A Grand Day Out!

23 Sep 2011 in General, Robert Livingston Blog

OK, so Lancashire is the home territory for Wallace and Gromit, and we were in fact spending a week on the Eastern edge of North Yorkshire, in Robin Hoods Bay, but ‘a grand day out’ seems nonetheless the best way to describe our visit to Scarborough, just 15 miles down the coast from our self-catering cottage.

While the garish, neon-lit beach front of ‘amusements’ and casinos is just as ghastly (in a fascinating way) as on our last visit some 15 years ago, making the town seem a modest eastern counterpart to the hell that is Blackpool, things are nonetheless stirring in Scarborough. Just five years ago Scarborough Borough Council announced an ambition to make the town the creative centre of the Yorkshire Coast, launching the plans for what is now the Woodend Creative Workspace , so it shouldn’t be a surprise that in our day trip we were planning to take in a concert, an exhibition, and a play, rather than donkey rides and sandcastle building (though a little of the latter did get done as well).

First up was the concert, at the early hour of 11.00. On our travels, we rather pride ourselves on enjoying music fit for the location: Mozart in Salzburg, Strauss in Vienna, Flamenco in Seville, Zarzuela in Madrid, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra playing a home gig in Amsterdam. To that august list we must now add the Scarborough Spa Orchestra playing their daily (yes, daily) morning concert in the Sun Court of the beautifully refurbished Scarborough Spa. Celebrating their centenary next year, the Spa Orchestra proudly proclaim themselves to be the last seaside orchestra in the UK, though ‘orchestra’ is perhaps a rather grand term for a ten-piece ensemble (somewhat reduced from its original complement of 35 players).

Now, I normally run a mile from anything called ‘light music’, even though as a child I was a sucker for ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ on the ‘Light’ programme (now Radio 2). But here the mix was perfect. A warm, sunny day (the ‘Sun Court’ is, as the name implies, open to the skies), deckchairs to recline in, a clutch of highly competent and flexible musicians complete with red and white striped blazers, and some very skilful arrangements of tunes familiar and unfamiliar. It was all utterly charming and thoroughly enjoyable. And the audience for this, just one of the nine concerts the orchestra gives each week over the summer, numbered, by my count, well over 150. Well, the fact that the ticket price included lunch in the Spa Cafe was probably an added inducement. I may have been the only person in the audience under 60, but if I’d been spending the week in Scarborough, rather than just making a day trip, I reckon you’d have found me in the Spa Court most mornings, tapping my feet to ‘Zing went the strings of my heart’ or a medley from ‘Patience’.

Next stop was the Scarborough Art Gallery to catch an exhibition of prints by Howard Hodgkin. I’ve always loved Hodgkin’s boldly-coloured, life-enhancing, semi-abstract paintings. But we assumed that his ‘prints’ would be on a smaller, less ambitious scale. Nothing of the sort. The largest exhibits were six feet cross, made up of multiple, perfectly registered sheets, a terrific tribute to the skill of Hodgkin’s technician collaborator. Scarborough Gallery is a former private, albeit very grand, house, and the suite of rooms is just the right scale for these works, especially as the large windows (blessedly free from light-excluding blinds) afforded such marvellous views of the town as a counterpart to the artworks.

This was a truly glorious exhibition—as I said to Judith, I felt I’d died and gone to heaven. And it was clearly proving to be a big draw, as at least half a dozen other couples were going round at the same time as us.

When I looked at the visitors’ book I was surprised to see—though I suppose I shouldn’t have been—that the comments were roughly 50/50 favourable or negative, with quite a few of the ‘a child of five could do it’ variety. How to explain the sheer jolt of intense pleasure which Hodgkin’s work gives me? Perhaps people just try to read too much ‘meaning’ into these pictures. It seems to me that Hodgkin is really quite simple in his approach, celebrating the sheer sensory ‘zing’ (that word again) of existence.

We then wandered round some of the less touristy parts of town, and there’s clearly still a lot to be done for Scarborough: so many derelict houses, so many shops of the ‘Poundland’ variety, such a contrast with the much more prosperous Whitby just 20 miles up the coast. But if Scarborough is going to be regenerated through the ‘creative industries’, then at the heart of that process must be the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and the work of Alan Ayckbourn.

We were fortunate enough to have come to Scarborough during the premiere run of Ayckbourn’s 75th new play, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. Let me refer you to the theatre’s website for the story of how, 15 years ago, the theatre opened after a massive conversion of a former Odeon cinema, to continue the tradition of ‘theatre in the round’ which Ayckbourn’s mentor, Stephen Joseph, had originally set up in the town’s public library.

Ten days into the play’s run, and on a sunny mid week evening, and yet the 400-seater auditorium was packed—so much so that Judith and I and our friends Fran and Wol had to take four individual seats, one on each of the four sides, which at least gave us plenty of scope for comparing notes afterwards. The play was funny, thought-provoking, and bang up to date in its theme of ‘do it yourself’ law and order, and the performances were pitch perfect. Ayckbourn sometimes gets unfairly labelled as a populist, traditionalist playwright (just as, in contrast, Hodgkin can be unfairly considered an obscure or elitist artist). But for me ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ did exactly what good theatre should do—engaged with real ideas and issues while thoroughly entertaining audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

So, a grand day out indeed. Scarborough is roughly the same size as Inverness, and with a similarly large rural hinterland. Our day out showed how, with the right mix of ingredients, arts of high quality can be accessible and engaging, and contribute very significantly to a town’s tourist appeal. All it needs is a few people of vision, and public bodies prepared to back that vision. The Spa Orchestra showed how effective a revitalised local tradition can be. The success of Ayckbourn’s play demonstrated that you can locate something of national resonance in a town that, as Nicholas Crane’s ‘Town’ programme on Scarborough kept emphasising, is at the end of the line. After a short English tour, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ is off to New York to be part of the ‘Brits off Broadway’ Festival, and it’s already garnered four star reviews from two London broadsheets. Not bad for a ‘bracing’ holiday resort.

© Robert Livingston