It’s time to put back the Sparks into Croydon’s Fairfield Halls

For £70m, the Fairfield Halls should be offering a lot more for the community, says KEN TOWL

Original: there was a time when world-famous acts, like Sparks, performed live at the Fairfield Halls

If the Fairfield Halls disappoint, and they do, over and over, it is because they have a lot to live up to. Through all the disappointments, the bad decisions and the failures, like a perennially unfaithful husband, they keep promising to do better.

The heyday of the Fairfield Halls was surely the 1970s. I first heard of them from the lyrics of Mott the Hoople’s 1974 valedictory number Saturday Gigs, in which singer Ian Hunter reminisces over the band’s career:

“In ’72, we was born to lose,
“Slipped down snakes into yesterday’s news.
“I was ready to quit,
“But then we went to Croydon.”

It turns out that in 1972, the band, unable to follow up their David Bowie-penned hit All The Young Dudes, were planning on breaking up after their tour.

Saved: one gig at the Fairfield Halls stopped Mott the Hoople from splitting

The reception they got when the tour arrived at the Fairfield Halls, however, changed all that and, as a result, they stuck together and went on to create classics like All The Way From Memphis and Roll Away The Stone, as well as influencing bands such as The Clash and Oasis.

And then, last month, the director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) released a documentary called The Sparks Brothers, a tribute to Ron and Russell Mael.

About three minutes into a YouTube video to promote his film, Wright describes, the notorious final concert of Sparks’ 1975 UK tour.

His commentary is complemented by footage of Sparks attempting to perform Amateur Hour during a stage invasion. Singer Russell is repeatedly knocked to the ground by stage invaders. This was Sparksmania at its height, and the Fairfield Halls were at the centre of it.

But over the decades to come, the Fairfield Halls, “slipped down snakes into yesterday’s news”, as the Hoople once put it.

I have been to two concerts at the Fairfield Halls, one in 2009, shortly after I had moved to Croydon, and again 10 years later, for its first concert after a major refurbishment had overrun sucked up £70million of public money and added to the woes of a council that was already heading for bankruptcy.

It has been an execrable decade for the Fairfield Halls.

In 2009, the band I saw was The Bootleg Beatles. Competent enough, of course, but not exactly cutting edge. Tribute bands seem to have been the mainstay of the Fairfield Halls for a while, along with second-tier comedians and pantomimes. The Fairfield Halls had become a shadow of their former selves.

In 2019, when the Halls re-opened after the over-running refurbishment, albeit still shrouded in scaffolding, I went along to listen to Verdi’s Requiem in the Concert Hall. I wrote an upbeat article about it for Inside Croydon. I wanted to believe in the project.

I enthused about the modernist architecture reflecting the inclusive nature of the halls, its providing a base for the Talawa Theatre and the Savvy Theatre, both important community-based initiatives reflecting the diversity of Croydon.

I encouraged readers to go, to support the Halls. It looked as if, although the tribute acts were set to continue, the Halls would also provide something much more than that.

But for most of the last 18 months, the Savvy Theatre has been on pause due to covid-19 and the Talawa Theatre, while active (free tickets available here – but not on the Fairfield Halls website – for performances of The Tide in Park Hill Park, on August 21 and 22), appear to be performing anywhere but the Fairfield Halls themselves. The Fairfield Halls Community Choir may have to change its name, as it is no longer permitted to host its free parent and toddler sessions in the Fairfield Halls.

So what is the Fairfield Halls offering? Well, according to its own website, it is tribute acts based on The Eagles, Neil Diamond, Elton John, The Four Seasons and Simon and Garfunkel in September, and The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Abba and Amy Winehouse in October.

Empty: it could take more than adult pantos and tribute acts to fill all the seats in the Fairfield’s Concert Hall

There’s the usual run of comedians and some oddities (like The Doctor out of Doctor and the Medics) and, on September 4, a rather impressive Nick Cave with a single Bad Seed, Warren Ellis. Unfortunately, this rather attractive gig is sold out.

Another sub-genre that seems to be establishing itself at the Halls is the adult pantomime.

With even more drag than your family panto, and saltier humour, this year’s offering is Rapunzel. Unfortunately, the Fairfield Halls marketing team don’t seem to do proofreading, so we are promised a great show when “our naughty little tale comes to Bournemouth”. If you can’t wait until November, you could always try the Drag Ball on September 27, when various drag act will perform, including the rather excellently named Baga Chipz.

Can the Fairfield Halls do more than survive, and actually thrive again? The jury is still out.

But for £70million and the status of London Borough of Culture 2023, we should be able to hope for a little more than old musicians pretending to be dead musicians, an unqualified Doctor, a website manager that thinks he is in Bournemouth, and perhaps a bit more commitment to the local community.

Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: Fairfield Halls needs to be more London, and less Bournemouth

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11 Responses to It’s time to put back the Sparks into Croydon’s Fairfield Halls

  1. Pete Jenkins says:

    Ken sums up the sad situation at Fairfield 100%. I was at the Mott the Hoople concert and now it would appear to be Amateur Hour every hour at Fairfield these days.

    Is there actually any venue management based in Croydon, such as Mr Chandler who we know left last year? Is there a chance of “face-to-face” interaction for local show organisers and promoters, someone to talk to about the future, or dare I say it, make comments or complaints?

    And the Bournemouth marketing manager – what use will he/she be for the immediate future and our London Borough of Culture 2023 if they can’t decide upon where they are and what they are trying to sell?

    Walking past the closed Fairfield these days reminds me of a day in the mid-70s. I was on my way into town and the bookings were about to open for the David Bowie concerts . There were queues galore of young people, who now middle-aged, should still be attending non-existent varied “proper concerts” there, but the Croydon population seems to have all but forgotten about Fairfield.

    So Fairfield Halls, Bournemouth marketing and Croydon Council, using the title of David’s 2013 song… Where Are We Now?

    NOTE: I seem to recall that local photographer Frazer Ashford had some excellent photos of those David Bowie queues.

  2. I might argue Ken Towl that the 60s at Fairfield Halls were even better than the 70s. I was lucky enough to see Otis Reading, Wilson Picket, Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley, The Byrds (Jeff Beck in the audience) – matinee and evening 😂, Millie Jackson (Isaac Hayes in the audience) , Helen Shapiro, Percy Sledge, and many others who’ll creep back into my foggy memory at some point.

    • Ken Towl says:

      With a roster of names like that, Jane, I might agree with you.

      • Pete Jenkins says:

        For more friendly debate, this comprehensive book by Chris Groom lists Fairfield and Croydon area concerts from those early days, along with historical local music facts: – Rockin’ Around Croydon: Rock, Folk, Blues and Jazz in and Around the Croydon Area 1960-1980

  3. The Fairfield Halls ought to be able to offer an exciting range of events to cater for all. Surely there could be a small volunteer board to oversee themanagement group. With the odd exception the programming seems to be so uninspiring and completely without ambition. We ought to be a venue for new theatre, touring Opera, concerts up and coming groups and performers. Croydon is easily accessible from so many places. I does seem a pity that the restoration returned it to its 1950’s design, when we need a venue which does not feel cold and utilitarian but warm and welcoming. Just look at the Kiln Theatre and the Park Theatre, much smaller venues but so comfortable and inviting you happily drop in for a drink or a meal even if you are not going to a show, surely some attempt could have been made to at least make an area of the halls cosy. If the halls were made to be successful surely it could have a positive knock-on effect on the whole centre of Croydon. The building stands stark in a desert of asphalt, perhaps was not possible, but some trees and a little imaginative planting would have made a difference – its care given over to a gardening club or other enthusiasts.

  4. Chris Williams says:

    Nick Cave & Warren Ellis are playing at the Fairfield Halls on Saturday 4 September …

  5. Jonathan Law says:

    There are no shortage of bands seeking venues to play, and UK tours that take place that strangely never involve Fairfield halls main concert hall or it’s smaller hall “The Recreational”.
    Seems to make no sense when it is a great venue within 400 metres of a main rail hub and with bus routes going to many other towns that both venues are not fully booked out 5-7 nights a week
    It would be so easy to do if the venue connected with tour operators/bookers, but I guess they see themselves above that sort of thing.
    The Recreational could be seriously busy with live bands even when the concert hall has panto on .
    The excellent Croydon Rocks festival seemed a good start, but will whoever runs the FH have the willpower to make anything at all actually happen again?

    • Anthony Miller says:

      There is a bit of a parking problem since the Council closed the car park for reasons that are still unclear as they haven’t actually managed to sell it despite a bargain basement price… Even the greenest person might admit on reflection that in a suburban town only 15 disabled bays and two spaces for coaches is less than appropriate to a several thousand capacity venue if you want it to break even.

      • There are hundreds of car parking spaces within half a mile of the Fairfield Halls.

        The Royal Festival Hall, on which the Croydon equivalent is modelled, seems to do alright without having a car and coach park built into it.

        That might be something to do with it being a successful arts, entertainment and restaurant venue that hasn’t been run down by a bunch of Philistines or done up by bunch of crooks. Nor is it marketed to people whose ideal night out would be one with all the convenience and ambience of a McDonalds “Drive-thru”.

  6. Pat says:

    We have seen some great music there in the 2000s too (though not in recent years) – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, Willie Nelson, Roy Harper, Edwin Starr, Martha Reeves and Freda Payne, the Blues Band, the Proclaimers, Ruby Turner, Art Garfunkel, Don McLean, Ralph McTell (who told stories of his childhood playing in Croydon bomb sites), Maggie Bell, Georgie Fame, Status Quo to name a few. Even before the refurb they were putting on mainly tribute acts though – such a wasted opportunity

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