Battersea Arts Centre at risk

Wandsworth council plans to pull the ladder out from underneath the feet of the BAC. Time Out is appalled

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    Two weeks ago I spent a Sunday at BAC taking part in a conference called ‘Devoted and Disgruntled II’. Organised by Improbable Theatre, it was designed to bring people together to discuss the things that bugged them about British theatre. Those who took part included Hayley Carmichael, Erica Whyman, Vicky Featherstone, Julian Crouch, Tom Morris, Emma Rice, Stella Duffy and Bette Bourne, many of whom have had a long relationship with the arts centre. It was a stimulating, jolly event until the shocking news came through that BAC, which had typically offered to host this conference, might not be there to do so in the future. Wandsworth Borough Council intends, by a combination of cuts and charges, to reduce BAC’s grant by £370,000 from next April which will force BAC to close or to seek a home elsewhere.

    You can read more about these cuts and their rather baffling nature here. If BAC does close, it will be a huge loss to British theatre and, equally importantly, to the people who live in the borough. BAC has been around since the ’70s when it was set up by Wandsworth in Battersea’s old Town Hall (a Grade II* listed building) and was a pet project of many dedicated people on the council. From the start local people seemed to take the place to their hearts, rather too much so in the case of the children who steamed through the building.

    But the relationship with the council was always awkward, mainly because of council bureaucracy. Decisions took months to be made and bills equally long to be paid. Spontaneity wasn’t an option. These matters were resolved in 1982 when the Arts Centre was set up as an independent trust. Jude Kelly, who now runs the South Bank Centre, became its first artistic director. Ironically, BAC is celebrating its 25th anniversary since independence this year.

    Each artistic director has put his or her stamp on the building. Under Paul Blackman, it was better known for comedy than theatre, with Paul Merton and Arthur Smith making regular appearances. Under Tom Morris and his successor David Jubb, it has become famous as a place that welcomes artists who want to experiment, offering them the chance to show their early fumblings in front of a willing audience. These are known as ‘Scratch’ nights and it’s surprising what a kick audiences get from being in at the start of a project, whether it’s ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’, which went on to play in the West End, or a new piece by Simon McBurney or Gecko. This model has been copied all over the country and has brought some of the brightest of British talent through BAC’s doors.

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