Portsmouth Guildhall's Past and Future

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When Stef Nienaltowski took over the role as Director of Shaping Portsmouth in January 2017 one of the first people to help him was Andy Grays. Andy's support and mentoring since that day has been invaluable.

Therefore it was Stef's pleasure to catch up with him recently, to learn more about the institution that is our Guildhall and what plans Andy has for the venue.

Stef Nienaltowski: Good morning, I'm sat with Andy Grays, the CEO of Portsmouth Cultural Trust. Good morning Andy.

Andy Grays: Good morning Stef.

SN: Andy. I don't think there's a person in Portsmouth who doesn't recognise the Guildhall, but for those of us who don't know the history, can you take us through this life story?

AG: Well, the Guildhall is, I think, it's the third or fourth town hall within Portsmouth, going right back to Tudor times, not on the same site, but within the kind of town, and what became City, centre. This [building] was built in 1890 and it's quite fascinating when you think about the history, because the architect who created the Guildhall was commissioned to do the design, actually had designed Bolton town hall, and took the same design, and implemented a bigger version here in Portsmouth. And whether it's true or not, it's said the he didn't tell the City Fathers in Portsmouth that actually he was replicating the same design, because in those days, no social media, no film, who would have known, 150-200 miles away? But I think the special thing about Portsmouth town hall, as it was in 1890, was it looked at this kind of Victorian value of big municipal building, the columns, the steps, the grandeur, and it was unusual for the South Coast to do something like this. In the North of England where the industrial heartland was really strong in the Victorian period; Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, and Bolton, they made these big statements with these buildings. So, the building evolved, and when the town became a city in the 1920s, the town hall was replaced with the Guildhall.

It was then sadly bombed in 1941, and what people might not know is the whole core of the building was destroyed through and incendiary device, leaving just three walls. And what then happened is that after the second World War, the story goes that the City Council were thinking about demolishing it, but the people of the City saw the Guildhall as an image of survival, and the town hall/ City hall was kept, and they had to infill it, and what we now have is, I think, probably an even better building. What we had prior to this was a smaller concert hall, it was council offices, and then in 1959 when the Queen opened the Guildhall, and there's a wonderful bit of Movietone news you can see on YouTube, it shows the Queen opening it, you have this wonderful concert hall, 2,000 seats, and it was just in time for that whole music revolution of the 60s, and since then the biggest acts have come here, from the Beatles to the [Rolling] Stone, to the Who, I'm talking to you today and we have this evening Gary Barlow coming here for two nights, so we still have a really wonderful turnover of music, but it still is a civic building.

SN: So, what are the main challenges in running this unique place?

AG: Well, it's a very big building, and it's a very old building. If you were looking at building a concert hall today, you wouldn't be building the Guildhall. You might end up with something like the G Live venue in Guildford, which is a tighter more modern venue, built around the seating. So, I always say actually the sustainability of the Guildhall, and for us it would make sense if we only had to worry about the ground floor and the first floor, where you've got the majority of the activity, but that only accounts for half the building. The rest of the building is still vast, and it has to pay for itself. So, the challenge of the building is making sense of it with reducing public sector investment, and a lot of building, which in terms of efficiency, heating, the utilities, all the infrastructure, it's always a constant challenge for us. But that said and done, the wonderful thing about having a 1959 fitted interior, is actually it's a very strong, almost modern concrete structure. So, we don't have what I call a creaky wooden structure which we might have had in the 1890s, we have something far more resilient. So, it has its pros and cons, but it is a challenging building because of its size.

SN: So, as a venue, what do you see the venue becoming in the future?

AG: The building as a whole has almost been broken down into 50-year segments of development, not by plan but unfortunately due to what's happened, in the second World War, and the rebuild and rebirth. We look at the building as an opportunity for the next 50 years to create something very unique. And what I mean by that, is that when you have a challenge to making a big building work, you have to think about other things beyond what its core intention was for when it was rebuilt in '59. In other words, it was rebuilt as a concert hall for sure. It was opened by the Local Authority and run by the Local Authority, and as a civic centre.

But as times change, and things move on, priorities change and shift as well, we've had to give further thought to how the building is best used going forward. We've explored conferencing very successfully over the last 5 years, and I know you've been part of that conversation Stef, and we see that as a sustainable option, so the Guildhall become not just a concert hall by evening, but it has a sustainable function by day. But that in itself is not enough.

I think culturally, we want the Guildhall to play a wider role. Concerts are absolutely fantastic, we're about to launch a new studio in the Guildhall, which will take a more wider artform base, so we'd be looking at, not just music, but be looking at things like childrens' theatre, contemporary dance, physical theatre, circus, in a much smaller environment to diversify the audience. But the big, I think, USP going forward for the Guildhall is we want to make it a visitor attraction by day.

And by that, we want to design into the Guildhall a wonderful opportunity to create a series of fantastic quality exhibitions, using virtual reality, augmented reality, to reflect the history of the Guildhall, so people can come along and see not just what it was just like through two-dimensional exhibition, but see the latest digital opportunities to see the history of the Guildhall, and to experience maybe what it was like attending some of those wonderful concerts, and to hear from some of the artists that participated. That's our dream, and that's what we want to try to create by day.

SN: And that really almost sort of merges the building with the venue, it brings the two almost together, doesn't it? Which is an interesting and an excellent concept. But I know your commitment to helping creative people, both personal and the PCTs commitment, is known and valued throughout the City, and I wonder if for our listeners, you can tell us what types of people you already have here, and what sort of organisations they belong to?

AG: Well, I think the creative industries as we now understand them are the lifeblood of a cultural economy, and when you have a building such as this, you try to bring in creative people, and create what we call a 'creative cluster' so they can work with each other and be part of a wider sort of city strategy. We have some fantastic organisations based here; we have the Urban Vocal Group who came and located here probably about three years ago. They meet Wednesday nights and they offer free singing classes for young people, and they have gone on to do a lot of fantastic work in terms of public performance and encouraging the confidence of young people to come out of themselves a bit, and to perform. We have the Makers Guild which is part of a bigger, almost national set-up now.

Makers are one of these unique collectives, which encourages mostly creatives to come in and Make. It offers a wide workspace, where there is tools, there is equipment, there is work desks. They're mostly very small, individual crafts who can collectively do their own thing, but equally bounce off each other. We have classes here, so regularly we do things like the Recharge classes which is for, shall I say sadly, people getting towards my age, 55+, who can come together and sing and just enjoy their selves.

A lot of things like that actually, a lot of people do things within the venue, it's not just about what we do, but the people come in and use space. So, the other thing which is very successful is the skiffle group, who meet here regularly, play skiffle music, they rehearse, they perform, and they draw in an audience on Tuesdays of maybe 80-100 people. So, there are a lot of little things like that. The Portsmouth Music Experience itself is a thing that was created by volunteers and tells the history of a lot of the venues and the music heritage of Portsmouth and venues, not just the Guildhall, but South Parade Pier and others. So, we have a real collective of talent and workshops, and people doing all sorts of marvellous things.

SN: So, Andy, you've covered the future by merging that vision of yours between venue and building, we've talked about who's here now, you've talked about the history, I've learnt so much in a few minutes, so Andy for today, thank you very much indeed.

AG: A pleasure, thank you very much.

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