Avis Saltsman Campaigns

The theatre by Islington Green - Latest 1-11-2006


At last the premier aim of the Anderson's Yard Campaign Group, a theatre to replace the Old Collins Music Hall, is within sight of realisation. The group was formed in 1989 determined that the Angel area would not have to suffer the building of another huge office block like the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters building (which has now been empty for about four years). In the early days there were three 'Planning For Real' exercises during which residents were able to indicate what they would most like to see on the site and there were many other opportunities to do so. Steadfast members of my committee were Virginia Low, one of the original founders of AYCG and the ever-faithful Robin King.

Left: The original Collins Music Hall (my drawing)
Above: the space for the new theatre

I feel I have a right
to be pleased by this

As chairwoman of the campaign for six years from 1991 I accumulated papers which are two feet high, including eighteen newsletters, mostly written by myself and printed and posted by a social worker at the Neighbourhood Office. We collaborated with the then council in relation to the Planning Brief and the MP, Chris Smith, always took a close interest. Anyone could be a member of the campaign which was well advertised in the local papers and by posters, for (£1) one pound per year. For this they received information on coming meetings and news of successes in achieving our aims. What I learned most was patience and a realisation that there would be ups and downs, for example over the time taken. Since then there have been enormous changes, mostly for the better, in planning for the inner city .

Since the closing of the campaign in 1997 when, being weary, I could not find anyone to replace me as Chair, we had already seen the installation of Waterstones Bookshop, who spent an extra £250,000 on researching and reconstructing the frontage of Collins Music Hall as it had originally been before the fire in 1958. We also saw the building of the flats with a very attractive garden, open to the public from Collins Yard (where the original dressing rooms were), a courtyard off Essex Road with access to a gym and swimming pool, and attractive restaurants on Essex Road. There was first a delay of three years before the Planning application for the theatre was considered by the council, twice, in 2000, and at which I spoke on behalf of the theatre plan. Amazingly it barely scraped through the first time, but by the second a little more light prevailed.

We are very fortunate in the developer Robert Bourne of Fairbriar and his wife, the very experienced theatre entrepreneur, Sally Greene, because it is almost impossible to build a new theatre nowadays, especially in London. It is an act of great courage and philanthropy as there are no grants and the seventy flats which will fund it are a one-off income. They engaged the well-known architect Piers Gogh, who produced an overall excitingly imaginative scheme based on the Midsummer Night's Dream theme. There will be income from the leases and the restaurants round the huge new town open space, a much needed gift to Islington which will be entered through two towers, containing the services, off Essex Road facing St Peters Street. Looking up from this space will be like being inside a huge tree. A young architectural practice based at Old Street and which has won several awards, took over the supervision of achieving the whole concept with superb surface materials for the town space, columns surrounding it, balconies of the flats and the foyer which will be at 15 and 16 Islington Green with the aim to restore town houses 13 and 14 with an extra floor for each as the campaign felt that corner of the site needed strengthening.

Tolent Engineering have been working since May 23rd last year and have stuck to every part of the planning agreement (of which I have a full copy). The theatre shell, three stories underground, is finished and work on the crescent of flats is starting. Tolent will be competing with other companies for fitting out of the theatre, with seating for 150 people. As Tolent have been so efficient I feel their finishing date of October 22nd will be achieved so my longtime prediction of first performance at Christmas 2007 may very well come true.

Ivan Hodgson, the site engineer is offering tours of the site and Frances Balfour, who was the secretary of AYCG arranged a tour for the Islington Society committee and I was invited to join them. We saw the area which will be the enormous new town space, at the moment housing materials for the flats. Underneath it the shell of the three-floor theatre is already constructed, Level 3 being 22 metres below ground, thirty or so workers being on the site most days. Because Crossrail plans to have two tunnels under the site by 2012, great care had to be exercised to insulate the theatre from any sound transfer, and there will be bidding to fit out the theatre to start on February 12th next year and take 36 weeks. We looked down into the 'hole' which will be the spiral staircase entrance to the three levels (there will also be lifts and attention paid to services for the disabled) and Ivan Hodgson hinted that there were to be some amazing features in the foyer, including restored indestructible Collins rivetted metal beams. The space in the corners of the three floors will house dressing rooms, a rehearsal room, offices and foyers.

There seem to be some rather out-of date perceptions (which is not surprising since one cannot go on informing people during a nine year break!), and I'd like to clarify some things. A name has yet to be decided and because a Collins Trust was set up to administer the business, this does not mean the theatre will necessarily be called Collins. Every site to be developed is required to have an archaeological study. It was discovered that the Gaskin Street side of the site had contained a Victorian graveyard behind what until quite recently was a little Baptist chapel which had been turned into a tiny garden centre. While it was not anything so hysterically exciting as a 'plague pit' (perhaps imagined by those who did not take part in the campaign) it contained graves piled on top of one another because the minister had sold them over and over to make a huge profit. All the bones were removed ethically, and hygienically, labelled and buried in a consecrated graveyard outside London. This did not apply to the theatre part of the site and in fact 10,000 cubic metres of prime London clay were removed by Tolent by sometimes eighty lorries per day, with very little noticable disruption and sold for funds.

The Angel area has been a place of entertainment for at least 200 years and yes, there are other theatres here. Particularly over the last ten years, we have become known as the place to eat, particularly for young city workers. No matter how many restaurants there are (around sixty from all over the world), they are full even on a Monday night and public transport is excellent. All this was rightly regarded as an indication of potential audiences. One pledge in the planning agreement which particularly interests me as an educationalist for thirty years and one convinced of the power of the use of the arts in education. This is that all youth in Islington will be entitled to ten free performances, ten free drama lessons and ten free technical lessons annually. This means that the theatre building will be used during the day as well as for evening performances. At last, Islington youth (particularly boys) will have something other than football and shopping to be involved in, which will be equally, if not more, exciting and will open up new worlds for them. I do not know Sally Greene well personally but I do know of her record as a theatre impresario and we should get an exciting and varied programme to suit all tastes. Not all will be equally successful, there will be ups and downs as there are with planning! The Old Vic, which Sally owns, has a well-established record of youth involvement and I have attended matinees packed with schoolchildren. At the moment I am listing my huge collection of theatre programmes, starting in 1949 which I will donate as an educational tool. There is a clause in the agreement which stipulates that the theatre must be running before the last fifteen flats are occupied and the theatre will not be adaptable for any other purpose.

Much is a matter of goodwill and a desire that this will be a success, something I have steadfastly held to for seventeen years. I do hope members of the Society and many others in Islington, especially long-suffering AYCG members will become Friends.

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Contact: Avis Saltsman (or Saltzmann), 17 Gerrard Road, Islington, London N1 8AY +44(0)20 7359 6294 or e-mail her
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