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Bridport’s arts hub

Bridport Arts Centre was founded more than thirty years ago by a band of enthusiastic amateurs. Now it is one of the dominant forces in the South-West’s arts scene, as Tony Burton-Page found out.

The Arts Centre has an imposing position in the centre of the town

The Arts Centre has an imposing position in the centre of the town

Two centuries ago Bridport was so famous for its rope making that anyone unfortunate enough to meet his end via the hangman’s noose was said colloquially to have been ‘stabbed with a Bridport dagger’. The town has come a long way since those days, and it is now famous nationally and, indeed, internationally as a centre for culture and the arts. Perhaps this is something to do with a long tradition of nonconformism and dissent – in 1768 a Dissenters’ Academy (now the Bridge House Hotel) was built in East Street and in 1865 there were seven non-Church-of-England places of worship competing with the single Anglican church, St Mary’s – which encourages an openness to new ideas and a refusal to be straitjacketed by convention.

By the early 1970s the cultural momentum was so strong that when the Wesleyan chapel in South Street came up for sale a group interested in maintaining the arts in the town decided that they would buy it. The story goes that Peggy Chapman-Andrews, one of the galvanising spirits, held a meeting and locked the doors until those present had committed themselves to the purchase. It was an astonishingly brave and imaginative leap into the dark. The chapel itself was converted into an intimate theatre space for an audience of 200 and the venture ran successfully as an arts club for several years. In the early days, it had been proposed to demolish the schoolroom which was attached to the chapel, but Miles Bell, a well-known potter from Symondsbury, pointed out that it would be an ideal space for a gallery. A covered walkway was built so that the theatre and the gallery were connected – and, hey presto, an Arts Centre was created. The gallery was named after Kenneth Allsop, the broadcaster and naturalist who spent the last decade of his life in West Dorset; the Allsop Gallery is nowadays such a well-respected space that it is booked up a year and a half in advance.

The theatre’s origins as a Methodist chapel are evident

The theatre’s origins as a Methodist chapel are evident

Over the next twenty years there was a process of professionalisation – something which happened to small arts centres and organisations across the country at that time: paid staff replaced volunteers and programming was able to become far more ambitious. In the 1990s the Bridport Arts Centre became revenue funded by the Arts Council – a validation of all the preceding hard work by both amateurs and professionals.

A glance at any recent programme of events reveals an enormous range of cultural stimulation. In one week in July, there was ‘Beat Junkies to Back Packers’, a teen-fest of ‘drum’n’bass’, followed the next day by a teeny-fest – Alice in Wonderland, a version of the Lewis Carroll classic by Uncontained Arts aimed at the over-fours. A few days later came ‘Adventures in Wood’, a talk by the leading British furniture maker and designer (and Dorset resident), John Makepeace, with a visit to the gardens at his Beaminster home included in the ticket; and the week ended with Lilly through the Dark, a multi-media presentation by the River People Theatre Company which told a macabre tale using puppetry, live music and poetic language.

The Arts Centre as it was in 1838

The Arts Centre as it was in 1838

‘We can’t afford to rest on our laurels,’ says Lindsay Brooks, the executive director of the centre. ‘We try to innovate so that we can continue to build our audience, but we have to make sure our programme attracts a wide spread of people and includes events which can’t be seen anywhere else in the area. So we have Rogue Theatre with their extraordinarily inventive blend of live music, burlesque, cinema and performance – which works particularly well in the intimate space of our theatre – as well as the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and their adaptation of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. We’ve had Shappi Khorsandi down here – she’s an Iranian stand-up comedian, which is amazing in itself, but she’s been on Radio 4 and BBC1 – and, by total contrast, a few weeks before there was a multi-media presentation called ‘Interior Traces’, an integral part of which was the projection of brain scans onto the stage – one scan revealed a brain tumour and turns a life upside down, while another offered a man a chance to prove his innocence.’

In the early days of the BAC, raising funds was crucial to its continued existence. Peggy Chapman-Andrews came up with the idea of a competition for creative writing (requiring a fee for each entry), and in 1973 the Bridport Prize was born. At first it attracted entries only from Dorset, but over the years it has grown in stature and prestige and now entries are received from all over the world: they come in their thousands, from Eritrea to Estonia – over eighty countries worldwide. The prize money and entry fees have risen over the years, too, and now there are first prizes of £5000 for the best short story and the best poem, with second prizes of £1000 and third prizes of £500. And in line with Lindsay Brooks’s desire for innovation, there is a new category in this year’s competition: Flash Fiction, which, as its name implies, is fiction of extreme brevity – there is a limit of 250 words (not including the title).
Many distinguished names have been associated with the Bridport Prize. Judges have included Rose Tremain, Margaret Drabble and Andrew Motion, and in 2006 Fay Weldon became the Patron; this year’s judges are Zoë Heller and Michael Laskey. The presence of writers described as ‘A-list celebrities’ as judges has encouraged people to enter the competition, and last year they were more than 14,000 entries. To encourage writers from Dorset to continue to enter a competition which has increased its profile so much over the years, there is a Dorset Prize for the highest placed Dorset writer. The Arts Centre also runs an annual Literary Festival to announce all the winners; this year it is from 29 October to 7 November.

The Allsop Gallery was once the schoolroom of the Wesleyan chapel. It is now the main exhibiting space for the arts centre.

The Allsop Gallery was once the schoolroom of the Wesleyan chapel. It is now the main exhibiting space for the arts centre.

An imaginative spin-off from the Bridport Prize is ‘From Page to Screen’, a film festival which can claim to be the UK’s only festival dedicated to the adaptation of books into films. While this idea obviously celebrates Bridport’s relationship to books, it could be seen as a rather esoteric idea – until you discover that six out of ten BAFTA and Oscar best film winners are adapted from books. Last April’s festival, the first, included classics such as Kes, A Room with a View and A Clockwork Orange but was also bang up to date with Where the Wild Things Are, A Single Man and An Education, all released in 2009. The last of these is based on a memoir-like short story by Lynn Barber, who came to introduce the film and stayed for a question-and-answer session after the screening. This is a film festival worthy of the name, and its success has spawned a sequel next Easter.

Funding is never far from the thoughts of arts centre administrators, especially in these financially straitened times; and when the arts centre itself is a building dating from 1838 the issues of maintenance, modernisation and refurbishment must also be taken into consideration. Hence the ‘We Love BAC’ appeal, which was launched in December 2009 with the intention of raising £250,000. It may seem a large amount of money for a provincial arts centre, but there is a long wish list, including new seating and new heating in the theatre, repaving the forecourt to make it a more welcoming spot in the centre of the town, and installing a lift to provide easier access to the Allsop Gallery upstairs – at present there is only a stairlift, so families with pushchairs cannot get there. There is also a plan to move the café to the foyer area and to use the café as a space for community and education events, which at the moment have to be squeezed into the theatre and gallery when they are free – making programming those community events on a regular basis something of a problem.

The ammonite in the wall of the garden at the rear of the arts centre was made by the Dorset Pottery Group to celebrate the millennium. It consists of eighty individual segments, the outer ones each depicting a scene from Dorset’s history.

The ammonite in the wall of the garden at the rear of the arts centre was made by the Dorset Pottery Group to celebrate the millennium. It consists of eighty individual segments, the outer ones each depicting a scene from Dorset’s history.

Lindsay Brooks is particularly proud of the BAC’s commitment to these lower-profile events, such as ‘Friday for Friends’, a programme for people with learning disabilities, which involves a different workshop every week, taken by a musician or a film animator or a painter or the like. The BAC can truly say it caters for the whole community.

Perhaps the last word should come from someone a long way from Bridport. Zach Falcon, from Iowa, was the short story runner-up in the 2009 Literary Prize. He said: ‘To be honest, I’d never given any thought to Dorset beyond knowing that it figured behind Hardy’s Wessex. But now it glows on the map in my head like a friend’s porch light on a dark evening. I look forward to visiting some day.’

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