Brixham Theatre History

The building

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.

John Slater

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 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 negotiation with Torbay Council, BATS were given a two year agency to run the Theatre and Scala Hall. 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, as Torbay Council had been waiting for bookings to come out of the woodwork, so they sought shows and groups to persuade to come to Brixham, 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. Volunteers could not be found prepared to come in at 6 am and layout chairs and tables for market stalls and flower shows.   The Scala Hall had plenty of use, it was the Theatre that was at the greatest risk because it was so underused, except for BOADS twice or three times a year, depending on funds, and a few hirings with no support and no help.

BATS was the only arts society in the bay that is entrepreneurial in outlook, not focused on performing, such as the other 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 the Theatre, primarily because it was always BATS argument that the continually rising costs charged by Torbay Council was what deterred local groups from using the building

BATS also contributed a small amount to cover heating and electricity use for the professional shows they staged themselves as part of a development programme to attract more audiences.  The hiring fees would be paid back to Torbay Council, to reach a set target each year, with any funds raised in excess of that target being split 50/50 between BATS and Torbay Council. BATS had free use of the Theatre Lounge in the evenings and weekends, with a small contribution towards event nights being held there to cover the additional insurance costs.

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 ran a small bar and refreshments to aid this aspect and retained all profits.  They also ran raffles on events to fund raise further improvements.  These were the only funds the organisation received. Initially the bar was operated on a temporary licence, of which only 12 a year were permitted for the building.  Most of those dates were taken up by BOADS running their own bar.  In 2011 the BATS Bar was established on a proper footing, changed to a permanent licence held by BATS Committee member and supporter, John Miles, as the authoriser holder for the building.

Ensuring safety

It became very quickly apparent that there were few, if any, safety systems or training being done at the Theatre.  There was conflicting messages on fire safety and evacuation procedures throughout the building, and the adjoining Library and Museum. Indeed the fire instructions in Brixham Does Care included the words ‘Do not be afraid to shout the word ‘Fire’ very loudly’.  Whilst this might be applicable for an office environment, or when dealing with deaf clients, it is a banned word to use in a Theatre, creating panic when it is essential evacuation takes place in a calm and orderly manner. Accordingly, BATS set about creating 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, constantly ongoing task in order to comply with Health and Safety legislation.

Training sessions were held for all volunteers and full details retained of the volunteers register. Shirley Wheeler became the Volunteers Co-ordinator for BATS, with established and defined roles for a Duty Manager, responsible overall for the entire building when in use by BATS, a Front of House Manager, responsible for the Theatre stewards and all in the Auditorium, a Technical Manager, a Box Office Manager and Catering Supervisors.  The Licence Holder for the Bar was John Miles, and full training was given in the law and bar duties to all volunteers helping on that aspect. Lift evacuation and operation training was also given to all Duty Managers so that it could be used safely at any time the building was open for BATS activities.

The start of regeneration and investment

The major focus for BATS operation of the Theatre at this time was to invest funds back into improved facilities. If audiences and performers felt the place was comfortable and operated professionally then it would be possible to increase both numbers attending and quality of performance. 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 it’s annual exhibition, as well as available for other visual arts events.

A very great sum was spent on the construction of a proper Technical Control Box 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 additionally 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 & Promotion

Marketing was a major priority for BATS, because there had been no promotional material produced at all for the Theatre as a whole in the past. Quarterly ‘What’s On’ brochures were created, listing all events for all users of the Theatre. Poster and flyer distribution routes and volunteers established, both around Brixham and further afield – Totnes, Dartmouth and across the Bay. 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 genre, and placed in ‘What’s On guides and listings, as well as press releases established on a regular basis in all local newspapers.

Online e-ticketing was set up with We Got, 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.

BATS took part in many Brixham promotional activities, such as CowTown Carnival and Fishstock, using many photographs and display boards to explain what the Theatre did and how it was part of the Cultural Heartbeat of Brixham.BATS took part in many Brixham promotional activities, such as CowTown Carnival and Fishstock, using many photographs and display boards to explain what the Theatre did and how it was part of the Cultural Heartbeat of Brixham.

A skilled and qualified workforce

BATS was fortunate in having an exceptionally skilled volunteer force running the Theatre:

Cecilia Kean, Chairman, was 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 had 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 hadestablished and run both performance companies in Contemporary Dance and major rural touring projects for six different local authorities.

Mel Kinsey 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, with long experience as an award winning Director, performer and writer, had a huge network of connections within the area and beyond.

Olive Farnham, with community credentials a mile long and the secretarial skills to match, was a vital controller of operations.

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.

Ruth Johnson Bolt was Brixham born and bred and an excellent member of the teaching profession, with educational contacts throughout the area.  She was highly organised at the Box Office Manager and liased with all the volunteer ticket agencies supporting BATS around Brixham.

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 helping with stage lighting.  In September 2013 Louis Sullivan of NLS Solutions was contracted as the BATS Technical Manager.

Growth and new fundraising ventures

‘Room with a Brew’ was set up as 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 raising funds by the sale of quality jewellery, gift and collectables.

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.

A major success story at this time was 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 also promoted major concerts in the Theatre to bring in mainstream folk bigger names, as well as the theatre becoming known throughout the region in the Folk Music circles.

BATS continually evolved the Theatre programme of events, 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 has to be achieved at a very realistic pace of change though.  The neglect and low level of operation means that audiences need to be built again from scratch.  This was a painstaking, slow operation and shows did not sell out overnight.  There was always a high risk of losses on shows.  This was in common with not only all theatres across the country but all forms of entertainment in a time of recession.

More professional shows, companies and agencies wanted to work with BATS – Roger Collet, promoter for Irish folk music icon, Sean Cannon, hired the theatre for a one-off performance that was packed out. The Budapest Cafe Orchestra rocked the building with their Gypsy Jazz and Folk music, enjoying themselves so much with the Brixham audiences that they returned specifically to Brixham and BATS on their next tour. Letters of support from both professional performers and community groups alike, were sent in support of BATS taking on the lease of the theatre on a permanent basis, all of them finding a supportive BATS management and building audiences.

Providing training and graduate work experience opportunities

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.