After publishing my interview with the Mayor of Southborough, Glenn Lester, I’ve obtained a response from one person who was active in last year’s campaign to persuade the Council not to demolish the hundred year old theatre, the Royal Victoria Hall.
He’s Ken Hampton, who is a professional production sound engineer for theatres in the London West End and around the world. He worked with others to help maintain the Royal Victoria Hall for many years and supervised the sound for the Southborough pantomime there for the past 12 years.
Here is the audio recording of my interview with Ken Hampton:
Ken Hampton argues the insurance claim after the “finger trapping” incident should not have caused the hall to close, as the council had been offered for free 400 safe plastic seats. These seats were in use for the last pantomime. I talked to him on Friday 15 April, 2016.
Q: You have heard the mayor Glenn Lester say he’s looked at the details and he’s convinced that the old Royal Victoria Hall is no longer adaptable in the modern world. Do you agree?
Ken Hampton: I work personally in multiple venues that are well over 120 years old. The Royal Victoria Hall is only about that old. From my understanding – from colleagues who work in the consultancy profession – generally when a building is structurally sound (which I believe from the reports the Royal Victoria Hall is structurally sound although it does need work) the option to refurbish is always cheaper than to build new.
Q: Those plastic seats that were used for the last pantomime are not ideal for the long term, so do you agree that what the hall needs is new retractable seating?
Ken Hampton: If you want to have the hall for both theatrical performances and parties, then retractable seating is the fastest way of going about that. The venue – as it stands – doesn’t easily permit retractable seating to go in because of the height of the balcony. However, there are solutions to that which are that 2 or 3 rows of seats could be put on each level of retractable seats, so it could be still run under the balcony. Or alternatively, as a larger plan for a refurbishment of the building, the building could go down a couple of metres so the existing floor could be removed, dug down and you would have enough height to put a retractable seating system in.
Q: Digging down two metres sounds difficult within an existing building, you think that wouldn’t be too costly?
Ken Hampton: I don’t know about cost, but I certainly know that people do it plenty of times. The Victoria Hall has been there for 110 years so far, I would imagine that it could manage another 50 years if it is looked after and cared for. I do wonder if a cheaply built modern building will last 50 years even.
Q: As council tax payers, what we are interested in is this building thriving in the future, having lots of productions and bringing in money for the council and not a drain on the council, so how do you think the council has gone about keeping theatre people on board?
Ken Hampton: To my knowledge there has been no communication between the theatre production side since April of last year. You would have thought at this stage they should be engaging the previous users of the Victoria Hall as presumably they would become the new users of the new build.
Q: Glenn Lester’s view is that this is the verdict of the electorate – they were given the option of voting Labour at the last election a year ago which definitely wanted to retain the Royal Victoria Hall. He said people didn’t vote that way. The Conservatives won instead. So he’s convinced that the vast majority of people in Southborough have given up on the old building and don’t want it to be retained and are happy with these new designs. Is he right?
Ken Hampton: I was a little bit confused by Glenn’s comments. I hadn’t realised that the Conservative manifesto was only suggesting that it should knock down the Victoria Hall and build new. From what I recall from the leaflets, they were saying they had both options on the table and whichever one was commercially viable would be the one that they would elect to go for. However, I was unaware that it would only be knock down if we voted Conservative. The people I know are all saying they would prefer to see the Victorian building as the centre of our town.
Q: What Glenn Lester believes is that there’s a lot to be gained from putting all these facilities together. You’ve got the doctor’s surgery, you’ve got the theatre and you’ve got the library in a sort of hallway that leads to both of them. What do you think of the concept of having these buildings altogether under one roof?
Ken Hampton: I’m not convinced with the concept of having the medical centre along with what are normally considered recreational facilities of the theatre and the library. It doesn’t seem to make sense. You tend to go to the doctors specifically for an ailment, you tend to go to the theatre because you are having a good evening out and I don’t see that the two necessarily live side by side.
Currently the library is shown as a large circular space in an atrium and the toilets are provided on the opposite side of the library to the theatre, so I would have to question how we get 250 children out of the pantomime matinee performance through the library while people are trying to read their books and actually in and out of the toilets without annoying the people in the library.
Q: Glenn also promises that this new 300 seat theatre to replace the old one will be of better quality. So what are the things that he needs to come up with to fulfil his promise of making it a better theatre than what we had before.
Ken Hampton: There are problems in that the plans that we’ve seen so far don’t have enough height in the grid section above the stage which allows us to fly scenery properly. There’s a lack of an orchestra pit within the building. Currently the Royal Victoria Hall has a small orchestra pit. There is no provision for that in the new build. There’s a lack of dressing room space. Currently, in the new plans there is less dressing room space than what we have in the current building.
The facilities at the moment have 3 small dressing rooms downstairs and one large room upstairs. Typically for the pantomime there are 24-28 people in the cast of a show including the dancers and therefore we need that number to be catered for as an absolute minimum. The dance shows that exist from some of the local dance schools will have probably a cast of well over 100 children and therefore we need to be able to accommodate that if we want the building to be used in the way it needs to be used.
Q: What about catering facilities so people could have wedding receptions and that sort of thing. There are no facilities on site at the moment, would there be in the new building as far as you know?
Ken Hampton: There’s no facilities on site currently and from what I can see within the new option there is only café /bar facilities. Whether that would include the sort of kitchens that would be needed for wedding reception events? There’s nothing that shows that on the current plans.