And… Breathe! The Fairfield Halls has finally re-opened, with a gala concert planned for tonight. But after over-running by 15 months and over-spending by £11million, the refurbishment is not yet finished and is incomplete.
Our photo-journalist, DANNY LEIBOVITZ, reports
It is a tale which has become part of Town Hall legend, although we are assured that it did really happen. In 2012, the veteran Tory councillor, Dudley Mead, went to visit the ageing doyenne of the Riesco family to advise her of the then Conservative-controlled council’s intention to flog off some of the valuable collection of ancient Chinese porcelain, which had been donated to the people of Croydon by Raymond Riesco upon his death nearly 50 years earlier.
Sensing some resistence to this act of Philistinism (the Museums Association accused Croydon Council of acting “unethically”), and the break up of a unique collection which was until then poorly displayed at the Town Hall, Mead offered up the suggestion that the money raised would be used to replace all the seats in the concert hall at the Fairfield Halls.
Old Mrs Riesco, on hearing this, quietly nodded, which Mead took to mean assent, and so in due course the precious crockery was packed off to Hong Kong for auction.
So you can imagine, then, the dismay of Riesco’s heirs, and many other concert- and theatre-goers, when they arrive at the freshly painted, re-opened Fairfield Halls to discover that, even after three and half years of refurbishment works and spending at least £41million on upgrading the arts centre that, after all that, the seating in the concert hall has not been changed.
“They just ran out of money,” according to one Town Hall source very close to the project, which seems an extraordinary admission given that the refurbishment, which had been placed in the hands of the council’s loss-making in-house house-builders, Brick by Brick, managed to go over budget by at least £11million. The final figures for the cost of the scheme might emerge, eventually.
It is not just the seating which will be familiar to the VIP guests when they return to the Fairfield Halls tonight for the gala re-opening concert, the second big set-piece event of the week, following Monday evening’s “re-dedication” of the Ashcroft Theatre by Peggy Ashcroft’s friend, Dame Judi Dench.
Or “Judy Dench”, if you read the near-illiterate tweets of the nine-bob buffoon that is Croydon’s council leader, Tony Newman.
That Newman used Monday to completely politicise the occasion was a disappointment, if not a surprise.
That the Labour council leader managed to make a fool of himself was even less of a surprise.
Rather than make any attempt to be generous and welcoming, Newman abused the opportunity afforded by the occasion to attack what he called “the naysayers”, who he claimed, “said it couldn’t be done”.
And in doing so, Newman entirely proved his critics’ point: the refurbishment has not been delivered, as Newman had originally promised, in just two years and for the agreed budget of £30million. The man truly is an idiot.
Newman’s magnificent ability to over-promise and under-deliver is, in fact, entirely epitomised by the Fairfield Halls. Before work began on site, Newman rashly suggested that Fairfield Halls would be “bigger and better than the South Bank Centre”.
Which clearly, it is not, and never will be.
Though that has not stopped the Halls’ marketing department continuing to make false claims about Fairfield’s status among south London arts venues, and has seen at least one of Newman’s numpties on the council plumbing new depths of vacuousness as they try to justify such outright lies by also claiming that somehow, Lambeth is not in south London…
The comparisons with the South Bank Centre are inevitable, anyway, since Croydon’s architects took their lead when designing the building from the Festival Hall, and a nod to the Fairfield’s 1950s heritage is clear in the Festival of Britain-style type font chosen and used in the signage that has appeared on the building and around the town centre.
On Monday, even as Newman addressed the seemingly hand-picked audience of party activists, sycophants and toadies, there were hard hats and hi-viz jackets in evidence around the Fairfield Halls, fixing this bit of wiring here or nailing down that bit of carpet. “They said it couldn’t be done,” Newman said. Oh, how they laughed and clapped…
Initial impressions from some sceptics is that “not much has changed”, although that is to miss entirely the point of a refurbishment. It was always meant to be a redecoration, re-wiring and modernisation process for the Halls, which were built at the end of the 1950s and opened in 1962.
Maybe Newman’s over-promising has raised false expectations. The advertising, and Newman’s own speech, referred to the Fairfield Halls being a “new” venue, when clearly that is also not the case.
The refurbishment was also supposed to be the opportunity to upgrade and modernise, enhancing what has always been an excellent regional arts facility.
But it appears that despite the massive expense, and more than a year’s delay in getting the place re-opened, what was once held up as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring the Fairfield up-to-date has been squandered.
The back-of-house was supposed to have been re-modelled to permit access to the trucks and rigs of the 21st century’s biggest acts – thanks to advice from Francis Rossi and the late Rick Parfitt, of Status Quo, who had expressed a desire to perform at the Fairfield Halls but were prevented from doing so because of the restricted stage access.
Plans to open up the back-of-stage area were abandoned very early in the project. Why? “Cost,” according to our Town Hall source.
Another bright idea, to transform the subterranean car park into an art gallery, was also abandoned.
Though if you have any plans to visit the Fairfield Halls by car, you need to think again. The on-site car park will not be ready until some time next year – another sign that Brick by Brick has failed, again, to deliver on time.
Provisions for disabled parking, meanwhile, appear to be in some doubt: several enquiries to the box office have been met with stunned silence.
Outside, mature trees and shrubs which had stood between the Halls and the traffic on the six-lane urban motorway on Wellesley Road for decades have been dug up and destroyed (so much for another Newman empty boast, of making Croydon London’s greenest borough), replaced by some cheap-looking tubs and a green tarmac bicycle lane that has been hurriedly laid.
It looks shoddily and cheaply done, and uneven, too – though one councillor suggests that this is only a temporary arrangement, and that it will all be dug up again… More costs incurred, to cover-up for the incompetences of the late-running Brick by Brick.
At Monday’s opening ceremony, attended by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, while some tours of the lobby area and public spaces were conducted, the Concert Hall and the Ashcroft Theatre remained out-of-bounds even to many of the councillors and VIPs – perhaps another sign that all was not quite finished in some key areas.
Security “heavies” were also on-hand to stop anyone wandering where they were not welcome – the Fairfield’s Corps of Commissionaires has been disbanded, another element of the place’s old-school charms which has been lost with the closure in 2016.
Early arrivals caught a glimpse of Oliver Lewis, the council’s cabinet member for butt plugs, shit shows and stuff, seated at one of the venue’s cheap-looking new tables, scribbling away at the notes for his speech like a guilty schoolboy who was late with his homework.
Lewis would announce that Croydon is to bid to be London’s next Borough of Culture, an exercise which may prove to be less hapless this time round than his previous effort, which was launched when the council had no real idea when the Fairfield Halls – a core component in any such bid – would re-open.
Eventually, some flunkies emerged with cases of some cheap fizz (Da Luca Prosecco, £34.59 for three bottles at Tesco, in case you wondered; clearly, this was not where the £41million has been spent), and no sooner had the sound of the first cork been heard to pop, than Newman appeared, followed closely by Alison Butler and her husband, Paul Scott, plus the self-proclaimed “founder of Croydon Momentum”, Niro Sirisena, and Hamida Ali and Patsy Cummings.
Butler, Newman’s deputy and council cabinet member responsible for building zero council homes in five years, made some self-serving speech in which she actually congratulated Brick by Brick, and her appointee as the developers’ managing director, Colm Lacey, on going vastly over-budget and taking nearly twice as long to deliver the refurbished Halls.
She then performed a ridiculous little, self-important ceremony of handing over the keys to the Halls to Newman.
Presumably, therefore, it is no longer Brick by Brick’s responsibility to clean the place up after themselves. On Monday, the place still needed a good scrub – the windows were murky, and there was builders’ dust everywhere. Goodness knows what her Dameness must have thought of it all – all so very sarf London, perhaps?
Monday’s ceremonies and this week have all the appearances of being a “soft launch”, which is altogether sensible.
Thus the commemorative plaque revealed by Mayor Khan only states that the Halls were re-opened in “September 2019” – no need to spend extra money on a new plaque if they had missed the September 16 deadline by another few days. Monday was, after all, at least the fifth date given for when the Halls were supposed to re-open.
And the first week’s run in the Ashcroft Theatre is by an (albeit very accomplished) amdram group, better for the venue managers to get to grips with any snagging issues around the stage and front of house, and get everything properly in order before any professional stars arrive to perform.
Certainly, BH Live, the Bournemouth-based venue management company put in charge of the Fairfield Halls, does appear to have made some significantly improved bookings of acts, compared to those who had been in charge up to 2016. They will need to deliver crowd-pulling shows, too, since BH Live will not be getting any subsidy from the council for the venue as was once the case.
That is hardly surprising – given the collapse of the multi-million-pound property deal with Croydon College on the site adjacent to the Halls, which was supposed to pay for the refurbishment works, it means Newman and his numpties could take several years to find the cash to pay off the £41million, and more, that has been already been spent.
All that and, to misquote the late Ken Dodd, “not a new seat in the house”.
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