CROYDON IN CRISIS: It’s like nothing has ever changed at the borough’s prestigious arts centre, where tribute acts still dominate its sparse programme, while the venue operators are staying schtum about how they’re spending public money.
By our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK
Questions continue to asked around when and how the Fairfield Halls will be fully reopened following the lifting of covid-19 precautions. Answers are also being sought from the venue operators, BHLive, over the millions of pounds they have received in grants and payments in the last two years, from both Croydon Council and the Arts Council.
The council-owned arts venue is already at the centre of a financial scandal, with a long-overdue “value for money review” by auditors Grant Thornton expected to deliver some uncomfortable findings to the Town Hall leadership, after what has been described as a “£70million fiasco” over the Fairfield’s refurbishment.
Since they closed their doors in June 2016 for what was supposed to be a two-year refurb, the Halls have been open for barely six months.
Ticket sales following a gala reopening in September 2019 were dire. The artistic director quit. And according to BHLive, the Fairfield has been “in hibernation” since March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
BHLive has so far refused to respond to questions from Inside Croydon and the theatre trade paper, The Stage, about how they intend to use the millions of pounds they have received in covid aid grants from the Arts Council.
In 2020, BHLive used the government furlough scheme to keep dozens of staff on their books until, towards the year’s end, they issued them with redundancy notices. Some disgruntled ex-employees suggested that a version of “fire and re-hire” was being utilised by the operators.
In 2021, there’s been little on offer artistically in the 1,800-seater concert hall, or the Ashcroft Theatre (BHLive have at least abandoned the ludicrous “Playhouse” tag that they tried to inflict on the place), nor in “The Wreck” performance space or the entrance lobby, where BHLive had promised to stage free musical recitals when they were first appointed as operators by Croydon Council in 2017.
At that time, reasonable questions were asked about how the south coast company which specialises in organising conferences and managing swimming pools would cope with delivering the rich and varied artistic programme for Croydon which many wanted. Under the management of the previous Fairfield trust, that Halls’ programme had become almost a parody of a third-rate provincial theatre, with tired offerings of old-school stand-ups, tribute acts and all-in wrestling.
Four years ago, BHLive spoke enthusiastically about its plans for Fairfield Halls. “There will be an incredible focus on the community and engaging people in Croydon – we see it being a cultural hub,” the company told The Stage.
When the council put out to tender, BHLive was not the only bidder for the gig, but it was the only one not to seek a chunky subsidy for operating the venue. Previously, the council had provided up to £1million per year towards the venue’s operating costs.
The financial realities of running the Fairfield Halls soon hit home for BHLive. According to someone familiar with the council’s bidding process, “The Fairfield Halls is probably the largest arts venue in the country that doesn’t receive any Arts Council subsidies for its programme.
“BHLive’s proposal to Croydon was heavily reliant on their hospitality and catering income. Take that away, and they have no money coming in at all, which means no budgets to produce more interesting acts.”
And it shows.
This Saturday, the Ashcroft Theatre will stage a Queen tribute act. It is the third date that this show has been allocated since 2020, due to covid. Tickets are still available, £27.50 a time, if you’re interested. But it is hardly the kind of artistic offering that you might hope for from the major arts centre of a place that is supposed to be London’s Borough of Culture in 2023.
And after Saturday… nuffink, right through the whole of August.
In September, according to BHLive’s own website, there’s a smattering of performances, mainly tribute gigs – a dodgy-looking Neil Diamond, an Elton John lookalike who lets his dark glasses do the heavy lifting, and the Illegal Eagles, who look like a bunch of mates in jeans just back from the pub.
There’s no orchestral concerts (“resident” classical performers the London Mozart Players don’t make an appearance until a one-night-only show in October), no plays. Nothing obviously for younger audiences. No reception lobby recitals.
But there is one night of “Arsenal legends in conversation”, with one of the ex-footballers being Perry Groves. Did someone say “cultural hub”?
BHLive has today published an entire page on its website detailing the hundreds of cancelled, rescheduled and refundable shows that have been affected during the lockdown closures. Only now, 16 months after the first cancellations, are they undertaking to contact their customers directly.
“If you have tickets booked for any of these shows, you will be contacted directly about refunds or ticket exchanges,” BHLive say. “Thank you for bearing with us during this challenging time.”
Yet BHLive has not been entirely without “income” from the Fairfield Halls.
Since January 2019, because of the botched refurbishment conducted by Brick by Brick, the council-owned house-builders, BHLive has received more than £3.5million from the council, including £920,679 in liquidated damages – payment made when one party is in breach of contract. Many of these payments were made after it had been identified that the council was in serious financial straits.
“BH Live desperately needed that money,” Neil Chandler, the venue’s former artistic director, told The Stage last week. “Croydon Council was signing over money to BH Live in a desperate attempt to make sure they didn’t walk away from the table.”
But BHLive has also plugged into another lucrative source of public money.
It received a £2.5million grant from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund – one of the largest sums paid out. The money was supposed to be used not only to help get the Fairfield Halls back on its feet, but also to go towards BHLive’s two other arts venues in Dorset.
BHLive has never explained publicly how it would divide the funds between the three venues, nor how the money has been used in Croydon. Within days of receiving the “recovery” grant, BHLive laid off the majority of its Fairfield Halls staff.
“As the award was given to BHLive as a whole organisation, there isn’t a set amount ring-fenced for Fairfield Halls,” according to a spokesperson for Arts Council England.
“However, any award from the Culture Recovery Fund can only be spent on eligible costs that support the aims of the fund, and so BHLive’s grant will be spent on those parts of their business that are involved in cultural work and which help to support the country’s cultural infrastructure, rather than broader leisure and conference activities.”
According to an unnamed source “close to the project” and quoted by The Stage, “The council wanted a venue that was open all the time with access to the public, with a café and poetry events and things happening. When BH Live worked out that they weren’t going to make instant money, they decided only to open as needed.
“It’s a massive venue, and all the public are going to see of it nine to five most days is the tiny little Cube space on the side.”
And just in case you needed reminding: Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture in 2023…
Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender
Read more: BHLive starts redundancy process for staff at Fairfield Halls
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