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