Virus sees council turn Fairfield into a £43m rehearsal space

The Fairfield Halls, which took three years and at least £43m to refurbish, and now won’t stage performances to live audiences until 2021 at the earliest

Our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, reports on how the council has belatedly come up with a handful of measures to see the Fairfield Halls at least partially come out of its covid-induced ‘hibernation’

A month after the venue management laid off 80 casual staff and announced that they were mothballing the Fairfield Halls until 2021 because of coronavirus, Croydon Council has slowly woken up to the situation and come up with a few ideas to keep the lights on at the borough’s principal arts venue.

But there’s to be no audiences, not yet anyway, and the Halls’ expensively refurbished bars and cafés remain in self-imposed hibernation even for takeaway business, despite the government’s recent easing of lockdown rules.

The measures, announced late on Friday, smack of afterthoughts and a panicked response to the growing realisation that the council’s relationship with BH Live, the venue managers, is close to breaking point.

As Inside Croydon was first to report, despite taking charge of the venue last September after a three-year refurbishment project, BH Live have yet to sign the lease and management contract with Croydon Council. Without any income from the venue for the foreseeable future, BH Live might walk away from the arrangement at any point.

This week, the Arts Council announced emergency grants for 77 “national portfolio organisations” in London, worth a total of £12.8million. The council-owned Fairfield Halls received not a penny.

Indeed, there were no grants for any Croydon-based arts group.

With the entire theatre and entertainment sector facing an uncertain future in the post-coronavirus “new normal”, the measures announced by Croydon Council almost amount to the Fairfield Halls becoming a £43million rehearsal studio.

The council press release was at pains to shoe-horn in a mention of BH Live into its opening paragraph, announcing that “Fairfield Halls will host a variety of creative and community uses during its period of ‘hibernation’.” The Bournemouth-based conference and leisure centre managers own website contains no updated mention of their Croydon activities.  

The human dynamo at the council notionally responsible for the arts in the borough, and for forging a bright new future for the Halls since the expensively undertaken and badly mismanaged and incomplete refurbishment, is Oliver “Ollie” Lewis, a councillor for one of New Addington’s ward.

Caddie: Oliver Lewis

Many at the Town Hall are of the view that Lewis owes his cabinet position to his abilities as a golf caddie for council leader Tony Newman and his best mate, Paul Scott. But this will have left Lewis ill-equipped to reacting to a fast-developing crisis such as coronavirus has presented to the Fairfield Halls.

Thus, it is only now that the venue will be awoken from its hibernation to “be put to use by local artists and arts organisations who will be continuing their work behind the scenes”. In plain English, as a glorified rehearsal space.

Although the cash-strapped council’s agreement with BH Live was that they would not be providing any revenue funding for the venue, the Council Tax-payer will foot the bills for opening the venue and keeping it maintained and cleansed while the likes of contemporary dance group the Agudo Dance Company stage rehearsals of their touring production of Carmen in the Wreck performance space.

The clue is in the quote attributed in the council press release to Jose Agudo. “Working at Fairfield Halls with the support of Croydon Council will make a significant impact on our company recovery plan. The arts sector need this kind of residency support to prepare for 2021.”

Support: Jose Agudo’s dance company is getting backing from the council

It has taken nearly four months since the start of lockdown for the council or the Halls management to catch up with the practice of live streaming performances, which will now take place from the Concert Hall (note how the council has abandoned the use of sponsors’ name “Phoenix”, since the abrupt ending of a five-year contract with the piano suppliers), with the London Mozart Players bringing their online concerts to the Halls. Presumably, they will carefully choose a repertoire that does not require any piano accompaniment, as the Fairfield now has no pianos.

Other resident companies, the Talawa Theatre and Savvy Theatre groups, will have the venue’s spaces made available to them, which is nice, “subject to government guidance on social distancing at the time”.

According to the council, “Savvy, Talawa and LMP have all received support from Croydon Council’s Culture Relief Fund for their programming during the pandemic.”

This is £135,000 of funding diverted various cultural funds that have been suspended due to covid-19 and includes cash from the Greater London Authority awarded to Croydon as part of its Creative Enterprise Zone grant.

Lewis is quoted as saying, “We fully support our operator’s difficult decision for it to enter ‘hibernation’ to protect its future.” Though it is clear that there was little that Lewis or the council could do about BH Live’s decision, whether he supported it or not.

“We are keen that the building does not lay empty and is used by the community and our creative organisations… as much as the social distancing guidelines will safely permit,” Lewis said.

“By doing so we are helping to protect both the future of our venue and of Croydon’s much-valued cultural partners, in the hope that both will be ready to welcome back audiences and our wider community as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture 2023.


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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, BH Live, Dance, Fairfield Halls, London Mozart Players, Music, Oliver Lewis, Savvy Theatre Company, Talawa Theatre Company, The Wreck and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Virus sees council turn Fairfield into a £43m rehearsal space

  1. Sebastian Tillinger says:

    What’s the green road marking in foreground of the photograph?

    It looks terrible!!

    Please don’t say this is the response to the forecourt as part of the Fairfield renovations?

    There should be a single unifying strategy for the wide forecourt space and the new public space to the side of the Halls ( rather that the bloody hapless solution that’s being proposed at the moment).

    Where is the Borough Design Champion when you need him (not that he’d have a solution to this) ?

    • Colin Cooper says:

      To be fair, Sebastian, it’s not going to look any better than the rest of Croydon after the predations of this excuse for a Council!

  2. Pete Jenkins says:

    “from the Concert Hall (note how the council has abandoned the use of sponsors’ name “Phoenix”, since the abrupt ending of a five-year contract with the piano suppliers)”

    Perhaps they will also change the name of the Ashcroft back to THEATRE, rather than Playhouse – as we see on the photo on the side of the building?

  3. Lewis White says:

    Regarding Sebastian’s comment above, the re-design of the Fairfield forecourt is part of the redesign of the adjacent area until recently called “College Green” , or “Fairfield Gardens”, now re-named “The Fair Field public space”, which is still open to public comments if you look up the council website under “Have your Say “. — see https://getinvolved.croydon.gov.uk

    I would urge anyone at all interested in this potentially very useful, fun, and attractive public open space to look at the proposals. You might love them, or hate them, or love some aspects and not others. It is a shame that Lockdown has occurred just as the Public consultation started, but a huge THANKS to the council for extending the consultation period. But hurry !

    By the way, the website section about consultations has improved. Thanks to who ever initiated this.

    With regard to the Halls, it is so deeply sad for everyone, but particularly the staff and performers that at the very time of re-launch, the Covid pandemic has also strangled the rise of the Phoenix.
    Any sensible arts use in the covid unravelling period must be worthwhile.

    One thing, surely, that would attract future new audiences to the Fairfield, would be regular workshop performances in the hall from Croydon’s famous Brit School ? Even– why not move the school right into the town centre, to bring more life into town? It is really important to get young people involved, to attract young people to participate as audiences and performers

    And in my view, classical music performances should include a tranche of free or £1 tickets for under 18’s. The average age of classical audiences seems to be around 65. Classical music needs to be opened up to young people. Or it will die as the audiences age.

    Among the cultural offer, we need to help contemporary popular culture. What innovative things could put Croydon in the London Cultural spotlight in 2023 ?

    A Croydon Stars music gala with Captain Sensible, Stormzy, and Ralph Mc Tell, a fashion show –Kate Moss ‘n Friendzzz, and painting / bed-making masterclasses by Tracey Emin?.

    Derren Brown must surely be able to help out somewhere.

    How about supplementing the real-live, socially-distanced audiences with hologramatic additional audiences of famous people from Croydon’s past. Sit next to Samuel Coleridge Taylor or Jaqueline du Pre while at a London Mozart Players performance?, or to Peggy Ashcroft while watching “the Mouse trap”.

    Or something more populist.

    All-Star Drag wrestling ?
    After Covid, there will be no holds barred!

  4. David Theodore says:

    It’s easy to criticise from an outsider’s point of view but I understand enough about business to know that there has been some strange decision making in the ivory towers of the council. Not least how it was deemed to be a good idea to franchise out the venue to a leisure centre company based 114 miles away in Bournemouth. Surely there were other tenders, and if not why not?

    Secondly, the decision to appoint (in your words) ‘rookie in-house developers Brick by Brick’ to take charge of refurbishment works was ill-considered. Admittedly an overspend of £13million against an originally agreed budget of £30million may have been due to the removal of asbestos and complete renewal of pipeworks and electrics. But less naïve and more experienced project management would have immediately addressed such potential issues. ANY building 60 years old is likely to suffer from the same challenges.

    As a result, with promised opening dates shifted several times, the idiocy of the eventual re-launch not coinciding with the re-opening of the underground car park and the scrapping of parking on the main forecourt, one had to wonder… is anyone at home in the planning department?

    How on earth could the management know who and when to book events, and how could any marketing team know how to promote the venue itself and the programme, with the ongoing fear of cancellation hanging over them? And where were the audience expected to park? Hence the alleged ‘disappointing ticket sales’. Be fair.

    With reference to your comment about “the cash-strapped council” not providing BH Live with any revenue funding for the venue, why should they? Rather like the London (Olympic) Stadium deal with West Ham United, the venue owners were only ever expected to maintain the bricks and mortar. They are NOT expected to prop up the Hammers if they fail to draw the crowds (pre-Covid and playing ‘behind closed doors’) for a mid-table clash with Burnley. If BH Live’s pockets are not deep enough to crisis-manage should the venue ever ‘go dark’ it speaks of something else.

    It speaks of the poor management of BH Live who almost certainly intend to hand back the keys, having missed a number of deadlines to renew their contract, probably holding on in the hope of a hand out from the Arts Council. Which didn’t happen. That would have enabled them to have enjoyed a cash bonus on top of the furlough support from the Government, and then make for the hills. Or rather, the south coast.

    Like a number of unscrupulous employers of late (eg BA and Ryanair) they were happy to enjoy the furlough bonus and then still plead poverty in laying off staff. In this case, 80 casual staff who were extensively trained in the running of front and back of house and now all of the contracted staff. So if they ever actually had any intention of removing the mothballs they would have to start recruiting all over again or use their army of life guards from their south coast empire to manage the place!

    Shouldn’t somebody have pointed out to a leisure company with no experience of running a multi-arts centre that this was flawed logic? Maybe the surprisingly silent Conservative opposition? Are they in hibernation too?

    Maybe someone at the “cash-strapped council” should put the cash-strapped leisure centre operators (check THAT out if you will!) out of their misery. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, it’s easy to criticise from the outside, but I’ve frequented The Fairfield for most of my local life and was very excited by the re-opening and contrary to the views of some who believe the programme was ‘uninspired’ I was very impressed by the quality of the output and the diversity of the resident contributing brands (especially LMP).

    I WANT IT TO WORK.

    • dracardweig says:

      We all would have liked it to work!
      But the answer was not to have just vaguely tarted up the place and continued the programming as before. The venue was already in trouble with failing audiences and poor content.
      And the overrun was certainly not entirely due to the removal of asbestos – that was a problem that had been known about for years, so the budget (was there one?) should have already allocated enough to deal with it.
      A lack of VISION was, and is, the problem.
      And there is no sign from the council (they have a highly-paid but ineffective culture person) or from BHS (oh, sorry are they not around anymore?) that things are not going to change soon.
      And the cabinet member for all things arty in the town doesn’t seemed to have learnt much from his experience of serving us pints from behind the bar of the much-missed Warehouse Theatre.

  5. Lewis White says:

    For arts venues, Covid is working out to have the impact that the internet shopping boom was having on the High Street before Covid. Now the poor High Street is of suffering the double whammy of Covid and Internet too.

    Another problem is the overprovision of Municipal arts venues, as a result of every Borough building one or even two of its own. Locally, Sutton, with the Secombe Centre and the Charles Cryer.

    Is there a critical mass of available audience to go round?.

    It seems not.

    Hence, the future of Fairfield depends on growing a range of audiences. Like the BBC has done with Radios 1,2, 3, 4, 5 live and 6, etc etc.

    Exclusivity ? Not the way forward, but a stimulating mix of offer.

    I see no conflict between Classical Music, Rock, Pop, Rap, Folk, Tribute, Flamenco, Brass, Choirs, local Orchestras etc etc. Nor between different types of Dance, Theatre , nor having Wrestling, Comedy, Drag or anything else entertaining.

    But yes to a whole range of things, both big and small. It should be nurturing as well as celebrating things that appeal to all, but also to Croydon’s mixed community.

    Having seen a progarmme on the telly a few nights back, about the closure –but also the rebirth– of roller skating rinks in the USA, giving a safe, fun, health/social life-promoting experience, and nowadays really popular with the black community, I am wondering if there is scope for roller-skating here in the Fairfield or in the neighbouring revamp of the College Green.

    Roll on end of Covid. I want to go out, to see live performances, not sit alone in front of a blinking laptop.

    .

  6. David Theodore says:

    To suggest that the venue has merely been ‘vaguely tarted up’ is ingracious and ill-informed.

    In 2007, the refurbishment of The Festival Hall (similar in terms of size and facilities), met with a similar level of poorly researched criticism. The ‘radical yet subtle restoration’ (I quote the Guardian) of the South Bank venue originally estimated at around £80million eventually came in at £111million. Allowing for inflation that would equate to £138million in current terms.

    The ‘radical yet subtle restoration’ (sorry, ‘vague tarting up’) of the Fairfield which encompassed a myriad of improvements, modernisations and additions not just front of house but backstage, mostly born of necessity and mostly unseen by the likes of Dracardweig, suddenly sounds like a bargain at a mere £43million. Wiring, lighting, heating, ventilation, security, disabled access, lifts, stairs, furnishings (hard, soft and door), toilets, dressing room showers, disabled dressing room facilities, kitchens, storage, carpets and other flooring, glazing etc.

    Infrastructure issues such as the extent of challenges relating to the essential removal of asbestos, and the parlous state of the pipework, cannot always be foreseen, even by the most seasoned of project management companies. Those two small matter accounted for no less than half of the overall budget. That a project of this size was handed to rookie operators like BH Live (socially distanced by nearly 200 miles) alongside Brick by Brick is surely the point of concern. Two spectacular mistakes that plotted the downfall long before the curtain was raised.

    To restate my point regarding the programme of events at the ‘new Fairfield’, the uncertainty of the re-launch date had a seriously deleterious impact on the advance programme planning hence the tendency, in the initial stages, to rely on filling the venue by booking big name (and they were big name) comedy acts as a solo artist with very little entourage could be date shifted far more easily than a big touring show who would depend on the booked dates, therefore incurring penalties on the venue in the event of cancellation.

    In fact the programme which should have rolled out, had it not been for the pandemic, was inspired and original and a light year away from the tired and predictable programme that existed prior to the refurb. In addition, space and considerable creative support were offered to a number of organisations who would have seen the venue become a beacon for inclusivity and quality of performance.

    As for the ‘much-missed Warehouse Theatre’ it is worth pointing out that it may not have found itself having to close had it been much-missed by more of its patrons. A crowdfund targeting £250,000 to avert liquidation raised just £1,350. I can only assume that Dracardweig had proffered a fair contribution to that sum.

  7. dracardweig says:

    There are a few points in David Theodore’s note that are incorrect.
    I have not had the privilege of a tour backstage at Fairfield, but I do know that the promised improved get-in facilities didn’t happen which makes larger events impossible to book – this had been a priority of the new works from the start.
    As probably up to 50% of the potential audience come by car, not having the parking up and running was crucial to any success. Another fatal error.
    And while I’m certainly not defending their lame programming, BH Live are not rookie operators – a look at their website shows how well they handle all their theatres in Bournemouth and Portsmouth.
    The ‘space and considerable creative support offered to a number of organisations’ resulted in only about six performance’s between September and March.
    And the Warehouse…
    The rumour is that at the company’s final board meeting the Chair turned up with an Administrator to say the company had been put into administration (it should have been liquidation as the company had no assets). What the administrator was after of course was the £3million nest egg the theatre had obtained from Stanhope to build a new theatre. The administrator didn’t get hold of it, but the council did and it went into propping up the general budget for Fairfield.
    As far as I know there was no Warehouse crowdfunding undertaken.

    • It is also worth pointing out that prior to the Fairfield Halls’ closure in 2016 for the “two-year” refurbishment, the council had commissioned two or three scoping exercises to determine the extent and nature of the asbestos in the building. The presence of asbestos as a reason for the 15-month over-run on the refurbishment is not a credible excuse.

  8. David Theodore says:

    Let’s focus on the views we hold in common.

    • We would all have preferred the Fairfield to have opened sooner.

    • We hold the Council responsible for appointing a rookie team of project managers, Brick by Brick, to undertake such a massive task with virtually no track record when the Halls are located in spitting distance of the HQ of Mott MacDonald, one of the world’s leading engineering and development companies. Of course it would have cost more money in the short term, but the result would have been a perfectly planned project delivered on time and on budget.

    • The likes of Mott MacDonald would never have said “encourage maximum footfall but, tell you what… keep the car park closed for as long as you fancy”. Dracardweig – you and I are as one on that impossibly stupid oversight.

    • Where dracardweig and I part is on the statement “BH Live are not rookie operators – a look at their website shows how well they handle all their theatres in Bournemouth and Portsmouth”. For a start the venue in Portsmouth is not a theatre but a leisure centre. The main Bournemouth venue is a conference centre with an arena. Hence it can house bigger shows like Simply Red who would be spoilt for choice for larger 3000+ venues in Greater London, whereas Fairfield can only host 1,500.

    They do operate the Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre but that is a small venue past its heyday with a programme more akin to the old Fairfield which maybe what won them the Croydon contract in the first place. But I am mystified by the invitation to “look at their website” as it actually offers nothing other than the gripping prospect of a Tea Dance and a cancelled wrestling show.

    • With regards the Warehouse, there was, indeed, a crowd funding target of £250,000 but they just didn’t happen to call it ‘crowd funding’ in those days. The “the £3million nest egg the theatre had obtained from Stanhope” did not, in fact, go “into propping up the general budget for Fairfield”. Ever heard of Box Park?

    • At its most creative BH Live’s main venue hosted the likes of tribute bands, wrestling and boxing (the latter most recently halted when fighting broke out in the audience due to poor security). The new Fairfield was due to host an extraordinary number of events every year with over 200 in each of its two main venues. Other venues in the building host the London Mozart Players (who do perform in Croydon but it is primarily their rehearsal and admin base), Talawa (the UK’s primary Black-led touring theatre company), Savvy Theatre (for young people and local communities regardless of ability or disability, advantage or disadvantage), a premier comedy club, a live music venue plus purpose built restaurants and cafes, conference and meeting facilities, exhibition areas, a hugely popular weekly Pentecostal church, and a business and members’ lounge. Savvy have been holding workshops in their studio space since September 2019 and were constantly busy, making full use of the facilities, Talawa were preparing for their first performances in their studio but lockdown put an end to those plans.

    In its brief relaunch period the Fairfield not only hosted an award winning and lavishly staged Pantomime but also saw the venue establish itself as the UK launchpad for a number of new shows which would (had it not have been for a certain pandemic) now be touring the country. The first two such were Angela’s Ashes (a major musical adaptation of Frank McCourt’s memoir) and Once (based on the Academy and Grammy Award winning film and featuring the star of the original West End run). There were plans to present works in the renamed Ashcroft Playhouse that were deliberately distinct from the theatres of Bromley and Wimbledon and more akin to the likes of Richmond and Kingston. Seeking its own niche in a crowded market.

    None of which may have quite the allure of a weekly Tea Dance, but don’t blame the Croydon based creative team for trying. This was not their delay. This was not their mishandling of the appointment of project management or their engagement of operators with no real vision or culture experience. None of this was of their choosing.

    BH Live have been pretending that they intend to relaunch whilst in reality milking the benefit of furlough cash to see out their initial contract. They have no intention of continuing hence their decision not only to make the Fairfield’s entire casual staff roster redundant, but latterly the full time staff too.

    Questions that the people of Croydon deserve answers to:

    Is BH Live intending to remain as the operator of Fairfield? If so, with a planned re-opening early in 2021 why would they choose to have to re-interview and re-employ and re-train 200 or more staff all over again? Have they signed the lease and are they committed to the Borough?

    Why were BH Live chosen as the operator in the first place given their proximity to the venue? The previous operating Trust, who were forced out of the venue alongside all of the staff and volunteer stewards, were at least local and understood the cultural needs of the Borough?

    Does the Council believe that BH Live can help them achieve their Cultural Plan, and if so, how?

    • Oh David, if you are going to adopt such a sneering and pompous tone, then you really do need to get your facts right.

      Mott McDonald did indeed work on the Fairfield refurbishment. They just walked off the site when they found they could work with Brick by Brick no longer.

      The £3million Stanhope donation towards the Warehouse or a studio theatre (which might have even have been built into one of their buildings next to East Croydon Station) was never handed over to Boxpark. As Inside Croydon reported at the time (go to the bother of searching the archives), the money was subsumed into developing a studio theatre at the Fairfield Halls, before the full refurbishment took place.

      But then the Fairfield has proved a money pit for other grants, too: £12million from CoasttoCapital to provide an underground art gallery. Where’s that funding gone?

      BH Live have not signed their operating lease with the council. We know this, because that’s what Ollie “Butt Plugs” Lewis told a council meeting in March (again, search this website’s news archive… it’s all there, if you can be bothered to rely on fact rather than your own inflated opinions).

      And as for the discredited trust which ran the Halls up to 2016 – it was their dull and provincial programming which gave the venue its tired and uninspired reputation, and their poor management saw them lay-off their entire workforce without making any provision for redundancy payments. So much for their “local” knowledge.

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