Situated in the heart of historic Brixham, the current Town Hall building was constructed on the site of a former naval reservoir, from which pipes would have led down to the Kings Quay in the Harbour and were used for watering naval ships. The building always leaned to the right, because of subsidence into the mud.
The building was always called Brixham Town Hall and was designed by George Bridgman, the same local architect who designed the Palace Theatre, Paignton, It was officially opened on 1st October 1886, with a build cost of £3,000.
On the ground floor, the current Function Room used to be the Magistrate's Court, and where Brixham Does Care offices and shop are was the entrance to the original Pannier Market, with the old entrance now restored and updated. The Scala Hall started life asthe town's Fish Market and a Pannier Market and became a silent cinema, until 1934.
On the first floor, over the Magistrate’s Court, were the offices for the Harbour Commissioners. Above the Pannier Market and Scala Hall was a large upper hall, for use as a Drill Hall. It later was used for public meetings, concerts and theatre gang shows, as well as the local amateur drama group’s performances. Nowadays it is Brixham Theatre.
There used to be stackable canvas chairs, with iron frames, which were removed to hold dances and for use as a hall. Extra pillars had to be added in the Scala Hall below to strengthen the floor to take the dances. Originally the Theatre was said to seat 800!
Brixham Operatic and Amateur Dramatic Society
BOADS (Brixham Operatic and Amateur Dramatic Society) started using the theatre in the 1920's and staged 'Pearl, the Fisher Maiden' as their first show in 1922. Plays and musicals, and later pantos, were added to the repertoire from the 1980s.
Renowned poet and novelist, Malcom Lowry, visited Brixham Theatre in the summer of 1933 to see a production, ‘The Belle of New York’ performed by BOADS. A musical comedy in two acts, with book and lyrics by Hugh Morton and music by Gustave Kerker, ‘The Belle of New York ‘was about a Salvation Army girl who reforms a spendthrift, makes a great sacrifice and finds true love.
In a letter to Jan Gabrial in August 1933, written at the Vernon Court Hotel, Torquay, Lowry tells Jan that he went to see a "dilapidated musical comedy called ‘The Belle of New York’ just so as I could think about the title”.
This occurred just before his rejection of Europe for the New World, beginning with his voyage to New York in 1934, aboard the R.M.S.Aquitania. His most famed work was ‘ Under the Volcano’, written in 1947.
In 1953, BOADS member Peter Bond was a choirboy, and remembers singing at Parish Suppers in the Theatre.
BOADS still continue using the Theatre to stage a musical show in October, a pantomime in February and a play in May.
British character actor, John Slater (22 August 1916 - 9 January 1975) was usually seen playing lugubrious, amiable cockney types. His father was an antiques dealer. After attending St. Clement Danes School, Slater began acting in Farce at the "Whitehall Theatre". He first appeared on film in 1938, remaining active in the industry up until his early death.
He was a familiar face in British films of the 1940s and appeared in many classic films of the period, including "Went the Day Well?”, "We Dive at Dawn”, "A Canterbury Tale", "The Seventh Veil", “It Always Rains on Sunday" and "Passport to Pimlico"
In 1956, Roger Slater appeared with his father John, in the film “The Devil’s Pass”, in Brixham, about an attempt to wreck a trawler, for the insurance money. It was the first film ever shown in the Theatre.
John Slater also appeared in the notorious 1958 stage production of “The Birthday Party “ by Harold Pinter as Nat Goldberg.
He was known on television for his presenter role opposite popular children's puppets "Pinky and Perky" during the 1960s, as a story-teller on Jackanory and as Det. Sgt. Stone in Z Cars from 1967 to 1974.
John Slater sustained life-threatening injuries as a result of an air crash in France in 1946 and sporadic bouts of ill health hampered his career. He featured on Roy Plomley's Desert Island Discs in 1961.
He took over the Theatre after a refurbishment in 1973 and ran two summer seasons there. His company performed Whitehall Farces for three days a week in 1973 and 1974.
John Slater died in 1975, aged only 58. Brixham Theatre was one of the last venues at which Slater entertained an audience. Now his spirit is said to have returned to haunt the location. His ghost, wearing the costume of his final show, has been spotted several times throughout the theatre.
A blue plaque commemorating the actor was erected on the front of the building in 2008 by Brixham Town Council.
BATS, in conjunction with Matthew Clarke from Torbay Bookshop, helped stage the launch of the book ‘Memories of John Slater’ by his son Roger, in discussion with Bob Curtis, at Brixham Theatre on Monday.14 June 2010.
A photograph of John, which hung in his hall since his death, was left to Brixham Theatre by his widow, Betty Slater, when she died in March 2014. It is now hung on the stairs leading to the Theatre, alongside a relief bust of the famous actor.
He was back in the theatre he loved so much, and that his wife believed cost him his life.
Grand plans but slow decline
Nothing had essentially changed inside the Theatre since John Slater’s time. It was given a small refurbishment in 1973, when the chairs were replaced with fixed seating but these soon wore out.
With the re-organisation of local government, the entire complex became part of the estate of Torbay Unitary Authority, the Theatre available on a hiring basis only, without programming input or staff.
In 1991 - 1993 plans were prepared for developing the Theatre at a cost of 3 and a half million. They were fruitless because no theatre designers were consulted and the Arts Council report condemned them as ‘the worst examples of theatre planning ever seen...'
In 1993/4 the Old Festival Theatre on Paignton seafront closed and was rebuilt as the Apollo Cinema.
Following the unsuccessful attempt at redesigning the Brixham Town Hall building, Torbay Council decided to re-use the Festival seating and placed it in Brixham Theatre, where it remains to this day, with metal ashtrays still attached, until given a refurbishment by BATS in 2012.
The building became unloved & unwanted, just hired out with no support and help for any groups bringing in shows, used only two or three times a year by BOADS, and with a few hirings as one-off events. Torbay Council even drew up and passed plans to block off the rear section of the auditorium and turn it into additional ofices for their staff. Thankfully, these changes did not materialise as they would have rendered the theatre unsalvagable as a working professional venue.
BATS to the rescue
In 2008, concerned by the lack of use of the Theatre (with only a few events a year being staged by hirers) and the rest of the building slowly emptying of tenants, a group of people in the town, initiated by Liz Cross and Peter Killick, called a public meeting and formed Friends of Brixham Theatre, to be quickly re-named BATS (Brixham Arts & Theatre Society), with the aim of rejuvenating the Theatre and Scala Hall and encouraging more local community groups to make use of the facilities and to create a central arts, theatre and community hub for Brixham,
After several years of negotiation with Torbay Council, BATS were given a two year agency to run the Theatre and Scala Hall, on behalf of the Council.
The group celebrated being handed the keys with a host of Launch events, including a rock concert, street performance, art exhibition, children's workshops, talent show and dance to popular local band High Society.
BBC Radio Devon presenter Jo Loosemore officially opened proceedings, and was joined on stage by Brixham Town Council Chairman, Martyn Hodge, and BATS Chairman, Peter Killick.
BATS spokesman John Miles said: "We did very well in that we got Brixham to sit up and notice us. We hope to do our very best to entertain the people of Brixham and make full use of the theatre, which we all own. We were very pleased with the opening celebrations. Some of the acts were wonderful and the Friday night Room Upstairs gig, organised with Brixham Youth Enquiry Service, was excellent”
BATS set about raising funds to improve the facilities and marketing of the Theatre and Scala Hall.
The group decided it was going to be PRO-ACTIVE, not REACTIVE, so they sought out shows and groups to persuade to come to Brixham (unlike Torbay Council, who had waited for bookings to come in), especially when performers might be touring past the area or planning a tour.
When Torbay Council decided that they would withdraw caretaker cover from all BATS activities, the group of volunteers realised it was unrealistic to include the Scala Hall in their remit. The Scala Hall had plenty of use, it was the Theatre that was at the greatest risk because it was so under-used.
BATS was the only arts society in the bay that was entrepreneurial in outlook, not focussed on performing, like other local performing groups. They set about fund raising with a will, holding raffles, running stalls on the Old Fish Quay and selling refreshments.
The agreement with Torbay Council was that BATS would set charging prices for groups hiring theTheatre, primarily because it was always BATS's argument that the continually rising costs charged by Torbay Council was what deterred local groups from using the building. BATS had to contribute funds towards heating and electricity use for the professional shows they staged themselves, as part of a development programme to attract more audiences. All hiring fees were paid back to Torbay Council.
It became increasingly obvious that the Theatre Lounge was an essential aspect of the Theatre operation, providing audiences with an enhanced experience and encouraging greater use of the building. BATS sold refreshments and the local licence holder donated any bar profits from BATS events back to the group. They also ran raffles on events to fund raise further improvements. These were the only funds the organisation received.
Ensuring safety and encouraging volunteers
It was soon apparent that there had been few, if any, safety systems or training done at the Theatre. There were conflicting messages on fire safety and evacuation procedures throughout the building, and the adjoining Library and Museum.
Accordingly BATS created a full Operations Manual, assembling all the instructions available on lift evacuation, wheelchair policies, training of Theatre Stewards and a full fire evacuation procedure. This was an arduous task, constantly ongoing, in order to comply with Health and Safety Legislation.
A Volunteers Co-ordinator for BATS was set up, and established and defined roles for Duty Managers, Front of House control, Technical Managment, Box Office, Catering and Stewarding were set up, with full training given in the law and safety duties to all volunteers helping. Membership of BATS provided insurance for any volunteers working on the organisation's behalf.
Lift evacuation and operations training was also given to all Duty Managers so the building could be used safely at any time it was open for BATS activities.
Raising funds for investing in the Future
The major aim for BATS operation of the Theatre was to invest all possible funds back into improved facilities for performers and audiences , both at present and into the future.
A total of over £10,000 was raised and spent by BATS in the first two years of the Agreement with Torbay Council, re-invested in the building, equipment and marketing – very unlike the previous fifty years.
These improvements were:
The repairing of the Scala Hall kitchen, with purchase of a new oven, crockery and cutlery and a microwave. The kitchen was made fit for use by local groups hiring the Scala Hall, and is used today by the cafe on the Brixham Pannier Market.
The Scala Hall was repainted by volunteers and a gallery hanging system purchased, which is greatly appreciated by the Brixham Art Society for its annual exhibition, as well as available for other visual arts events.
A proper Technical Control Box was constructed for the Theatre, the previous one having been two old doors that BOADS used, balanced on the back of the auditorium seats and certainly not H & S compliant!
Dividing curtains and a racking system was purchased to divide the Theatre into potentially three different use areas – The Studio Theatre, with 100 raked seats, The Stage Area, with the raised stage and 160 seats on one level, and the Full Auditorium, with 260 seats throughout the space.
The auditorium seating was given a major overhaul and broken and damaged parts repaired, the upholstery cleaned and the wooden backs waxed and polished – all done by volunteers.
A new portable lighting system was purchased for use in the Studio Theatre, with additional stage lights purchased.
A communications system for the theatre was bought so that the FOH and technical staff could talk to each other during a show.
A deep clean of the Auditorium took place, with plans to get in specialist carpet cleaners in the future to attempt to remove the stains deeply embedded in it.
Marketing and promotion
Marketing was a major priority for BATS, because there had been no promotional material produced at all for the Theatre in the past, only ad hoc publicity for individual hiring shows..
Quarterly ‘What’s On’ brochures were created, listing all events for all users of the Theatre.
Poster and flyer distribution routes and volunteers were established, both around Brixham and further afield – Totnes, Dartmouth and across Torbay.
A BATS website was set up and continually updated and improved, listing all events and with copies of posters on display and details of how to hire the various spaces.
All Theatre events were listed on various websites according to gendre, and placed in ‘What’s On guides and listings, as well as press releases established on a regular basis in all local newspapers.
The right people in the right roles
The recruitment and training of volunteers continued, with new members joining all the time, especially for acting as Front of House Stewards.
New volunteers were also found on the Technical side of Theatre operation, with Tony & Steven Hirst joining. In September 2013 Louis Sullivan of NLS Solutions was contracted as the first Brixham Theatre Technical Manager, a role now operated by professional technicians, Alan Dunn and David Warren. Skilled electrician and technician, Chris Jones also joined the technical team in 2014, taking charge of all aspects of sound production, assisted by volunteer Dave Lucas. Other skilled theatre professionals are recruited, when required.
The quality of technical production leapt overnight and was instrumental in the Theatre being able to add additional equipment, replace and repair worn out and out moded lighting and sound, and enabled more complex and larger shows to be hosted.
BATS was also fortunate in having an exceptionally skilled volunteer force running the Theatre.
Cecilia Kean, the Theatre Director, originally Chairman of the community group, is a professional Theatre Manager, with over 30 years experience across many art forms and direct experience of both running venues, multi-million pound Arts Council projects, and many local authority schemes for regeneration and arts promotion. She also has two degrees specifically in Arts Management and Policy, as well as a string of accountancy and financial qualifications.
A free-lance lecturer to Degree level, she had established and run both performance companies in Contemporary Dance and major rural touring projects for six different local authorities.
BATS Member, Mel Kinsey has worked in a variety of roles, linked to The Really Useful Group and Andrew Lloyd Webber and had contacts with show producers right up to West End level.
John Miles, ‘Mr Am Dram’ across the Bay, brought long experience as an award winning Director, performer and writer, and a huge network of connections within the area and beyond.
Olive Farnham, with community credentials a mile long and the secretarial skills to match, is a vital controller of operations and Company Secretary
Shirley Wheeler had a background in local government organisation, was deeply involved with the Lifeboat Guild and extremely well respected as a fund-raiser within the town. She brought all her organisational experience to the management of the volunteers, covering all aspects of the Theatre operation and is a Director of the company. Handing over the reins of organising the volunteers to Suzanne Anderson, Shirley has now taken on the role of Theatre Archivist, organising the growing archive of marketing materials and cuttings for shows being staged at Brixham Theatre.
Retired librarian, Suzanne Anderson, took on the mantle of Volunteers Co-ordinator, and is often to be found clutching her Red Book and pouncing on BATS Members to help out on the many events and rehearals being staged. She organises Volunteer Traiining sessions, alongside the Theatre Director.
Ruth Johnson Bolt is Brixham born and bred, an excellent member of the teaching profession, with educational contacts throughout the area. She is highly organised as the Box Office Manager, setting up and liaising with all the volunteer ticket agencies supporting BATS around Brixham.
Many new recruits have been added to the team of around 50 active volunteers who support the shows coming into the Theatre, working backstage on the hidden tasks of production, house-keeping and distribution. Newcomers to Brixham particularly enjoy getting involved as a way of making new friends in a warm and welcoming environment. They also get to watch excellent shows for free!
Encouraging the community to find out what was happening
BATS takes part in many Brixham promotional activities, such as CowTown Carnival and Fishstock, using photographs and display boards to explain what the Theatre does and how it is part of the Cultural Heartbeat of Brixham.
‘Room with a Brew’ was set up as a drop in cafe to encourage new volunteers and get tasks completed, and encourage people to book tickets on Saturday mornings, as well as a small shop run by volunteers to raise funds by the sale of quality jewellery, gift, collectables and books.
A major success story has beens the establishment of Brixham Folk Club in the Theatre Lounge, meeting on the First Friday of every month to a packed house. The Folk Club grew into promoting major concerts in the Theatre, bringing in mainstream folk bigger names, as well as becoming known throughout the region in Folk Music circles.
Additional numbers of audiences rose by least 5,000 from when BATS took over the Theatre, increasing even further in 2012 and 2013, prior to a lease finally being signed with Brixham Town Council.
Online e-ticketing was set up with We Got Tickets.com, linked directly to the BATS website, and credit card facilities made available.
Links were set up with the English Riveria website and all the visitor centres in Torbay, to not only promote events but to also sell tickets at a discounted rate commission, principally because of the improved quality of shows and marketing that they have seen result from BATS efforts.
Gesa-Sophie Bertram, a 22 year old graduate in Literary, Cultural and Media Studies from the University of Siegen, and Political and Social Science at Grieben University undertook the development of a proper marketing strategy for the Theatre as part of a two month internship in the summer of 2012.
Two marketing students from South Devon College, Charlotte McGowan and Zoe Richardson, undertook a marketing survey and analysis as part of their Business Studies degree in 2013 as well.
The focus on marketing was continued in 2013 when Sophie Mewitt, a Media student from Southampton University, also undertook a summer placement, helping to design the new BATS logo,
A lease at last
After two years in debate, in September 2013, Brixham Town Council finally issued BATS (Brixham Arts & Theatre Society) with a 15 year lease on the Theatre, with a right to renew, effectively ensuring the continuation of the Theatre for the next 30 years.
Investment and upgrading
This triggered a major period of investment in the Theatre infrastructure, with the company fund raising and spending over £20, 000 in the first year of the lease, capitalising on shrewd purchasing and volunteer support to gain an effective £42,000’s worth of value.
The backstage dressing rooms and toilets were in a parlous state, so they were completely repaired and revamped, a kitchenette installed and the main dressing room made into a flexible Green Room and Meeting Room, with the ability to be converted back into a dressing room for larger scale shows.
A janitor sink unit was installed for set painting and wash basins installed in the toilets.
The Box Office was redecorated into an eye catching display, new poster boards fitted and signage commissioned. The entrance Foyer was repaired and redecorated to create a more welcoming aspect to the Theatre and a small volunteers shop set up within the theatre to aid fund raising.
Seating was slightly reduced to 250 and provision made to accommodate various donated items, such as a Clavinova and a piano.
Additional technical equipment was purchased and, in August 2014, the closure and pending demolition of the Carlton Theatre, Teignmouth, saw BATS make a major investment with the purchase of their lighting and scenery bars and rig, along with a new, much larger, sound desk.
Three new lighting bars were professionally wired in on stage and new back-cloths and rollers installed, with a new storage rack commissioned. Preparations were made for future installation in the auditorium of much needed lighting bars. In 2014 new sound cabling was installed, with better microphones, greatly improving the technical capabilities of the Theatre to match both performers’ and audience expectations.
Investing in the programme of events
BATS continued evolving the Theatre programme, both encouraging local groups to use the building again, and bringing in first class professional performers to raise the level of quality in shows.
This was achieved at a very realistic pace of change though. The neglect and low level of operation meant that audiences needed to be built again from scratch. This was a painstaking, slow operation and shows do not sell out overnight.
More professional shows, companies and agencies enjoyed themselves so much with the Brixham audiences that they wanted to return each year or two to work again with BATS, whether on the Main Stage or in the more intimate Studio performance space.
There was an increase of community use of the Theatre, with several amateur companies coming from outside Brixham, such as The Malvern Theatre Players and Teignmouth Players, and the townsfolk came to not only support their friends and family in shows or concerts, but also to find out about the professional events and to collect the quarterly brochure, by now considerably expanded.
There were two small grants made by BATS to support new writing during the first year, one to Pilot’s Thumb professional drama company for their work on ‘Protest’, a new play, and to LVM Productions, a local amateur company performing ‘Peppered’. LVM were also provided with rehearsal time as part of the encouragement for local groups to be adventurous in their work.
During 2015 plans for the redevelopment and major structural changes to Brixham Theatre were presented to landlords, Brixham Town Council, and local groups.
Unseen investment is ongoing, with a period of obtaining reports on various aspects from specialists:
- the auditorium roof beams – in order to instal a lighting rig in the Auditorium for the Main Stage and in the Studio area.
- the floor loading – with a view to remove seating and construct a more flexible rear portion of the auditorium, retracting the seats and use the area for a bar, cabaret style shows and conferences, as well as installing raked seating levels in the Main Stage area.
- the stage major support beams and rig – after a year of trying to obtain structural integrity reports from previous owners, a structural survey will be under way to ensure full loading compliance.
- full electrical survey of the Town Hall, in partnership with Brixham Town Council, with a view to encourage the expansion of the wiring to get three-phase electricity supplies into the Theatre.
- compliance with fire safety needs, in partnership with landlords Brixham Town Council, installing fire doors backstage, re-hanging the auditorium fire doors, and removing the Market Street fire escape, allowing for future expansion of the building, as well as saving money on replacement by removing a rusting eyesore.
Applications for funding and labour to repaint the Auditorium are being actively sought.
Plans to rake and re-upholster the front auditorium seats, install retractable seats in the Studio area, install a revised Technical Box and a small bar, re-carpet the Theatre and install sound-proofing in the windows are in place for the next few years.
An architect is deeply involved in drawing up plans for the major re-development of the Town Hall building, with a view to making a large Lottery bid for drastic building along the Market Street sde, creating a bar at Theatre level and improving fire escapes and frontage for the Scala Hall at ground level, as well as an enclosed Atrium, fire escapes and scenery lift at the rear.
Part of this application would be the lowering of the stage to allow for better audience viewing and access for disabled performers backstage, making the stage level with the dressing rooms and backstage toilets.
BATS are also planning to install a Gallery system in any new Theatre Lounge to support additional visual arts usage and private views for artists.