Year of Culture set to begin with an Oratorio of Hopelessness

CROYDON IN CRISIS: If, like us, you have been scouring the listings pages to find what’s planned for Croydon’s year as London’s Borough of Culture, you’re likely to be disappointed. But some of the PR deals surrounding the event have found their way to some familiar suppliers.

No Khan do: the Borough of Culture launch did more to promote Boozepark than Croydon’s arts scene. And the Mayor of London failed to show. Pic: Lia Toby/PA Wire

Croydon’s year as London’s Borough of Culture is due to begin tomorrow.

But many locals remain blissfully unaware that the event is happening, while several arts groups relate feeling excluded and ignored by the council-based organisation supposedly running the show.

The year-long “festival” ought to have started in January, but Croydon being Croydon, the council had to be given a three-month delay to get its artistic ducks in a row. But even with that extra time, little tangible progress has been made.

Inside Croydon has learned that some groups who applied for cash through the “Ignite Fund”, drawing on the £1.3million provided by the Mayor of London and National Lottery, faced a long wait to receive their cash. Until they have the cash in their accounts, venues cannot be booked, props and instruments cannot be ordered, and the whole process is stalled.

One organisation was successful in bidding for a grant, and stress how important it could be for them. “It will help to improve access and it means ticket prices will be frozen since last year, for that production at least,” said a senior figure at the arts group.

“The people from the Mayor of London’s side are really helpful and supportive,” they added. Which, since the organisation of the Borough of Culture is supposed to be handled by Croydon Council, might say a lot.

Rejected: how Croydon FM broke the news of their exclusion from the Borough of Culture

One significant cultural outlet based in the town centre, radio station Croydon FM, claim they were told that they are “too ghetto” to be involved in the project in any way.

And while there were more than 80 arts organisations represented at a “steering group” meeting held at the Fairfield Halls last week, a look on the council-run Croydon culture website shows that with barely 24 hours to go before the opening weekend, a grand total of three events have been listed so far as part of the year’s “celebrations”.

So desperate have the organisers been to bulk-up what they have got to offer, one of the few events mentioned in the launch press release had to be deleted because it is nothing to do with the Borough of Culture.

“We’re looking down the barrel of a million-pound shambles in Croydon,” said one well-placed source within the Croydon arts community. “Yet another one.”

The first event on the list is tomorrow night’s opener, what some world-weary Croydon residents have dubbed “the Oratorio of Hopelessness”.

Impossible job: some might ask what Andy Stranack (centre) the council’s cabinet member for culture, has done to annoy Mayor Jason Perry

They are referring to the new piece of classical music, commissioned for the occasion and led by the London Mozart Players and Grammy-nominated composer Tarik O’Regan, which is supposed to be “showcasing the very best of Croydon’s young talent through music, spoken word, song, dance, film and visual arts”.

Ticket sales have, before this week, been slow, at best, even on a pay-what-you-can, fiver-a-time basis.

At least the Oratorio of Hope, to give it its correct title, is being performed at the council’s expensively refurbished Fairfield Halls arts centre.

When the army of PRs, consultants and marketing flunkies staged the Borough of Culture launch earlier in March, they opted to use as a venue the culture-free vaccuum that is Boozepark. “The event did more to promote Boxpark than provide any real excitement or build-up to the Borough of Culture,” according to one underwhelmed attendee.

Sadiq Khan, as Mayor of London, was the person who handed the 12-month title and a chunk of public cash to his Labour Party colleagues at Croydon Council. They were led by the now discredited Tony Newman and Oliver Lewis, the sometime council cabinet member for arts and shit. It wasn’t long after the Borough of Culture winning bid was announced that the wheels fell off Newman’s Croydon bandwagon, with his own departure from the council coming soon after.

Culture vultures: Mayor of London Sadiq Khan awarded the Borough of Culture to Croydon’s Tony Newman and Oliver Lewis shortly after the Sep 2019 reopening of the Fairfield Halls

Ever since, there’s been a steady series of exits of those who championed Croydon for the Borough of Culture, starting with former chief exec Jo Negrini, and including Paula Murray, the council’s director of arts (a role that had never before existed) who was hired by “Negreedy”, and who drafted most of the Borough of Culture’s plans, but who our bankrupt borough can no longer afford to employ.

Councillor Lewis, who signed off on Murray’s expansive plans to win the Borough of Culture bid, did not stand at last May’s local elections. Having been on the payroll at The Campaign Company, last summer Lewis joined another public relations outfit with strong connections to the Labour Party: Four Communications. More of them later…

The change of control at the Town Hall last May might have been the obvious, and ideal, opportunity for the cash-strapped council to go to Khan and seek a deferral for a couple of years, to a time when the local authority might be better placed to do the people it is supposed to serve justice, and provide extra funding to boost the local arts sector.

But Jason Perry, newly installed as the Mayor of Croydon, somehow decided to go ahead with the whole thing, handing the responsibility for delivering the shitshow to Councillor Andy Stranack, poor guy. Now we’re not saying that Perry doesn’t like Stranack, but he was the only Tory councillor to choose to stand against Perry when the Conservatives were selecting their Mayoral candidate…

Deputising: Justine Simons was at Boxpark. Mayor Khan, her boss, wasn’t

Mayor Khan was due to be the guest of honour at the Boozepark launch two weeks ago. Maybe he got wind of the misfiring arrangements for the cultural extravaganza. But he was a notable no-show. He left the glad-handing and the speechifying to his deputy mayor for culture, Justine Simons.

There’s nothing recorded of Simons being asked if she had any concerns about the Borough of Culture taking place in a bankrupt borough. Inside Croydon was not invited to attend.

There are some “cultural” activities planned. The town centre’s business community has passed the (metaphorical) hat around and are populating the high street and Whitgift Centre with models of giraffes.

Tall order: Giraffes. Thirty of them. Coming to Croydon this year

Yeah, because nothing says “Croydon” and “Culture” more than a seven-foot giraffe sculpture. They are clearly having a giraffe.

Slightly less random, but no less low-budget, is the planned music heritage trail, which given the rich vein of talent that the area is associated with, could end up being a permanent and valued visitor attraction. But don’t get your hopes up too much, if one exchange at the end of last year is anything to go by.

A functionary from Grey Label, another public relations firm picking up more work from the council, was doing some “research” for the music trail, and was looking for likely guests to invite to the launch. They contacted another media outlet to ask if they had a contact for Desmond Dekker, the reggae and ska performer who lived in Croydon.

Dekker died in 2006…

Inside Croydon understands that the cash-strapped council has hired in two people from Stanley Halls to help co-ordinating the Borough of Culture’s offer. They are working with senior council official Kristian Aspinall.

Aspinall joined Croydon Council from Lambeth in November 2021, but is still referred to as the interim director of culture and community safety (which seems an interesting mix…). Aspinall, by some accounts, is not too keen on discussing Borough of Culture plans with people outside the council.

Passionate: Caterina Loriggio

Also recently hired in to help add a bit of pizzazz to the organisation is Caterina Loriggio, “an accomplished cultural leader”, according to Loriggio herself, who describes her role at Croydon Council as the “Borough of Culture lead”. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Her online profiles tell us that, “Caterina is passionate about work that makes a difference.

“Her work brings artists, creatives and heritage practitioners together with communities to tell hidden stories and to celebrate and enjoy the places where they live and work.” We shall see.

As already mentioned, working on the Borough of Culture are those old favourites of Croydon Council, Grey Label, a public relations outfit formed by a couple of former colleagues who sold ads for the Croydon Sadvertiser years ago.

Grey Label landed a marketing contract from the council, worth £132,000 over 17 months, but their work only began on January 1 this year.

And presumably because no one at the council believes that their internal press office is up to the task, late last year Croydon put out a tender for an organisation to act as the press and PR agency for the Borough of Culture.

According to official government sources, this contract, under procurement reference CROYD001-DN637749-19470672 started on December 1 last year, and runs until May 31 2024. It is for the relatively modest amount of £45,000. No one gets much press and PR bang for that kind of buck.

The deadline for bids for this contract was November 4, 2022.

That deadline date is significant because it was just six months after former Croydon councillor and cabinet member for arts and shit, Oliver Lewis, started a job as a senior account director at Four Communications.

And it was Lewis’s new bosses at Four Communications who landed the modest council contract to help Croydon with its year as Borough of Culture. Which is nice.

According to the former councillor’s online biography, Lewis left Four Communications in January this year.

Inside Croydon spoke to Lewis, who claimed he had no knowledge whatsoever of the Borough of Culture contract with Four Communications. He suggested that it must have been agreed after he left the firm.

Which, the evidence shows, was not the case.

Perhaps it was just all a happy coincidence, he being the person when he was at the council who knew all the plans for the Borough of Culture, and him working for a firm which landed one of the (albeit modest) contracts offered as a result of Croydon staging the Borough of Culture.

We put a set of questions about the council’s contract with Four Communications to Croydon’s in-house press office. Three times.

They have not replied. Four Communications didn’t communicate with us, either.

What might it be that they have got to hide?

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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
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5 Responses to Year of Culture set to begin with an Oratorio of Hopelessness

  1. liz coffey says:

    Borough of Vulture more like it!

  2. derekthrower says:

    So Croydon’s version of a year long cultural event is some lucrative contracts to the inevitable public relations companies and just no investment in arts and culture itself.
    I see in the town centre some derelict shop fronts have been dressed up in some fancy graphic designs to mask their dereliction. Isn’t that all that a year long public relations event can offer or perhaps part time is a secret arts subversive and is ironically commenting on the commercialism of art in a post-modernist context.
    Expect to see him wobbling around Box Park trying to retain a ten pound lager in a plastic beer container in his next situationist intervention performance of high culture.

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    Kerswell sat on Penns report like a mother hen incubating an egg and delivered a smelly fart – mostly in secret.
    The only Communication from the festering boils at the crown of Fishers Folly is digital – and then clearly working to the GIGO principle.

    Messr Aspinall is not too keen on discussing Borough Community Safety plans with people outside the council either.

    But as he said on his profile.

    ”I have been able to build grass root resources and leverage the wider community to support vulnerable groups and ensure there are robust plans to target key areas. I have managed strategic projects focused on anti-racism, hate crimes and violence reduction while focusing on crime reduction partnerships” – Guess no one got that memo here mate!

    I utilise my strong interpersonal and communication skills to establish and maintain partnerships as well as build and manage a high performing team. I enjoy a challenge and believe I would be a valuable addition to any team.” – Well you got the challange

    – but not much luck in Croydon. Sadly that track record might be taking a big hit in this Borough if actual community safety is any indicator of performance – still there is 76 years left in the Century keep chugging K!

    Now £132k and £45k to two companies for the sound of silence fits in perfectly with this Councils (dark web) Art and ( bullying) Culture.
    One should be thankful that neither company has done a parody of Perry and Kerswell go Large – so no gratuitous self service 15% increase after the fact!

    Clearly living on the public teats and sucking the marrow off the bone occupies so much time and mouth action, little is left to fuel the vocal chords to communicate with the hoi polloi!
    So overall Croydon Council is sticking to its tried and trusted Culture of pissing public funds up the wall, down the drains – but narry a sou on the Community or Vulnerable groups?

    To be inflicted with a Succubus is bad but to have an Incubus and a hoard of Oni infesting the Borough means we may be in need of a good exorcism or perhaps an Election not a year of . Roll on 2026!

  4. Peter Coates says:

    I went to the Oratorio of Hope last night. Sorry to let the drift of the article down, but it was a fantastic two hours of music and entertainment. The London Mozart players welded together a lovely mix of music, song and dance. It was one of the best things I’ve seen at The Fairfield, and I am not related nor do I know in anyway those involved with the show. The staff worked incredibly hard and it was a good start to the year. Get a ticket for tonight if you can.

  5. Mary Cox says:

    I was one of the 80 who attended the initial meetings about the Borough of Culture at the Fairfield Halls. As a Croydon resident since 1977, former Vice Chair of Croydon Schools’ Dance Association, freelance dance teacher in many Croydon Schools and now founder, director and performer with Grand Gesture dance company, I was looking forward to being involved in some way.
    I duly registered to receive the Croydon Culture Network email newsletter which arrived sporadically until December. Then there was a gap until last week, when I got an email informing me of the opening weekend’s events (1/2 April) at the Fairfield Halls.
    I found out about the launch on the actual day because I happened to be listening to BBC Radio London which was covering it – broadcasting live from Boxpark. An internet search to find out about the launch proved fruitless with nothing posted until after it had happened.
    I’m still waiting to receive the promised application details for the smallest band of funding.
    The information I have seen lists involvement from the usual ‘inner circle’ of Croydon Arts’ organisations.
    I’m disappointed that I won’t be involved in any way – as are other Croydon dancers – and also a friend of mine who failed to find any information about how she could be involved.

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