Bazzo Christmas – or how an unconventional pensioner upset Basildon District Council

Basildon has long been very wrongly vilified as a cultural and creative desert. As anyone who lives here will tell you, there are tremendous opportunities to get involved in the arts, whether that’s singing with the likes of Basildon Choral Society, Billericay Choral Society or Basildon Operatic, getting involved with drama with the Basildon Players, stepping out with innumerable dance groups,  or enjoying works by creative artists like Dean Smith and Jeffrey Porter.

Through the Basildon Arts Trust, Basildon is home to a significant number of important post-war pieces of modern art.

Basildon District Council has also had a fair go at promoting the arts in the community, holding the first Basildon Black History Month in 2009 and, back in 2008, its Basildon Green Business Forum running the Basildon Art Challenge on the theme “Basildon is a Green Place to Be”.

Back in 1989, Basildon Council opened the Towngate Theatre – one of the more controversial capital projects undertaken in recent years and a regular political football between the local parties. After a period of closure, the Conservative administration has made an effort to get the theatre running again, though not without constant sniping that the existing building is inadequate. (One of the charges regularly levelled by the Tory administration is that the Towngate doesn’t have the capacity of modern theatres to attract the right sort of productions. This is a little disingenuous. The Council’s own seating capacity figures show it can take 546 seated or 775 standing. There are plenty of successful West End theatres with a smaller capacity e.g. the Cottesloe Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, the Arts Theatre and the Fortune Theatre and I would be surprised if they had the backstage facilities, the bar and café facilities or the parking facilities of the Towngate Theatre. Basildon is 30 minutes out of London by c2c, one of the most reliable commuter lines in the country, and it is hard to wear “capacity” as an excuse for not putting more effort into making the Towngate Theatre more successful.)

So with this wealth of creative energy in Basildon, and with the Council not averse to encouraging it or tapping into it, it is a little amusing (bemusing?) to see administration members getting hot under the collar at the latest irreverence from the Ugly Wuggly Puppet Company.

Old Man Stan is a gruff, singing pensioner in the tradition of The Muppets who occasionally points the finger at the Council for various local inadequacies. Kevin Blake, the councillor responsible for for Arts and Leisure, hasn’t seen the funny side. He is reported in the Echo as saying:

“Have these people got nothing better to do than take the mickey out of Basildon and run down our town?

“Taking into account this was initially a campaign to get an arts festival, all they seem to want to do is continually criticise the council.

“It’s an enormous shame that a group of clearly talented people can’t put their talents to better use and demonstrate what a great town Basildon is.”

I like Kevin and he has demonstrated a significant commitment to leisure activity in Basildon. He and I might contest the balance of priorities between sport and the arts, but I hadn’t expected him to have a sense of humour failure on something as creatively silly as this.

Art has always been subversive. It has always poked fun at authority. It is one of the blessings of living in a free society. Just occasionally, folk need to chill out a little.

As for my view? I love it. I think it’s creative, irreverent, mischievous and funny.

Have a look – and if you think I am wrong and Kevin has a point I am missing, I would very much appreciate your comments.

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12 thoughts on “Bazzo Christmas – or how an unconventional pensioner upset Basildon District Council

  1. Thank you Ben for your very kind words. It’s lovely to get feedback (the YouTube feedback vs views ratio is never all that good) and we appreciate it when people have something constructive and interesting to say.

    Now then. Your first paragraph here.. You are so very naughty! OK, Can’t blame you I guess.. Being a liberal geezer.. For trying to be fair 😉 but come on. These groups are not there as a result of any Council efforts.
    I think some of these survive by means of being registered charities. Some of these groups you mention are rather exclusive and if I might say, rather costly to belong to. How does the tiered membership thing work anyway? When you’re selecting (hopefully) local talent I mean? What about those that can’t afford?

    You won’t know this of course, but one of our members belonged to one of these groups for almost thirty years. They ultimately left because, after all the work that goes into a production, putting on a show in a school hall was not really ‘the real thing’. The story goes that the Council withdrew funding in favour of “professional shows”.
    As for the two mentioned arts ‘initiatives’ (..eewe.. Initiatives?.. Shudder!) One of these most definitely wrapped up in business and grinning MPs and come on.. both occupying about 6 weeks in the space of what? The last two years or more? Not much is it really.

    The local artists you mention.. yes of course they are fabulous.. but I think you will find that these days, they are so long in the tooth of what goes on or doesn’t for that matter.. that they have all but given up on the community idea. Trying to get things going. Lots of them have tried. These days you will find them looking after their own interests. That’s the way this town has made them.
    Oh then there’s the art that was donated to the people of Basildon. B.A.T. I’m not really sure what B.A.T. is all about. As far as I can make out, you pay £10 for an email newsletter and you become a friend or something. I can’t find a mention of it under ‘Local attractions’, nothing under ‘Local History and Heritage’ on the Councils website. Even did a search on the site for “Basildon Arts Trust” on the Councils website, no mention of it in the Basildon Heritage Trail either as far as I can see. (Was that an oversight Vin?;) Nothing. Rumour has it that this collection is worth over a million quid? Is that right? Then really shouldn’t we be able to go and have a look at it all? I expect there’s a few pieces stuck somewhere in some corner of the Bas Centre? Maybe a couple of good bits on Mo’s office wall.. lol. Seriously though, should it not be on permanent display in a suitable bespoke building somewhere?

    As for Mr Blakes opinion of us?
    Well we don’t like him very much. We don’t think that he is in any way the right person for heading up the Arts in Basildon. Maybe he got lumbered with the job because no-one else wanted to deal with it. Well ok maybe. Perhaps he likes the sports side of things.. he understands that.. what’s required.. but is a bit iffy with the arts part? Don’t really know what to do? Maybe. Brutal as it seems, we think that he should resign his interests in the Arts. We mean ‘Officially’ because there would be that much to resign from would there?
    Oh.. And why do they lump arts in with sport anyway? Why isn’t it ‘Arts & Culture’ and ‘Sports & Leisure’?
    The theatre? Why do we have the Gordon Brittas types of the world running our theatre when clearly they really should be calling the bingo down at the Pitsea leisure centre? Why doesn’t the Council pull in management from arts backgrounds.. Instead of these Council lifers who just happened to have worked there and waited long enough.
    They are never going to have the flair or the imagination needed to make things sparkle.

    He always plunges in on the defence with the “look everyone they’re taking the p#?s out of you” routine.
    He’s so obstinate that he’d rather we just go away and stop going on about things, than actually do something to make us all feel better.
    He has given us no indication whatsoever that he is even interested in the local arts scene. None at all.

    As already explained in our Echo response, our group did NOT start out as a campaign for a local Arts festival.
    He completely supported the way we were bullied at last years Basfest.
    Of course he wouldn’t back down on that one. He has to take the ‘company line’. And yet he is supposed to support the local arts scene?
    If I were in his shoes, back at the office.. I would have simply said “Look.. we really cocked up the way we treated these people.. Lets see it doesn’t happen again. Why don’t we give this type of concern more freedom.. Hey! They need all the help and encouragement they can get.”
    It was the rigidity with which we were treated that got ask asking “OK, well in that case.. Why can’t we have an Arts festival in our town where people like us CAN promote ourselves?” And yes if you like, it was the way that we were treated that got us into the leg pulling you now see. They are the masters of their own destiny on that one. 🙂

    Nope the apparent attitude is.. “its our bat and our ball and our rules and that’s that!”
    This is not how a minister for arts should handle a local arts group. In fact, this is not how a local Council should be treating a group of local people who rack up over two hundred years of living in this town between them. Most of whom have lived here for nearly all their lives and have been through all the years of Artistic nothingness. That’s why we got together! Sounds crap but yes, kindred spirits if you like. We’ve seen so many great artists up and leave. We’ve seen all the good things being shut down and never replaced.

    We’ve asked him over and over again to tell us what he does or has done for the arts in Basildon and all he ever comes up with is the fact that they run (the inherited) Basfest and re opened a theatre which his administration kept closed for quite some time. Oh.. and as you point our.. there’s the odd ‘initiative’. IT’S JUST NOT ENOUGH.
    Surely you remember the long running farce in the local paper.. one week this Councillor guy pictured outside.. firm stance.. finger pointing “We will open this!” The next week, same picture.. the opposite guy “No you won’t!” On and on it went.. yes, the political football you describe..while my OAP Granny shuffled off to the theatre in Grays and Westcliff! With a perfectly good theatre 5mins from her doorstep. Lots of us couldn’t understand it at the time. Was it not all about the mortgage or something? Our armchair accountants reckoned at the time that the bar alone could have kept the mortgage going and kept the place open for the community. Do you remember the days when that bar would be packed? I’m not going on about the old, old Towngate now. I’m mean the bar which is now Café Scene. Look at it now. I saw one of the Gordon Brittas lot in the there other day.. surrounded by no-one sipping a lonely coffee. The place was empty.

    Ben you said “He and I might contest the balance of priorities between sport and the arts”
    .. well of course! What he should be doing is at least matching his efforts in one with the other.

    Its the “feel” of the place he should be working on as far as the arts are concerned. As a minimum he should be working on promoting a Basildon that welcomes all art. A Basildon that is an artistic place to be. I’ve gone on about it before, but look at what they did in Chalkwell Park. It creates the right vibe. It’s this bit that’s missing. There’s plenty of groups scattered around.. yes. Wonderful stuff being done all over the place. But there’s no unity. It’s all splintered.
    Maybe annual Arts Forum might be a good idea. At least it could bring together the local artistic community and what gets learnt from it might possibly educate the Council. Put the ground to their ear. And yes even a festival.. why not? But I don’t think after my dealings with them and having had a taste of how they work, that honestly they are the right people to organise such an event.
    BUT they should be there to give the help we ask for.. without expecting to hold the bat or the ball.

    P.S. When will Mr Blake have the respect to go and repair and preserve the late Mr Chapple’s Woodsman carving? I will be more than happy to come along with a couple of members of our group, with some steps and a big bucket of preserve if he’s not willing. Of course he’s not willing.. he’s far too busy gazing through the fence over at Gloucester Park.

    Oh.. and WHERE is our Lollipop clock?



    • Attempting to be fair is an occupational hazard of being a liberal geezer unfortunately – but looks like you worked that one out. 🙂

      I reckon I cocked up if I gave the impression that those societies are there because of the Council. That certainly wasn’t intentional as I am more than aware that it’s people getting together and doing things that’s the reason they exist (I am involved in one of the societies mentioned and when I can get there it keeps me sane – and certainly no tiering of talent). My point was that folk from outside regularly reckon nothing happens here – you and those organisations demonstrate that’s not the case.

      I agree on the initiatives. I’d like to see more and better. Personally I’d like to see an Arts Festival – and one facilitated but not run by the Council. It would be a way of celebrating talent. But hey – I am a naïve liberal. 😉

      The Towngate? I remember that bar full. I used to drink there. I remember Beorhtel’s Hill – by Arnold Wesker of all people! One of England’s greatest living playwrights writing a play for Basildon, performed by local people, and did we turn it into something? I remember growing my hair out to play Lieutenant Daniel Gilmartin in Calamity Jane – great stuff – and then working with many of the same friends in the ENO Baylis Programme productions of A Small Green Space and Gretel and Hansel. I was one of only a handful of youngsters recruited through “standard” arts groups – the rest were from schools and the kids hanging around the town centre. And taking part did change many of us – not in some airy, fairy way but in real terms, our outlook on life and other people in the community. Younger than that I remember hanging around the old prefabs, taking part in pottery classes. They were full – people were interested and engaged.

      The idea of an arts forum? Get past the splintering? Then let’s do it. As you say, all sorts of organisations in the town. Or perhaps in the first instance a few interested people from those organisations over a pint. Chew the cud. Shoot the breeze. Work out where the fault lines are. Make sure that when a meeting does happen it isn’t a scrappy talking shop that doesn’t achieve anything for another year. And then perhaps we get our festival? (And no – I am not proposing to run or organise, but I would happily pitch in when I can.)


  2. I remember the old prefabs referred to by Ben, they were my art workshops for painting, pottery and sculpture, and I remember Angela Smith saying to me recently that this is where she spent her Saturday mornings getting messy with clay and paint, but learning to be creative at the same time. I remember in those days that Basildon Council was somehow enlightened, building the first purpose-built local authority arts centre in the Uk was a good start, but then things started to go wrong when the Town Manager (fancy name for Town Clerk) wanted me to promote all-in wrestling! The rest is history- I departed for a saner environment. The arts centre was a great idea- a cultural cauldron, with productions by the RSC, exhibitions by famous artists as well as local talent, musicians of the calibre of Andre Previn, Chris Barber and John Heddle Nash and even the Royal ballet in residence!. It we used to show films from the great cannon of world cinema.
    Oh, how things have changed in 40 years. Now we get non-stop Tribute Bands and not so funny comics. The Arnold Wesker drama documentary is a good case in point, but I doubt we’ll be ever able to repeat that under the present administration. For me, setting aside the so-called inadequacies of the present Towngate, which feels more like a municipal theatre ,is about challenges, whether from left or right it doesn’t matter to me, and about looking under stones and being honest about what you find underneath. They are some great new playwrights out there producing the stuff, but I suppose that someone at the council thought that Vagina Monologues was challenging enough and that was why they presented it.


  3. I have really enjoyed reading Ben, Steve and Vin’s comments. I share many of the frustrations they have with the Council. Funnily enough I remember having a conversation with a Basildon representative – the name escapes me – but he is still there and large as life where he bemoaned (bewailed even) the fact that there was no single group to talk to and for him to deal with. This was really about making his life easier and showed no real understanding of what artists are like. Sure they get together as groups for various things but as with the nature of creative people they range from the extrovert ‘out there’ types to the seriously shy and retiring who prefer to let their work speak for them and are oftentimes represented by a spouse/partner on the commerical niceties. Basildon doesn’t have a dedicated arts officer who could act as the conduit between the various groups out there and the ‘ crumpled suits sans imagination’ in the council. He or she would act as a facilitor for these groups offering advice and guidance to help them (as groups or individuals) to achieve good things. Frankly it is a job I would love to do because I believe passinately as Vin does that art and culture are empowering and life-enhancing. Unfortunately, it does not currently exist and may be a Liberal Council would have the sense to change that situation. I’m all for sport but why does it seem like an either/or when it comes to the priorities of Basildon Council.
    By the way – Old man Stand is brilliant – just think if the Pythons (mostly the product of the Cambridge Footlights Review) had been pilloried for taking the mickey out of upper class twits, military types and government officials (Ministry of Silly Walks) where would the British sense of humour be now!!! Think David Brent in the office – everyone knows where Swindon is now – even Disney!!!


  4. Wow thank you Elizabeth! and “everyone knows where Swindon is now – even Disney!!!” thats very funny.. because it’s true!

    I would just like to say something about those prefabs that Ben and Vin are talking about. I went there on Saturday mornings. Not just as an alternative to getting bashed over the head by endless makeshift weapons over at the ABC.. but because I needed it and loved it.
    I can’t remember how I found the place, but I only lived 2mins walk away, still do actually. I can’t quite explain how the place was my salvation, but it was. Life at home was tough and miserable if I’m honest. At that age and at that time it was a rescue. A chance to forget my troubles for a couple of too short hours and create something.. yeah.. by me!
    It was wonderful and it called me all week. The people there were kind and colourful. They were eager to share. Encouraging and YES like minded. It felt like home.
    Later on in life I certainly tried to make the bar my home, it was my first choice as a watering hole. And what a great bar! A real theatre type bar, with all those different tribes, who for the most part (that I remember) were all happily boozing together.
    It felt right. Right beside the theatre. It was an arts centre.
    Maybe I drifted for a while but when I turned to go back it was gone.

    I will always remember just what a fantastic place it was. Even though I’ve forgotten many of the people, I remember it for the feel of the place and what it offered me. I feel very strongly that such a place should never have been taken away and not replaced. If somewhere like that was available today, I just know that so many people would benefit. I agree completely, Art and Culture are empowering and life enhancing. It’s giving people the chance now that is the problem and yes, sometimes folks need to be told what they need.

    I would be very willing to take part in any debate and find out what other creative people think. How would we go about organising such a thing? Maybe set about contacting the different groups around and find out initial interest? Would that be a starter? Then perhaps set a date with a reasonably long timescale to drum up as much interest as possible between the first announcement and the actual meet date? I dunno 🙂 I haven’t organised anything like that before.. but I’ll have a go, with some guidance.
    I think we should sound out absolutely every person who might possibly be interested. I definitely think that the districts Art teachers and department heads should be there.

    So there you are. I’ve nailed me colours to the mast. Where do we start?

    PS. Vin.. “all-in wrestling?” Was it the leotard that put you off? 😉


  5. Thanks Steve. I don’t know if you remember the Essex Gallery Commission (now The Foundation for Essex Arts) but when they started they went through a county wide consultation process and since then many ideas were pulled together with the key aim of an arts and cultural centre being established. Vin (especially)and others have worked hard to make progress. The Basildon Heritage Project which has led onto the Trail was a great experience for the children and schools involved who worked with a photographer and an author. Other projects are in train – an art trail I think. What is happening at the moment it appears to me is that Basildon Council are developing plans which they will “communicate” to TFFEA and the town residents. Not quite the same as consultation which is why, like you, I think strong lobbying is key. TFFEA and CHASE are among the pre established groups and maybe pooling resources and presenting a united front on agreed key issues will have an impact on the council’s “plans”. I think we should start by meeting up to see how to reach the others you suggested and to develop a plan of action. How about later next week – weather permitting – at the Towngate Cafe?


    • Yes I’ve been watching the Heritage Trail activities over the months. Don’t want to show off but I actually live on the trail! :>
      I can’t confess to know much at all about the Foundation.
      I’m not sure that this is the time for consultations.. I mean that’s been going on for 6 years already hasn’t it? I really do agree though, that the now is for strong active lobbying. That coupled with rallying the groups and people in the district. The bigger the crowd the louder the voice I reckon. Even if some of those artists partners have to do their shouting for them 😉
      I’m all for great achievements for the Arts, especially those hard fought, wherever they happen. But personally my number one priority is for Basildon.
      I’m really looking forward to chatting about this stuff next week.


  6. That’s good – when we here from Steve and Vin we should be able to set something specific. I’ll email my telephone number – though GW has it.


  7. I am the member of steves group who with a drama group for 30 years and obviously I agree with his sentiments wholeheartedly.Ah, the good old Towngate,we rehearsed in the pottery studios,performed in the theatre and because everything was under the same roof (Including the bar!) freindships were formed and ideas for group productions etc were made,quiet naturally over a drink.In those days we also had the B.D.A.A which kept everyone together (where did it go?)After we were 2priced out” of rehearsing and even sometimes performing at the
    ” glittereing” new theatre (not even a sweet kiosk or a clockin the foyer) Things fell apart.The spirit was lost.Shame,all that wasted space.Did you know that building has loads of conference rooms, unused but too dear to rehearse in.other large space that would make good art galleries and even a restaurant on the top floor that I don,t think was ever used or if it was,closed very quickly.I know.I know that building inside out and I,ve seen it all.I can make next week too.Give me the details and I,ll be there and I,ll see who else I can get to come with me from my drama roup ( Their work permitting).Best wishes.


  8. Hi – Yes I’m pretty much available for whatever day next week.. except Thursday morning til early afternoon. If someone would like to just set a time and place that’s fine with me.

    I’ll be look forward to hopefully some posititive stuff and maybe we can come up with an initial plan of action to get some kind of forum going.


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