EXCLUSIVE: The art venue’s director quit in a dispute over dumbing down of its programme in a bid to boost ticket sales, reports BELLA BARTOCK, who has discovered that BHLive are recruiting for Neil Chandler’s replacement, but offering a lesser position
BHLive, the operators grappling with the problems facing the Fairfield Halls since its multi-million-pound over-budget refurbishment, appear to have a cunning plan for success… all-in wrestling.
The Bournemouth-based conference organisers and leisure centre operators have revealed a programme for the coming months at the Croydon venue that they run on behalf of the council. It includes holding bric-a-brac sales in the new Wreck performance space and a return of a one-time mainstay of the Fairfield in the 1960s and ’70s: wrestling.
Back in the day when Kent Walton would commentate on ITV’s World of Sport’s Saturday afternoon ration of grunt and grapple, Fairfield Halls was a regular venue for bouts between the likes of Mick McManus, Kendo Nagasaki, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks.
And it is this that BHLive thinks will win back audiences to the arts venue.
And it is this, what might be described as “artistic differences”, which may have prompted the shock departure of Neil Chandler, the Fairfield’s artistic director, who quit in the past week, less than six months after presiding over the grand re-opening, as exclusively revealed this week by Inside Croydon.
According to sources at the Halls, Chandler opted to leave as pressure was brought on him to dumb-down the offer at the Fairfield by featuring more naff tribute acts, and the wrestling.
BHLive today issued a statement which confirmed our reporting, saying: “After the successful relaunch of Fairfield Halls and delivery of its opening programme, Neil Chandler, venue and artistic director, has left BHLive to pursue another opportunity.” Yeah, yeah… Chandler has taken a job at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster.
“We are sorry to see him go and thank him for his contribution at Fairfield Halls. We wish him every success in the future,” the BHLive statement concluded, less-than-convincingly.
BHLive receives no operational subsidy for Fairfield Halls from Croydon Council, who have spent at least £42.6million, and rising, on the mishandled and poorly delivered refurbishment. With a business plan that calls for 45 per cent occupancy rate on all shows, the alarm bells have been sounding since Christmas, after the usually money-spinning pantomime was poorly attended and ticket sales rate overall for the first three months managed just 26 per cent.
It also appears that BHLive have decided to downgrade the position in charge of the Fairfield Halls. A job ad which has appeared in the past week seeking Chandler’s successor is not recruiting at director level, but seeks a “regional manager”, on a salary of £60,000. The manager will report to BHLive’s chief operating officer, based in Bournemouth.
BHLive has a relatively new chief executive, Chris Symons, who joined in the last 12 months from GLL, the leisure centre operators. At present, the company is without a chief operating officer – they were recruiting that position before Christmas.
The Fairfield Halls job ad states: “We are seeking an experienced senior manager to join us and lead the day-to-day operation of this iconic venue.
“Reporting to the chief operating officer you will be part of BHLive’s senior leadership team, responsible for the effective operation and delivery of a rich, diverse and inclusive programme of entertainment events.
“Commercially driven you will be responsible for the financial performance and strategic focus for the venue, whilst providing strong leadership to the team.”
With the handover of the venue from the building contractors constantly delayed, it is becoming evident that Chandler and his programme team at the Fairfield Halls encountered some problems in booking acts when there was no definite opening date.
With a large chunk of money spent on creating the Wreck as the live music venue and theatre studio space, bolted on to the side of the building where the Arnhem Gallery once stood, this appears to have presented another set of problems for the venue management. The first headline live act for the Wreck, Omar, was cancelled at the last minute, and it is understood that there were also issues with the next “big name” performer booked to play there, Grandmaster Flash.
BHLive issued a press released last Thursday outlining their programme for the Fairfield Halls for the first half of this year, and beyond, which confirmed that Imagine Theatre, the producers of the 2019 Croydon pantomime, have been re-booked for 2020 when they will stage Beauty and The Beast… which of course, is not traditionally regarded as a panto.
Again, rather than stage the panto in the 809-seat Ashcroft Theatre, with its conventional stage, they have opted to have the panto in the 1,802-seater Concert Hall, in the expectation of selling more tickets.
But if wrestling is a signal of BHLive’s desire to go back to the future, then their line-up of shows elsewhere might be worryingly similar to the lame and derivative programme at the Fairfield which was so heavily criticised before the closure for refurbishment in 2016.
While the Ashcroft has a seemingly promising selection of dramas and comedies lined up – including some Agatha Christie and Alan Bennett, there’s a 20th-anniversary production of Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, and a world premiere of a John Cleese adaptation of a Feydeau farce – elsewhere it looks like wall-to-wall tribute acts.
The best on offer are such gems as You Win Again, “Celebrating the music of The Bee Gees”; or Boyzlife; or I’m Still Standing, “the music of Elton John”; or The Cavern Beatles; or What’s Love Got to do with it “a tribute to Tina Turner”.
The most original live, pop music act at the Fairfield Halls in the next few months would appear to be Jools Holland and His Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.
The lack of input from the supposedly resident theatre companies or orchestras does appear to be an issue: apart from some free lunchtime recitals, the London Mozart Players will give just one performance in the Concert Hall between now and the end of June, according to BHLive’s release.
And BHLive actually boast that, “Highlights in new space The Recreational (the 750-capacity space being used for live gigs, conferences and private hire events)…”, and which, inevitably, is universally referred to as “The Wreck”, “… include: All Star Wrestling, Frank Turner, the VIP Record Fair and the So Last Century Vintage and Retro Fair.” Not a peep of any “exciting” or modern music acts.
Well worth £42.6million of anyone’s money, you are sure to agree.
Croydon is the Borough of Culture in 2023, in case you forgot.
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