Millions of questions for BHLive over Fairfield grant aid

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.

Radio Ga-Ga: this is all the Fairfield Halls has to offer for a month

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.

The Fairfield Halls: at the centre of a financial scandal

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.

Just a sample of BHLive’s web pages of shows that have been hit by covid closures. After 16 months, they are now contacting their customers of cancelled shows

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.

Artistic licence: swimming pool operators BHLive have received £2.5m in Arts Council covid recovery grants

“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.

Desperados: ‘Looking like a bunch of mates just back from the pub’

“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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This entry was posted in Art, Ashcroft Theatre, BH Live, Borough of Culture 2023, Brick by Brick, Business, Croydon Council, Fairfield Halls, London Mozart Players, Neil Chandler, The Wreck and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Millions of questions for BHLive over Fairfield grant aid

  1. Cautano says:

    Croydon Council Top brass are a bunch of idiots.
    They are useless.
    Boris Johnson should have them all accountable and ensure they justify their actions or get rid of them altogether.
    These idiots do nothing good for the borough so why are they still there wasting tax payers money.

  2. David Simons says:

    Amateurs, out of their depth (call the life guard!), thieves! BH Live deserve no place in Croydon – get them out. No experience whatsoever in the big pool – piss off back to Bournemouth. An utter disgrace; goodbye Croydon Labour party; on this and many other things you will be destroyed in the next election. Croydon Council were offered options to dump BH Live but they have chosen to stand by these under qualified amateurs. Shifa Mustavafriday off (now she has all week off) has a lot to answer for; why did she turn down the money offered by a local trust to kick out the Bournemouth bastards and return Fairfield to a community trust?

  3. Lewis White says:

    I am not against tribute bands, if that’s what fills seats and pleases large numbers of the Croydon audience?

    Surely that does not preclude having live music from original performers and orchestras?

    In the 1960’s and 70’s, All-star wrestling took place on the same nights as big classical concerts by major orchestras, and performances by world-class bands and groups, like Dave Brubeck, soloists like the guitarist Segovia or John Lill, the pianist–and dozens more

    What venues today are catering for the Beatles and Stones, Ralph Mc Tells and Freddie Mercuries of the future? Is the Fairfield too big in some ways, but too small in others?

    Croydon hosts the Brit School. Would it not be great if the Brits school could perform regularly in public in the Fairfield?

    I wrote some years back to the Council asking if the new Fairfield would have a more intimate music venue, suited to smaller audiences for soloist performances, other than just the huge concert hall, where the scale of the hall dwarfs a soloist or small ensemble. I never got an answer.

    I don’t think it does, which I think is a sad gap in the re-furbished venue.

    Like many, since the re-opening, I have not been back. I bought tickets for three events which promised to be excellent, 1 x comedy and 2 x classical music, but all were necessarily cancelled due to Covid.

    Quite when / how much / whether (-if- ever) I will get my concert-going mojo back is an open question. My surge of enthusiasm for the revamped halls has sadly waned.

    With so many people now living in Croydon from around the world, could not Croydon carve a cultural niche for itself in London as a place where you can hear music from Africa, South America, The Indian sub-continent, Portugal, Spain , etc etc. Nigerian comedy performers.

    With the Mozart players and the concerts from top London based orchestras, big classics seem to be well-served. What about the under 30 age groups who want a variety of music ? I hesitate to say Rock, Rap , R and B etc as I am somewhat out of touch with current genres.

    Stormzy, can you help us, please ???

    And, by the way, lots of peeps used to get there by car.
    With electric vehicles coming on stream, the eco-downside of pollution is reducing.

    The Council need to accept that to succeed, Fairfield needs to pull in an audience from a 30 mile radius, and therefore needs to have enough car parking. Lots of it. Plus buses that stop right outside. It is not an eco-crime to drive to a concert if that is the logical thing to do.

    Oh–and a big, solar powered Electronic billboard outside would be useful, so that the passer-by can actually see what events are “coming soon”. Performance and audience-building is about excitement, expectation, enthusiasm, needing posters, ads, publicity.
    At present, there is precisely zilch, nada, nothing to say “What’s On”

    Yes, and how about Fairfield hosting a Radio Croydon ?
    Bringing to you an all-star concert from the Fairfield Croydon
    Hosted by … Stormzy!
    Also viewable on hologram, just press the red button on your controller. Back by popular demand–the one and only, the genuine , Mr Freddie M………….. with guest appearances by Mr Dave Brubeck, Miss Cleo Laine and Mr Johnny Dankworth, Maestro Segovia, Mr John Lill, Captain Sensible, with live Comedy interval with Ms Sue Perkins, and many, many more. (Apologies for any historical inaccuracy).

  4. Michelle Ann says:

    The Fairfield Halls performances will not attract many visitors until the car park is open again. What is the reason this has been delayed? The car park already exists, and doesn’t have to be built.

    • Beverley says:

      The car park is now only a fraction of the size it was. It was demolished for space for whatever was going to be built on College Green. If ever Fairfield fills all its seats then it will be first come, first served for parking. The idea is/was you come by public transport, Anyone fancy walking Croydon streets after a show ………. sadly I dont.

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