Bridport, home is where the art is
Nick Churchill looks at why Bridport is such a magnet for artists of all flavours
Published in June ’13
It might have been fun to mock the riot of West Country accents heard in ITV’s flagship drama Broadchurch earlier this year, but its high-quality production values and unashamed populism neatly encapsulate the proliferation of creative activity that centres around Bridport: the town that provided its remarkable backdrop.
Its writer, Chris Chibnall, is just one of the creative incomers that have helped sustain Bridport’s reputation in recent years. Having found success writing for Doctor Who, Torchwood and Life on Mars ten years ago he brought his family to live in Bridport and discovered the inspiration for Broadchurch in the local landscapes.
Quite why some towns evolve as centres for the creative arts and others don’t is a conundrum countless regional tourist chiefs would love to solve, but whatever it takes, Bridport has plenty. Artists revel in the way the light acts on the landscape, performers enjoy the venues, it’s far enough from London to be just within reach, but out of its grasp.
In an interview at the turn of the century, not long after he moved from the capital to a house overlooking the sea at Burton Bradstock, singer songwriter Billy Bragg spoke of his attraction to the area, telling me: ‘It has its own identity, maybe because it’s where the Anglo-Saxons met the Celts. There’s a different beat out west, there is a definite vibe this way.’
Within weeks of his move he was fundraising for the village scout hut and has become a regular at the TUC’s annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival. He joked about bumping into Bridport-born and bred Mercury Prize-winner Polly Harvey in the supermarket and before long the likes of actor Martin Clunes and Grammy-nominated producer/musician Simon Emmerson had also moved to the area, to Beaminster and Broadwindsor respectively. (Clunes organises the annual Buckham Fair and Emmerson has put on concerts in Comrades Hall.)
In 2007 Bridport’s Electric Palace reopened. Bragg and Harvey both performed, Clunes was in the audience, as was Howard Donald of Take That fame. Mike Leigh and former National Theatre director Sir Richard Eyre were unveiled as patrons, so was writer-director Julian Fellowes and Astrid Proll, the former Baader-Meinhof member turned photographer and picture editor, along with illustrator Ralph Steadman who drew the venue’s logo.
The Palace connects with an earlier generation of cultural activists through owner and co-director Peter Hitchin who, with Ann Barnes, founded Symondsbury School of Art in 1984.
‘Since the 1970s Bridport has seen an influx of visual artists,’ he explains. ‘This was in part due to the establishment of the school which firstly brought art students to the area and naturally produced accommodation and studio space for professional artists who settled in the area and attracted fellow artists to Bridport.’
The school’s demise in the late-1980s resulted in the establishment of the Oakhayes art residency as a community of painters, writers, musicians, graphic designers and other artists took root. Bridport-based artists Horst Lindenau and Roger Lawrence worked there alongside Simon Poulter and Julie Penfold, who went on to set up PVA MediaLab, the digital arts association that nurtures developing artists.
Even further back, in the 1930s local artist George Biles hand painted the murals that still adorn the inside of the Electric Palace, while painter Paul Nash and painter/sculptor Eileen Agar regularly visited West Bay. American abstract expressionist John Hubbard was based in Bridport in the sixties and seventies, as was experimental photographer John Miles and painter Robin Rae.
Other notable locals have included French impressionist painter Lucien Pissarro, who died at Hewood in 1944, mystical writer Adela Curtis and the author Tom Sharpe. In other words, Bridport has long had some creative pedigree.
‘The sheer abundant joy and enthusiasm of Bridport’s audience continues after all these years to cause waves and generate excitement within the entertainment industry,’ says Electric Palace programmer and co-director Gabby Rabbits, citing singer songwriter Richard Hawley’s recent request to play a warm up show at the Palace, before his Camp Bestival appearance at Lulworth Castle in August.
‘For generations of families, the Electric Palace was the place they relied on for news and entertainment, from Pathe news reels and dances during World War Two to specially chartered buses bringing people in for films and dances from the 1950s onwards. ‘Nowadays, the descendants of those same families and buoyant newcomers still come to hear top bands, laugh at headlining comedians, bop the night away or catch live screenings by satellite from the New York Met, Sadler’s Wells or the National Theatre.’
Online celebrity spotters and magazine gossip columns have reported sightings in Bridport of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and rock stars Kevin Rowland and Bobby Gillespie over the last few months, as well as David Tennant and the stars of Broadchurch, but the influx of talent is nothing new.
‘This creative energy isn’t something that has happened overnight,’ says Polly Gifford, director of Bridport Arts Centre, which established the Bridport Prize for literature in 1973 and celebrates its 40th anniversary next year. ‘Part of it is people moving to the area who already have a cultural appetite and want that to continue being fed, but it’s also to do with the fact a lot of local people are involved with it as well.
‘Bridport is a living, working town and because it’s a mile from the sea it means it hasn’t developed in line with the seasonal pull of the seaside. We are fortunate to have a forward-looking town council and the Dorset Local Economic Partnership (LEP) has the arts on the agenda, so there’s a recognition that this stuff matters and is good for business.’
So good that the town now supports several performance venues, art galleries, exhibition spaces and a collection of nationally recognised hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as highly regarded food producers and outlets. They work together to ensure all can benefit and the area now boasts several food festivals, as well as the annual Literary Festival in November and its close cinematic relative From Page To Screen in April.
‘The arts industries have a lot to learn from the food producers in terms of marketing and organisation so the various strains of artistic activity all feed into the melting pot, rather than pull against one another,’ says Polly. ‘This is where the future lies. There is already great collaboration between venues – the Arts Centre does what it does, the Palace seems to have found its niche now, the Lyric is offering something different as well and venues like the Beach & Barnicott are trying things. Then there are the pubs that put music on. Sometimes we overlap but competition is good for all of us, it keeps us on our toes.’
Bridport’s draft Local Plan includes a proposal to build some 900 new homes in and around the town, which some say could change its whole character.
‘The lack of a train line is a factor that I think has guarded against exponential growth, it means you have to make a bit of an effort to get here, so growth has been gradual and sustainable,’ says Polly. ‘What the impact of new housing will be remains to be seen, but we have to be positive and hope the nature of the town is strong enough that people buy into it, get involved and add to it.’
To the west of town an abandoned net-making factory on the St Michael’s Trading Estate has become the focus for a thriving visual arts community and the hub of what is now styled as its Vintage Quarter with clothing and antiques dealers, cafes and other small businesses.
‘Bridport people have this persistence, they don’t sit and wait for permission,’ says artist Kit Glaisyer who opened one of the first studios at St Michael’s some 15 years ago.
‘That enterprising spirit finds parallels in the commercial world as well so people come here and are inspired to start businesses. They see a town that offers fantastic local food, great performances, an artistic culture that is self-sustaining and entertaining – there are very few unoccupied shops and in many ways Bridport could be seen as an example to the rest of the country.’
Above all there is a sense of belonging, of being part of something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s that feeling Peter Hitchin is channeling with the launch of Electric Friends, a discount and benefits membership scheme for the Electric Palace.
‘It’s the audiences that help make the town and our venue so successful and pull great acts in to play here. We need our supporters and loyal clients to help our great local team keep this part of Bridport’s history – and future – alive and vibrant.’