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60 years of The Swindon Arts Centre with Clarry Bean

On Saturday 10th September, we will be celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Swindon Arts Centre with a special open morning from 10am to 1pm featuring archive displays, performances and presentations.

“Swindon is surely a richer place because of its Arts Centre and the wealth of activity which as taken place within its walls.” Harold Jolliffe, Arts Centre Adventure.

Swindon Arts Centre was opened on the 1st of September in 1956 in its present location in Devizes Road after starting in 1943 in Regent Street. In 1967 the opening of the re – designed Arts Centre was delivered by The Rt Hon. Lord Goodman, Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Two more signficant redevelopments followed, first in 2003 which saw the introductions of a foyer lift, new lighting, accessible toilets and auditorium seats.  In 2010 a new performance space, cafe and space for the Swindon Old Town Library was put in place.

In 2014 Swindon Borough Council handed over management of Swindon Arts Centre to HQ Theatres to run both the Wyvern Theatre & Swindon Arts Centre.

Clarry Bean was Arts Centre manager for 21 years from 1993 to 2014, we sat down with Clarry to talk about the history of the Arts Centre, his favourite moments and favourite performances….

 

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Hi Clarry, Thank you ever so much for yout time, we are very excited to be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Arts Centre. What was your earliest experience of the Arts Centre?

My earliest experience of the Arts Centre was in the early 1970’s when I was still a schoolboy at St. Joseph’s Comprehensive in Swindon. Terry Lappin, our inspirational drama teacher, had decided to enter our drama group in the One Act Play Festival. Our production was a Mummers Play, George and The Dragon. I remember to this day being surprised by the height restriction on the stage!

One Act Festival

Image courtesy of Harold Jolliffe Website

That’s wonderful to hear, when did you start at the Arts Centre and and what was the first season that you programmed?

I took over management of the Arts Centre in early 1993, and hastily programmed a Spring/Summer season of drama, music and comedy. So during that initial season audiences were treated to folk singer June Tabor, Bond legend Honor Blackman in a one-woman show, and a double bill of up-and-coming comedy stars Alan Davies and Phill Jupitus. Tickets for this comedy night were £4.50!

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Arts Centre Programme 1

Images courtesy of Clarry Bean

What is your favourite memory of your time at the Arts Centre?

I have so many wonderful memories of my time at the Arts Centre – hardly surprising given the fact that I worked at the venue for 21 years! I worked with and met some fantastic staff, volunteers and performers and rarely did I have what could be described as a bad day at the office. Perhaps my proudest moment came when we reopened the venue after major refurbishment in 2003. It was fantastic to be able to open the doors onto the new entrance atrium, lifts, bar and studio space, safe in the knowledge that the Centre was equipped to survive for many years into the future.

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If you could pick out one performance from your time at the Arts Centre what would it be?

My own personal highlight has to be when Elvis Presley’s original guitarist, Scotty Moore, appeared at the Arts Centre. I have been an Elvis fan since the age of 5 and to see Scotty play his guitar solos and licks to songs such as Hound Dog is a memory I will treasure forever. Scotty was not in the best of health then and sadly he passed away earlier this year but I remember him as a real Southern Gentleman from Memphis, Tennessee!

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How important has the Arts Centre been to the cultural life of Swindon?

Swindon Arts Centre was the first municipally funded Arts Centre in the country, and I consider it’s impact on the cultural life of Swindon to be hugely important. It has provided a professional environment for so many performing societies over the last 60 years, many of which are still thriving today. Young performers such as Jamie Cullum and Billie Piper have developed their craft at the  Arts Centre, and I remain enormously proud of the tradition of live theatre, comedy and music which audiences have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, at this special place. The list of performers is huge, but just a few acts which people have seen on the Arts Centre stage are Michael McIntyre, Edward Fox, Brian Blessed, Paul Young, Dara O’Briain, Charlie Watts, Robert Powell, Lee Mack, Eddie Izzard, Frank Skinner, Sylvia Syms, Miranda Hart, Jill Halfpenny

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On Saturday 10th September there will be an open morning at Swindon Arts Centre to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Arts Centre with archive displays, tours around the venue and performances and exhibitions form orangisations including: The Swindon Recital Series, The Western Players, The Phoenix Players, Swindon Festival of Literature, Old Town Theatre Company and more.

For more information please visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/680901198750546/

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Below is Clarry Bean’s speech he gave on Saturday 10th September at the Swindon Arts Centre 60th anniversary:

“Good morning everyone and welcome to the Arts Centre. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Clarry Bean, and I was fortunate enough to be the manager of this venue from 1993 – 2014.

Firstly I would like to thank Derek, Laura, David, Marcus and everyone else at  HQ Theatres for inviting me back today to officially introduce this morning’s  celebration of the Arts Centre’s 60th Birthday here in the former Bradford Hall.

This is actually Swindon’s second Arts Centre, the first having been in temporary accommodation in the Town Centre. I would just like to read a brief extract from Harold Jolliffe’s book about the Arts Centre, which was written in 1968.

 ‘After much frantic work during the recess months of 1956 the new Arts Centre was opened by the Mayor on 1st September. The ceremony was a modest affair, for after all it was merely a continuation of the old Centre, but nevertheless some slight celebration was called for. The principal speaker was Dr. Wyn Griffith, vice-chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, who congratulated Swindon on what it had achieved, describing it as “an act of courage and faith”. Dr. Griffith went on to say “I hope that other boroughs and and cities will follow your example,” and later he referred to a conversation he had had with Sir Kenneth Clark, his chairman, who when he learned of Dr. Griffith’s proposed visit to Swindon had said “I am very glad. They take art seriously in Swindon. They are good people. I have great admiration for them.”’

For any arts venue to survive for sixty years is a major achievement, let alone one which was set up by enthusiasts to meet the perceived needs of arts lovers in the town, and was almost entirely funded by the local authority up until 2 years ago.

Harold Jolliffe was a true arts visionary in an age of post-war austerity. As Borough Librarian and Curator of Swindon, he saw the potential for a municipally funded Arts Centre when there was nothing else like it in the country. In fact his book was subtitled ‘An experiment in municipal patronage of the arts’.

Recently this year we have seen the passing of two hugely influential figures from the professional Swindon arts scene, both of whom were heavily involved with the Arts Centre: my predecessor, Shelley Sutton, who brought an amazing array of professional theatre talent to this small stage and also set up Swindon’s first Community Arts Theatre Company, and Swindon Borough Council’s first Arts Officer Terry Court, whose maxim was Arts For All and who pioneered community arts in Swindon for almost 20 years. Without them I am sure that we would not be standing here today celebrating such a milestone in the Arts Centre’s history.

When I took hold of the managerial reins here back in 1993, I saw my immediate task as both increasing the usage, and raising the profile of the venue by introducing a range of professional theatre, comedy and music, as well as maintaining a high level of community arts activity, both on stage and in the meeting rooms.

The Arts Centre has been described as the cultural hub of Swindon, and I believe that to be true, for it has not only presented a high standard of professional acts over the years, but has enabled thousands of local children and adults to participate in the arts. The music, literature and play festivals which take place during the year are a vital element in the Centre’s programme, and are a perfect fit here.

I would also like to mention the staff, volunteers, and society members past and present who have helped the Centre to both survive and thrive. I don’t believe that there is another town in Britain which can boast of such a high level of amateur participation in the arts to such a standard as can be seen at the Arts Centre and Wyvern Theatre. And of course without our audience members to support the programme here my initial aims would not have been met and I believe that the venue might not have survived the various financial and political pressures which occurred over the last two decades.

My memories of my time working here are many and varied. I had the good fortune to meet a huge array of talented performers, including some of my own personal idols. I brought many young, up and coming comedians to the stage here, some of whom needed encouragement and affirmation from me that the comedy shows they were developing were good, and who subsequently went on to become household names. I have witnessed at close range just how talented and proficient actors, musicians and stage technicians can be, even when they’ve travelled miles to get here and had hours of setting up to do before curtain up. And on many occasions I have had the joy of seeing happy, excited and satisfied audience members buzzing at the end of another successful show.

One of the main pluses of the Arts Centre is the intimacy of the auditorium and the effect that this has both on the audience and the performers. There is something truly special about the atmosphere of this place. Whether that comes from our benevolent resident ghost, I don’t know.

I would like then to invite you to have a look around at the venue and exhibitions this morning, enjoy the performances and interact with the performers and societies here today, and to join me in celebrating 60 years of this unique and treasured venue, which started life as “an experiment in municipal patronage of the arts”. Unfortunately I have to work later this morning in my new role as a marriage registrar, so I shall be unable to stay for too long, but I would like to thank you all for taking the time to come along and demonstrate your continued support for this unique venue.

Dr Martin Luther King once said “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.” I would like to think that the creative, dedicated minority who have helped the arts centre reach it’s 60th birthday have made Swindon better. Long may the Swindon Arts Centre continue to thrive.

 Thank you and enjoy the day.”

– Clarry Bean, Saturday 10th September 2016

 

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