once and parking would be hell.

    Also note that Wembley Arena charges £25 for parking for just a few hours – and you thought that Croydon’s parking charges were bad enough.

    Also trying to fill a venue that needs a huge crowd to exist at all would be hard and that venue would be empty most of the time.

    From a punters point of view: Look at venues used for rock and pop concerts and the capacities involved and what the punter experience is like.

    O2 – 20,000 people – not much fun at all from the gigs I’ve seen
    Earls Court 19,000 – huge shed with no atmosphere
    Wembley Arena – 12,500 people at most – awful sound every gig I’ve seen there – except Queen
    Alexandra Palace – either 10,400 or 2,500 – a bit so-so
    Hammersmith Odeon/Apollo – 3600-5000 – great venue with good view and good sound.
    Wolverhampton Civic 2200-3000 – great live venue – much loved by bands and fans.

    Fairfield Halls is about the right size and could host loads of rock and pop events.

    But is it robust enough to handle such events, and from past experience I do wonder if the management/owners or bookers want the “great unwashed” gracing it’s plush interior at all?

    To survive it might need to step up from only booking “family shows” and old fogeys and accept the younger pop and rock acts.

    In my opinion Croydon could do with a couple of GREAT live music venues on top of the pub and bar-sized venues that it already has. Ones with good facilities for bands to park and unload and setup their stage, and with great sound EVERY night.

    And have them be successful enough to be active 4-5 nights a week.

    We have great transport into London via East Croydon all through the night, so Croydon would make a good concert home for certain sized venues not unlike the London Astoria and Astoria 2 which closed for the Crossrail development:

    Large venue: 2000- 3000 capacity (Surely the Fairfield could be this)
    Medium venue 1000 -1500 capacity ( Ashcroft Theatre or resurrect something like The Greyhound)
    Small venues: 500-700 capacity

    Just my own tuppennyworth

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  3. Arfur Towcrate says:

    Good article by David Callam, and I share his views.

    What to do with the Fairfield? Knock it down and build a massive car park, shopping centre and flats in its place – well, that’s the usual Croydon solution to urban decay, oops, “renewal”.

    Joking apart, if this 60s structure ain’t pulling in people anymore, then we need to stop throwing money down the drain and have a rethink. I rarely go to the Fairfield these days, because the stuff on show there is of little interest – e.g. the Billy Fury Years” FFS. Wikipedia reckons his heyday was the late 50s early 60s – his last top 30 hit was in 1966. Teenagers who were into him then would be in their 60s now.

    http://www.croydonobservatory.org/population/2011census/5yearbreakdown breaks down Croydon’s age profile based on the 2011 census data – those in their 60s are a declining minority. Nothing wrong in catering for older people – except if you don’t cater for other age groups with different tastes. Similarly, the Black and other Minority Ethnic Groups now comprise 45% of our borough’s population – but that isn’t reflected in the entertainment available at this establishment propped up with public money.

    I’m not sure whether the management just don’t want to book decent acts or for some reason can’t get them to come. The fact that both the Ashcroft Theatre and the Concert Hall are all-seating and sloping floor venues might be a barrier to the kinds of people and bands that can be seen at other, much more successful venues, such as the Brixton Academy.

    Then again, having watched an embarrassed Sean Hughes play a near empty Ashcroft Theatre, maybe its also a matter of casting West End pearls before suburban Croydon swine. That being said, the cosy and buoyant Warehouse Theatre seemed to do OK – but why would our Council want to support a small successful venue when they could waste money on a great big crap one instead?

    The interior refurb has helped a little bit but the Royal Festival Hall it clearly ain’t. When I went to see Paul Merton’s show last summer – which wasn’t that good – I ate beforehand in that “Foyer Brasserie” – not much cop, and from what I heard others saying, I wasn’t the only one to think so.

    Outside, the dingy poorly-lit surroundings can’t help, and the whole area is overdue a makeover.

    The walk back to George Street is hindered by that vile paving and neglected flower beds. Access to the cultural quarter that is Old Town is blocked by the open sewer known as Park Lane – pedestrians are relegated to the underground toilet aka subway. A surface-level crossing to link the venue with Katharine Street is meant to be on the way and there was talk of turning removing the sunken part of Queen’s gardens into a large open space.

    There’s no shortage of good ideas to transform Croydon – but mediocre ambitions and political leadership will mean either no change or a change for the worse. Time to slaughter the sacred cow that is the Fairfield Halls, methinks.

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  4. As an old fogie perhaps I can add my tuppence worth to the debate thus far: I firmly believe that the Fairfield Halls has still a considerable mileage to run. The structure is sound and the hall with it’s superb acoustic is ideal for choral, symphonic and chamber music. We should look to the Lighthouse at Poole and to the Sage at Gateshead for examples of quality auditorium. I know these places are very modern but nevertheless I’m sure that with good will and proper management the Fairfield ‘Complex’ could come up to a similar standard. I believe that funding will come if people of good will and influence can bring forward plans. On a personal level, I would not turn out for a bunch of mop heads screaming down a mike to the accompaniment of a Riff & Offbeat band but a first class choral symphony would certainly get me along. But, to quote Goethe:
    And here, poor fool! with all my lore
    I stand! no wiser than before.

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  5. anncreighton says:

    Since moving to Croydon some 18 months ago, I have been to several events at Fairfield Halls, from Willard White’s marvellous concert in July 2011 to yesterday’s fascinating Woody Sex.

    Sadly, the venues have rarely been full.

    I would go more, but as other writers have said, the approach is awful, the Brasserie food is overpriced and not that good and many of the shows, such as the Billy Fury concert, having a fairly narrow base.

    The venue is often more than half empty. Although venues like 02 do well, Croydon needs to cater for the local (albeit wide) area.

    With the loss of the wonderful Warehouse space we have no studio venues.

    When cinema going declined, many of the old picture houses were converted into smaller spaces. Could this not happen at Fairfield?

    Clearly it would be a pity to lose the concert hall, but it isn’t much use if it is only half full and I think it already has the possibility of being divided.

    The South Croydon Community Association is doing a great service calling meeting to discuss Fairfield Halls on 21 March = the date is in my diary.

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  6. mraemiller says:

    I may have missed something but I thought that the function of arts centres was to lose money. It’s just a question of how much you’re prepared to lose.

    There are very few dedicated arts venues that actually break even let alone make money.

    The worst thing about it is it is an ugly concrete blob. But then what’s the National Theatre if it isn’t an ugly concrete blob?

    Whatever … the idea that the Fairfield or any replacement venue can break even … we shouldn’t even start from that point. No one else would. They’d be crawling to the Arts Council, the Council and getting all and sundry to play their violins… in search of more money.

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  7. gorvid says:

    Why is it that a lot of these comments fall into the trap of reacting in the same way that Croydon Council behaves – that the town of Croydon exists in it’s own space capsule?

    The UK is a world leader in the arts and exciting venues exist throughout the country – they are non-profit making charities (not LOSS-making!) and rely on public INVESTMENT (not subsidy) to survive.

    Other councils and communities have no problem with this as they benefit tremendously from the cultural life and also the other benefits that come with it like decent night life.

    But not in Croydon, of course., because Croydon and Croydon Council are unique – unique in backward thinking and too obsessed with their own dirty bed linen.

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