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
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.
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.
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