THIS month marks the 50th birthday of the opening of Basildon’s original Arts Centre.

The venue which stood on the site of today’s Towngate Theatre, was a big deal for Basildon- in fact the bells literally rang out to celebrate the arrival of the first purpose-built arts centre to be build in the UK since the Second World War.

There on the day was Vin Harrop. Arts champion Vin, from Billericay, who is known for his work with arts groups across south Essex was the first ever manager of the arts centre. Here in his own words he shares his memories of the rise and fall of the once celebrated venue...

On September 21 it will be our art centre’s 50th birthday.

A multi-purpose arts venue the first of its kind in the UK. Basildon undertook an experiment in local government that saw the most extraordinary explosion of art, architecture, music, theatre, literature and film with fully equipped art studios, an art gallery and an external sculpture arena.

This was inaugurated by Lord Arnold Goodman then chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, who said in his opening speech “…I am told that it is unique in being the first Art Centre specially designed and tailored for all its functions since the war”. This turned out to be the centre of the universe so far as local practising artists were concerned and those interested in the arts, too as witnessed by the recently realised film, ‘New Town Utopia, by Christopher Smith.

I had been invited the previous year (1967) to become the artistic director of this experimental space for the arts whilst managing what is perhaps the most talked about theatre in the world at that time, the London Palladium.

But I was equally excited to be invited to work on a real-life community project and to be part of this new arts renaissance sweeping the country that I soon forgot all about the show business glamour that formed part of my working life up to now.

Because I was drawn equally to the arts in my teens, my route into theatre was slow and unorthodox following a rejection by the Halle Orchestra where it was my ambition to join the woodwind desk, for I played both clarinet and saxophone. I thought it perfectly normal that music was part of the fabric of life. I only abandoned my dreams of pursuing music as a career in my early twenties, when an ambition to act took over and I joined Moss Empires as a theatre trainee.

Life has taught me that music tuition should be a blessing for all, not simply the preserve of the blessed and, like all the arts, they too are part of the fabric of life.

However, when I entered Basildon for the first time in 1968 I felt like Andre Breton about to launch a new surrealist movement, but I did not take account of an officious council officer more interested in counting unsold ice creams, or another worried about my lack of respect for council motions that I felt belonged to some Stalinist camp not the liberty of imagination that I had sought.

The design and concept for a Centre for all the arts was the brainchild of local architect and Associate of the RIBA, Kenneth (Ken) Cotton who had made his home in Billericay, where we both lived. His ideas were strikingly new, and he held a time-honoured place in Basildon’s affections– to put all the arts under one roof where they would feed off one another was no mean achievement and in a New Town environment.

People were still waiting to be housed. This was a brave new idea even for Britain in 1968, but it followed the advice of the Arts Minister at the time, Jennie Lee, in her paper ‘A Policy for the Arts -First Steps’. Here at the arts centre, I was able to stage a few theatre productions as well as to create some painting exhibitions and sculpture shows. However, interference from the council into artistic policy resulted in famous artists soon being evicted and my eventual departure after only four years in the job.

There are those who say that Basildon never had an arts culture, which is only partly true. The year that the centre opened Basildon was its own education authority. The Director of Education and I had worked together closely resulting in a series of exchanges between schools and the arts centre, and this was only one way in which an arts culture was being formed. I experienced the joys of collaboration and cooperation in the literal creation of a community arts endeavour. We agreed that a bottom up approach was needed. Obviously, these things take time whereas older, more mature towns and cities with longer institutional development had a head-start on us.

The centre brought world-class cinema to the new town through an arrangement with the British Film Institute. Plays and concerts that had hitherto been held in factories like Yardley’s or in nearby secondary schools like Woodlands- though there were two ancient cinemas, one in Pitsea the other the Radeon in Laindon, which eventually parted with their more comfortable seating to the arts centre upon each’s own demise in 1969.

The original lock-together seating was eventually loaned to Sir John Dankworth for use in his All-music venue near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. In its heyday before the Towngate Theatre came along, the arts centre was a melting pot for musical activity, plays and drama workshops, international and children’s cinema, local and national art exhibitions (including sculpture) art workshops and where hundreds of children thronged to Saturday morning Children’s Film Foundation Films hosted by Uncle Willy, and the Basildon Arts Laboratory and art studios that made the Basildon Arts Centre so popular with our young people. All this was in addition to guest performances by some of the most famous actors and musicians of the day in our plays, music and art shows, making the centre a ‘something for everybody’, which helped gain its reputation countrywide.

It was here that The Right Hon Baroness Smith of Basildon, Angela Smith, first took up ceramics, where Depeche Mode used to rehearse, where Andre Previn, Alison Moyet and David Bowie performed, where The Royal Ballet were in residence, and where painters and sculptors of national and international importance exhibited their work here.

Artists like Alan Sorrel, John Bratby and John Piper, as well as a former assistant to Sir Henry Moore, Geoff Radford who along with local teacher, Dave Middleton, played a major part in establishing where the visual arts interacted with everything else in this new home for the arts in a developing new town. No, we didn’t have an arts culture, but we were working towards one and we had the people of Basildon behind us.

In the book to accompany his documentary film, New Town Utopia, Ken Worpole writes that there was no arts culture in the town. I might not have had the freedom to run the centre how I would have liked (the Town Manager at one time wanted me to promote all-in wrestling, but I desisted). I did however give creative freedom to anyone who wanted to use our facilities even if that meant me being castigated in the council chamber for doing so. I had nothing to lose, only my reputation.

It’s a condition of working in the arts in local government that you don’t see their oddness at the time.

The theatre became the home for the Royal Ballet’s touring theatre, Ballet for All, under the direction of Peter Brinson, and this together with other ballet performances and the occasional foreign films of international ballet performances, meant that audiences were kept happy with our high-end culture as well as everyday events to satisfy the needs of most. I am not aware that anyone was kept out by an uninteresting programme. In addition, we had plays from London’s West-End, the TV puppet Sooty was firm favourite with young children, Jazz was represented by the American Oscar Peterson Trio, the Teddy Wilson Quintet, the Modern Jazz Quartet and our home-grown jazz with the Stan Tracy Quartet, Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, the Tubby Hayes Quartet and the Humphrey Lyttleton Band. Jazz was very popular in the late sixties. Classical music was represented by the English Chamber Orchestra, Pisa Opera Group, Heather Gould, John Williams, the Wickford Festival Orchestra and the Basildon Amateur Operatic Society to name but a few.

But tragic events were unfolding with the forced removal of a painting depicting a motorcycle accident in which a real bra was attached to a painting, to which a councillor’s wife objected because of its realism and the fact that the artist had the temerity to use a dirty bra!

The second tragedy occurred when a well-known singer, songwriter became embroiled in an argument over his right to buy a drink from the membership bar and was eventually thrown out by the police, which left a feeling of uncertainty and fear in the air. His name was David Bowie. A few years on he composed ‘Heroes’, an inspirational anthem celebrating the heroism of ordinary people. This wasn’t a peaceful interlude for me, it was a dance between volcanoes. So, with a heavy heart, I decided to leave this much-respected building in 1972 to pursue a career in film.

It was not until I saw a screening of Chris Smith’s documentary New Town Utopia and read the accompanying book that I fully understood just what an impact the centre’s presence had on the local music, poetry, literature, drama, film, art and photographic scene, and how widespread this had become during the four years that I was in charge of its artistic policy. It is amazing now to think that in 2018 the Basildon Arts Centre was and still remains such a significant part of our heritage in the borough, 50 years on. The Basildon Arts Centre has now cemented its place in the history of the arts in south Essex- and, indeed, the country. Why, oh why, had it needed to be demolished?!