Fairfield Halls director quits less than six months after opening

EXCLUSIVE: A £42.6m white elephant without its mahout? Our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, reports on the most dramatic of exits from the Fairfield Halls

Enthusiastic: Neil Chandler, playing the role of Bob The Builder in one of the Fairfield’s less-seen productions last year

Neil Chandler has left the building.

The Fairfield Halls’ venue and artistic director has left his job, less than six months since the Croydon Council-owned arts centre re-opened after lengthy delays and multi-million-pound costs over-runs.

Chandler’s departure also comes within a week of London Mayor Sadiq Khan naming Croydon as his “Borough of Culture” for 2023.

Indeed, it was only last week when Chandler, the former cruise ship entertainments manager, was explaining to a Town Hall committee of councillors how having to manage five cancelled re-opening dates – including one royal gala performance – and still get the venue ready for the public following the £42.6million refurbishment had been “challenging”, and that a “lack of trust” with the public had seen initial ticket sales at a troubling 26 per cent.

Chandler gave no indication at that council scrutiny meeting of any intention to leave the on-going task at the Fairfield Halls, a job he was hired for by the council’s venue operators, BH Live, in November 2017.

But now, as suggested only yesterday in our latest report on the mounting costs – and growing crisis – at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon Council are facing having “a £42.6million white elephant with no mahout”.

Staff at Fairfield Halls today were instructed not to talk to Inside Croydon about Chandler’s sudden departure.

The operating company, BH Live, based in Bournemouth, failed to respond to our questions about the circumstances of Chandler’s abrupt exit, who is to replace him, and whether their company is reviewing its position as the venue operators.

Neil Chandler’s Linked In profile, showing that he left Fairfield Halls in February 2020

Chandler’s own Linked In profile suggests that he has already left the Fairfield Halls, for a contract position at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. He is expected to take up his post there in April.

Most of the criticisms of the Fairfield Halls have tended to focus on the late delivery of the refurbishment work – it re-opened in September 2019, 15 months later than scheduled – the poor quality of the finished work and the fact that so many aspects are incomplete, from renewing the seating at the opening in the Ashcroft Theatre and Concert Hall, the often uncleaned and scruffy look of some common areas, to the lack of car-parking space.

None of which will have been the direct responsibility of Chandler.

But there are growing rumbles of discontent over the artistic programme being offered, which often seems too derivative and suburban, much like the unappealing shows offered before the enforced closure, and which the public had been promised had been left far behind.

A decision not to create a bigger back-stage access point restricts what modern music acts can play at the venue – the council has been trying to claim that this decision was made by BH Live, and therefore Chandler, although sources in Katharine Street maintain that the back-stage access scheme was dropped by their contractors entirely as a means of cutting costs.

Questions are also being asked of the “resident” companies accommodated at the Halls, and quite what all of them contribute to the Fairfield’s programme. The Talawa Theatre Company, for example, which has been granted use of the Fairfield Halls studio theatre, has so far scheduled just one week’s worth of performances over the course of the first six months of the year.

Yet in the same period, Talawa has an extensive programme, including a new play, with performances of various pieces in Norfolk, Greenwich, Brighton, at the Royal Court Theatre and in Finsbury Park – anywhere, it seems, except in Croydon.

Likewise the London Mozart Players, for many years the “resident” orchestra at the Fairfield Halls, with their administration offices based there. Or at least they were until they no longer continued to receive a generous subsidy from Croydon Council.

Now the Halls are re-opened, the London Mozart Players are again claimed to be a “resident” company at the Fairfield. Yet in a programme of 22 concert dates between now and the end of February, only two nights are at the Fairfield.

Chandler’s sudden departure from the Fairfield Halls probably also creates a vacancy at Croydon BID, the Glee Club cheerleaders business improvement district, where he was chair. Croydon BID’s chief executive, Matthew Sims, also failed to respond to Inside Croydon’s questions by the time of publication.

It’s almost as if the Fairfield Halls, BH Live and Croydon BID don’t quite know what to say about the abrupt exit of Neil Chandler, in whom they had all invested so much faith and enthusiasm during the course of the multi-million-pound refurbishment.

About insidecroydon

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
This entry was posted in Art, Ashcroft Theatre, BH Live, Croydon BID, Fairfield Halls, London Mozart Players, Neil Chandler, Talawa Theatre Company, Theatre and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Fairfield Halls director quits less than six months after opening

  1. derekthrower says:

    A case of jumping before being pushed?
    A top notch Director could have at least saved some artistic credibility from the shambles of the Fairfield reopening, but to be frank the quality of the acts books were predictable, uninspiring and just plain dire.
    This person has contributed to the debacle that seems to show no signs of ending, but at least by removing personnel who have caused the problem it does provide an opportunity to rectify the issue.
    A not very subtle hint for all the local Croydon establishment.

    • Nick Davies says:

      Well if someone left because pastures new beckoned they would have given the requisite notice, the post advertised, all the usual stuff. If they disappear overnight it either means they’ve been told their fortune or they’ve stormed off with the right hump unable to take any more. I hope it’s the latter and he carts them to an ET for constructive dismissal.

  2. It seems to me that Neil Chandler may have been very wise to jump before he was pushed. In many ways he – or whoever else might have taken the job- was bound to be set up as the scapegoat for the whole sorry fiasco. Never mind the the silly planning, the delays, the overspending, the half-completed semi-refurbishment, the crazy basic administrative organisation – none of these were actually his fault. But it is convenient to assign all the blame for the current and coming failure of the phoenix to fly again to him…..meanwhile Negrini and Newman et al continue to sit pretty. There’s a drama or an opera in there somewhere…..watch for it one day at the Churchill, Bromley.

  3. Lewis White says:

    We live in difficult times, both worldwide, what with Corona virus, climate change, the storms, landslides, floods, droughts, plus rainforest destruction, heating oceans, species extiction, and ever present wars, famine, corruption, plus, at home, some of the above, plus the UK leaving Europe, and arising worrries about the future of the City of London, exports, HS 2, the housing and homelessness crisis, and ……..etc etc.

    Is it me, or does everything seem suddenly terribly gloomy?. Why?
    At least, the Roman legions have not just departed , leaving Brittania to a fate of pillage and destruction at the hands of marauding Vikings, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

    At least, Attila the Hun has not just disemabarked at Dover from a channel ferry, accompanied by his Mongolian hordes.

    At least, Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler were never over this side of the English channel, and we have not experienced the tide of death and destruction of a French Revolution, or Spanish Civil war, since the time of Charles 1st and Cromwell.

    And we have not just had Crimea, Boer War, WW1 , WW2, or other more recent war, resulting in death and disablement for millions of people living on the British Isles, the fiormer British Empire and Commonwealth.

    Yes, we need to be thankful for all of this.
    But there’s still a lot of stress around us and in our minds.

    In times of stress, people seek music, entertainment, diversion, and reassurance, so maybe the Fairfield, with its blend of cultural “offer”, from all-star wrestling, and other forms of comedy and theatre, to classical music, tribute bands, and multi-cultural arts, will give the masses of Croydon and elsewhere and of all tastes, seeking a night out, a bit of a boost.

    Speaking as someone who has not yet been to an event in the Phoenix Concert Hall, (the name is a bit weird, as to the best of my knowledge it has not burnt down — unless, dread the thought — this is actually a forward projection of the biggest Psychic Event in Croydon history) due in my case to a 3 month long cold, I popped in the other day to have a look at the Arnhem foyer, and see what is on. Really glad to see that the stone floors are now gleaming, and free of the crummy carpet and dangling signs about car park tickets.

    It all looked rather beautiful. I chatted with the nice people at the box office (desk) and had a good coffee and baguette next door, in the new glass building facing the College Green (aka the Fair Field).

    The worn out look has gone, from the areas I viewed. It looked fresh, and I just hope that who ever is in charge of cleaning will not let the carpets and upholstery get grubby.

    It’s up to the likes of me and loyal readers of Inside Croydon to buy tickets. I will certainly be doing so. Not being able to afford to dine out every week, or go to a cultural event every week, or every fortnight, there was enough on offer to tickle my art tastebuds without bankrupting me.

    The choice of things to see has to refect the varied mix of Croydon and adjacent London / counties people and their art and music tastes. There was enough for my own wallet and classically inclined musical taste.

    And maybe, in a street or on an estate in Croydon, at this moment, a new group of musicians who will be as great , in time, as the Beatles….. are practicing. I do hope that the Fairfield will find space and time for such new bands to get on to the ladder.

  4. sebastiantillinger7694 says:

    The UK has some of the best arts centres in the world. They have really important multidisciplinary, community, civic and artistic roles to play – can be difficult to pin down but this is also their greatest strength. Arts centres are the unsung heroes of the creative sector.

    The FAIRFIELD Halls has just has £50million spent in it. It’s in Croydon. It should be busy from early morning to late at night, offering an extensive range of services and platforms for engagement etc and reaching out to Central London, Kent and Surrey.

    There is no excuse for CROYDON not having one of the most dynamic arts centres in Greater London.

    Oh, sorry – there is an excuse. It’s Tony Newman (please ignore all the aspirational stuff above, it doesn’t apply whilst Newman is Council Leader). Bring on the Mayor.

  5. Stanley Robert Lowy says:

    My daughter kindly took me to a classical concert for which she booked months in advance, She also booked dinner at the restaurant. We arrived 10 minutes before the appointed time and were seated. We had trouble in placing our order – no waiting staff seemed interested. More than an hour after placing our order and repeated times we asked when would our food arrive I said we could not eat our food if it came in the 20 minutes before the concert was to begin so we walked out without eating anything, My daughter then revealed that she had been made to pay for the meal in advance, We spoke to a manager who arranged a refund but that took a few days.
    Who ever has been to a restaurant and asked to pay in advance?
    The concert was excellent. However we noted the place was grubby, the upholstery of the seats was well worn.
    We had heard that the car park was not yet opened so had travelled by bus to the venue in spite of my mobility difficulties.
    We did not see the value in £42+ million refurbishment and are unl;ikely to repeat the experience.

  6. Went to the Fairfield last night to hear a wonderful concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The music was wonderful, as it should be from a really world class orchestra. That was the only pleasant thing about the whole experience. We arrived early because of the difficulty in finding parking and had hoped to have a snack before the concert started. The only place open was the so called servery. This had on offer two open (probably contravening health and safety regulations) trays of pizza like breads, four slices of each on two trays and a few dismal, white bread, due to expire today sandwiches, no trays, no choice. The counter was staffed by a charming but highly overworked young lady who was, of course, under great pressure as the starting time approached.
    The hall was about half full and it was very evident that at least 50% the audience were there on complimentary tickets. It was well and truly papered. The seats were, of course, as uncomfortable as they were 40 years ago and the view from the stalls of the tatty, dull, dark choir seats was truly dispiriting. It make me sad to have to repeat the little phrase that Obama used to such effect about lipstick and pigs….but that is just what it felt like it. I felt like I was on a sinking ship, rudderless, direction fee and foundering. It is going to take a marketing and booking genius to stop the place going under….and I fear we may well see temporary periods of closure as bookings dry up. Wrestling may save it for a while …….but that may be our only real contribution as the centre of culture in couple of years time. At the moment there’s more culture in a tub (small) of Aldi yogurt than there is in Croydon. And that whoosh you have just heard is the sound of £42 million going down the pan.

  7. Pingback: Croydon BID’s new chair says town centre to reopen on June 1 – Procure News

  8. Pete Jenkins says:

    We have heard about the various troubles on the London theatre scene, as well as concerns from the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall and other venues around the country, some of which have closed permanently. But Croydon? Not a word.

    Is it BHLive that is paying for all the hidden costs in this lockdown, or the Council? If it is the former then I’m surprised they haven’t thrown the keys on the Foyer floor and just walked away. It must be disheartening that saddled with a newly renovated building and regime after all those delays, to now have this situation.

    One of Croydon Press Office’s hidden releases would be welcome as to exactly what is going on and how it is all being funded. As we are aware a lot of our money has been invested in this project – we would like an update please.

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