The grand scandal at the centre of Fairfield’s absurd saga

Centre stage: last night’s concert performers had to provide their own Bechstein grand piano, costing £1,400 to rent for the night. Pic: Simon Bentley

Arts correspondent BELLA BARTOCK solves the mystery of the vanishing grand pianos, and discovers more scandal at the council-owned arts venue

The Fairfield Halls, following its shambolic and costly refurbishment, is now an arts centre without an art gallery, with a concert hall without a concert piano.

Last night’s gala performance of “Carmina Burana” by the Croydon Philharmonic and the Docklands Sinfonia was accompanied by a grand piano that the performing choir had to rent for the night, and pay more than £1,400 for the privilege.

That was on top of the £3,540 charge by BHLive for putting on a concert in the under-used concert hall. At their supposedly discounted rate for “community events”.

According to one source at the Croydon Phil, “When making the preparations with BHLive, the choir was disconcerted to discover that Croydon’s premier concert hall still has no piano to offer choirs or orchestras. Instead, we had to hire their own.”

Rare event: the Fairfield Halls venues are not being used on three-quarters of dates this year. Pic: Simon Bentley

Before the Halls were shut down in 2016 for the bungled £67million refurbishment, as befits a leading music venue, the Fairfield did possess two Steinway grand pianos, worth around £45,000 each.

One of these was even bought through a public subscription scheme, paid for by the people of Croydon.

But on the eve of the closure, the trust which had been managing the venue flogged off these grand assets towards meeting its various financial obligations. One of the borough’s larger and wealthy private schools is believed to have got itself a Steinway at a bargain price.

When the Halls reopened to much fanfare in September 2019, under the new management of BHLive, the Fairfield was equipped with a total of nine pianos, including two grands, provided as part of a deal with a little-known piano-makers from Sevenoaks, Phoenix. Part of the deal gave the piano company naming rights to the concert hall.

The deal was one of the “innovations” for the sparkling future of the Halls, together with an exclusive corporate club bar and the needless renaming of the Ashcroft Theatre as a “playhouse”, all brought in under Neil Chandler, BHLive’s artistic director.

But like much else in this absurdist saga, the Phoenix Piano deal went sour very quickly: as soon as top-calibre musicians tried to use the instruments.

According to one pianist who attempted to play one of the Fairfield’s Phoenix grands, “They have a carbon fibre soundboard, not a wooden one. Totally counter-intuitive. Sounds like a typewriter.

Phoenix light: the piano deal was one of the innovations under artistic director Neil Chandler

“Their website describes them as a ‘piano like no other’. Quite. But not in a good way.

“The instruments use carbon hammer shanks, carbon fibre bridge caps and 3-D printed ‘D3D’ actions.”

The piano’s “action” refers to the amount of finger or hand or arm weight a player needs to depress the keys and make the hammer hit the string. According to our source, the action of the pianos which BHLive arranged to be provided for the Fairfield Halls “was so light, that if you breathe out, the scale of C Major sounds”.

The source, an accomplished international performer, told Inside Croydon that soon after the Halls reopened, with the Phoenix pianos installed, he took an opportunity to try out the grand that was placed in the Fairfield foyer for all those free lunchtime recitals that Chandler and BHLive promised.

“My colleague had suggested that I should play it, and did not tell me what instrument it was. After 30 seconds, I turned to him and said, ‘This is unplayable’.”

When the Phoenix Piano deal was announced by BHLive, Inside Croydon surveyed all the other major classical music venues in London. None of them used Phoenix Pianos. Most had not even ever heard of the make.

Our very choosy source said, “A Steinway D is the only option for concert halls. International pianists will simply not play on anything else.”

There had been negotiations with Steinway to provide a more suitable instrument for the Fairfield concert hall, but these collapsed after BHLive did a deal with Yamaha for a Saturday morning music school.

It was then that BHLive turned to Phoenix and got the “fleet” of instruments.

The Phoenix deal did not last long once covid hit. In June 2020, with the Fairfield Halls in “hibernation”, rather than keep up the payments on the unused pianos, BHLive had them returned to Sevenoaks. And so they created the situation we have today, of a concert hall without a concert piano.

As the Croydon Philharmonic Choir found to its dismay, the cost of hiring a grand piano from an outside supplier begins at around £1,000 – and even that was no guarantee of the quality required. For last night’s concert, an anonymous donor stepped forward and the choir was able to pay £1,400 to hire a top-of-the-range Bechstein for the night.

The choir found the concert more expensive than expected in other ways.

Upstaged: BHLive is hiring out the Fairfield concert hall without providing a concert piano

After a meeting with BHLive in February, when the choir thought all concert costs had been settled, they were dismayed to be quoted for additional charges that included £1 each for towels, £100 for first aid, £500 (plus VAT) to extend the stage and £1,250 (plus VAT) for an extra room to accommodate all the performers.

The choir turned down the towels and the extra room, and BHLive eventually waived the extra charges for first aid and the stage extension.

The difficulties, and costs, encountered by the Croydon Phil in staging last night’s event, the kind of performance which used to be a staple part of the Fairfield Halls offerings, go some way to explain the paucity of the programme being offered by BHLive. Last night, the management didn’t even bother staffing a box office for walk-up ticket sales for the performance.

As research conducted for Inside Croydon shows, across the Fairfield Halls’ three venues – concert hall, Ashcroft Theatre and “The Wreck” – only 24per cent of the available dates will see live performances between now and November.

And the toxic legacy of Brick by Brick’s shambolic “refurbishment” continues to present issues for BHLive and the performers alike.

Big lie: the council’s promises at the Fairfield Halls reopening were false and have not been fulfilled

The replacement of a 60-year-old lift near the stage door was one of the many items on the “to do” list when Brick by Brick and their contractors moved on site in 2016 for a refurb project with a budget of £30million.

Despite saddling the borough with a bill of £67million, and taking 15 months longer than promised, Brick by Brick’s works at the Halls were never properly finished. The old lift remains, not even repaired and out of action.

According to one of the choristers who performed last night, “This means that older members of choirs and companies have to go up several flights of stairs to reach the dressing rooms.

“Those with serious mobility issues were escorted to the front of house to use the regular audience lifts, and then work their way back to the changing rooms. It’s all a bit of a mess.”

Sources at the Fairfield Halls suggest that BHLive are looking in to the matter of equipping the concert hall with a concert piano once again. “But they think one instrument will do. They have no understanding of the need for practice and rehearsal uprights, along with two grands,” our source said.

“They really have no idea. BHLive needs to go.”

Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture 2023…

Read more: £67m arts centre – with no art gallery and few performances
Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender

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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
This entry was posted in Art, Ashcroft Theatre, BH Live, Borough of Culture 2023, Croydon Philharmonic Choir, Fairfield Halls, Music, The Wreck and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The grand scandal at the centre of Fairfield’s absurd saga

  1. David Simons says:

    BH Live had made no provision for pianos in their tender bid or budget. Chandler had the foresight to get multiple pianos as part of a sponsorship deal, a deal that latterly included the use of a Steinway and Bösendorfer as required and support for a piano academy. Like everything else Chandler try to do and promised Bournemouth didn’t support the long term vision; only things that turned a quick pound were of interest. When BH decided to run Fairfield like their Bournemouth sites Chandler threw in the towel. He was visible across the town, supporting the local and national arts scene and BH bullied him out. No pianos and no local artistic director. BH Live out!

  2. moyagordon says:

    Depressing. How can incompetence in running public amenities be allowed to continue? What a waste of a venue.

  3. miapawz says:

    Please vote wisely in the council and mayoral election to avoid repeat performances. I can’t believe ‘they’ sold ‘our’ steinway but ‘this is croydon’. (with a nod to Chinatown).

  4. derek thrower says:

    It is frightening the waste being displayed here. The shambolic and seemingly corrupt organisation of Brick by Brick developers being matched by the management of probably the top concert hall in South London. Would be interesting to know who provided the authorisation of the piano sale to the well endowed local Private School. It is not like the known market price of such a valuable instrument are difficult to find.

  5. Keith Ebdon says:

    Appalling basic errors, when will this totally inept and allegedly corrupt Labour Council ( check out Brick By Brick’s activities ) be taken to task? Let’s hope it’s in the elections on May 5th!

    • “Allegedly” provides no legal protection against libel, Keith. So unless you can provide evidence of corruption, please realise that such comments will not normally pass moderation.

  6. Will says:

    If the Trust that managed the Fairfield Halls flogged off those two Steinways, surely there should be a readily accessible audit trail showing who they were sold to and how much for. They were £80k worth of piano – not an ex-pub upright. So what happened to the other one?

  7. Hazel swain says:

    why havent the fraud squad been called in ?

    • Ian Kierans says:

      A wonderful phrase I have been given by Croydon Council is the words ”perfectly legal development” despite said works failing to meet conditions and building regulations and receiving notices and enforcement action. Perhaps it is the view of Croydon Executives of that time and some today that as they are the Local Authority everything they do obviously is perfectly legal?

    • Nick Davies says:

      Because there’s no evidence of any fraud? Incompetance and stupidity yes, but there’s nothing in the account above to suggest misappropriation.

  8. Will Parish says:

    When it comes to flogging off public assets on the cheap, or those assets “disappearing”, apparently Croydon Council bought Jo Negrini £10,000 worth of Apple equipment, phones / PCs etc, to enable her to do her job. I wonder if she handed them back when she left?

    • What do you mean “apparently”?

      We reported this two years ago.

      And of course no one had the backbone to demand that she return the public property…

      Then there was the illegal sale by Croydon Conservatives of a large part of the Riesco Collection.

      Indeed, the borough’s art collection has not been subject to a thorough audit for many years. Given so much of it remains in storage, unseen, in the Town Hall basement, it is long past time that the works were assessed and, where appropriate, some could be sold off. But moves ought to be made to have much more of the people’s art collection available to be seen by the people.

  9. Lewis White says:

    Perhaps it’s a good job that the Sevenoaks-based piano company never got to call the halls “The Phoenix Halls”. Just in case someone torched the place to make the name appropriate.
    ps– I am wondering if the Halls are insured properly……. ??????

    • Can’t confirm it, but we heard that there was one bright spark who suggested a series of evenings of piano music concerts, to be called Phoenix Nights…

      • David Simons says:

        Given that wheelchair access is so appalling the one and only Brian Potter could never have made it on to the stage!

  10. James Turnbull says:

    BH Live are the worst organisation I have ever experienced running the Fairfield Halls. I am not sure how much of the issues are caused by the failings in the venue setup, but the staff are useless and it is not a venue you actually want to go to anymore! I used to love this place, not anymore!

    And talk about giving developers and contractors an undeserved bad name.

    How can anyone mess up as much as Brick by Brick?

    With someone even remotely competent at the helm, you could have not failed to make money for the Council in this venture. Someone needs to be held accountable and put in prison for this travesty.

  11. James Seabrook says:

    The is hardly surprising is it? The Croydon Council decision makers here see nothing of value apart from money and saving it for their own ends. It’s a sorry situation and in my opinion until they actually feel the pain they’ve caused, I can’t see why anything would change. We need a miracle! I’ve lived in this area for approaching thirty years. Croydon used to be a full of really good things like parks, nice houses, great entertainment, reasonable shops and it’s changed so much. I have never experienced such deliberate degredation of a borough.

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