On 22 August 2016, over a week before Gosforth Civic Theatre officially opened to the public; its doors opened for a special, sell-out event.
Palme D’Or winning director Ken Loach was looking for an out of town venue to screen his film Spirit of ’45 (his soon to be critically-acclaimed and award-winning film I, Daniel Blake was a few weeks away from cinematic release). The documentary celebrates the radical changes in Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War, a Labour government was elected which brought forth the NHS and the welfare state among other changes that had a huge impact on people’s lives. Loach wanted to take this film out in to the communities for a final time.
He reached out to, now North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll to find a location;
“I got a call from Ken saying that he was looking to do a screening somewhere in the North East, but he didn’t want to do it in the city centre, he wanted to get out into the communities. Knowing where to hire venues and this sort of thing wasn’t my expertise so I asked Carl at The Cumberland Arms, and he said ‘Ah, funny you should say that! I’ve got this mate, Joseph, who is just opening something up in a few weeks’ time in Gosforth, but it might not be ready’.” Mayor Driscoll explains.
“As it happens, I live in South Gosforth so it was easy to wander up and see Joseph. We got everybody organised, sorted out the audio and visuals, we put the tickets on at an affordable price, kind of a pay what you can scale, so the most expensive were £10 and they started at £2. Within 48 hours it all sold out which was just as well because the event was the following week! We showed the film and Ken and I did the Q&A afterwards.”
Simple right? When you’ve taken over a building which has lay dormant for quite a few years a few things need to happen first. It was a bit of a baptism of fire for Liberdade’s new Building Manager, Joseph Harrop.
“I started working here in April, so the same day we signed the lease for the building. We’d been in ripping up floors, doing the place up, with a very small initial budget and then, maybe 10 days before the event, they approached us to do it. So, it all happened very fast.
“We didn’t have a projector, didn’t have a screen, so we spoke a tech contact we had, who came down and did an install. The Cumberland Arms lent us their chairs; we had 250 chairs and the Cumberland lent us 100 and so we packed the place out. The irony being if we got approached to do something on a week’s notice now it wouldn't be a bother!”
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. The political themes of the event attracted a lot of attention including an unannounced protest against council cuts to Women’s Services, with a group carrying out a symbolic funeral for lost services near the entrance.
“I had to go out and diffuse it. However, with it being such an important thing, we made a compromise; they made a big heart of flowers and a left placards celebrating the importance of women’s services in our yellow square outside, so in a way it was the first bit of installation art in the building as well!” Joseph remembers.
The parallels between the film, the ethos and mission of the venue, and the current situation we find ourselves in as a society is as relevant today, if not more so, than it was at the time of the screening. With people facing isolation and major changes to how they lead their lives, with those changes meant to be for the benefit of the greater good, the importance of community and mutual support is growing. Community is at the heart of why Gosforth Civic Theatre exists, and Joseph feels he saw some of the seeds sewn for the future of the Theatre that night:
“John Jennings, who at the time was our deputy chair, ended up doing the introduction. It was really nice because John worked for Durham County Council in developing, devising and creating urban spaces that worked for everybody. So I think the support we all felt from John when he eventually became Chair of the Trustees was that relationship with Liberdade which was cemented as a parent [John’s daughter is one of Liberdade’s Company Members], but I think in that moment it was really interesting to see someone who was really experienced see 5, 10 years down the line with an event like that happening here and being run by Liberdade.”
Mayor Driscoll heads up North of Tyne Combined Authority and has put communities at the centre of his culture and tourism:
“That aspect of communities is key. [Community events] are actually the foundation of our cultural strategy which we had agreed earlier this year before COVID and the Lockdown hit, so for obvious reasons it’s got to be on hold. We’re investing £8 million in a festival programme which is a mixture of large events, medium events, but crucially a big part of it is very much about developing local, cultural events. That will be going ahead when it’s possible. Our community hub scheme makes funds available to local communities and community groups to support them with their trading models.”
As Gosforth Civic Theatre celebrates its fourth birthday on 2 September, the legacy of that first event can still be felt, as it gave a glimpse as to what the venue could be; but four years on what are the lasting impressions of the night and what does the Theatre mean to people now?
Joseph, “What was really nice about it was they had a great team of volunteers and it did feel like different communities, which hadn’t overlapped before, coming together. The opening weekend and the Ken Loach night was brilliant with the Liberdade voluntary team, the front of house team, the trustees, the staff, everybody pulling together and being one unified team. It worked.”
Mayor Driscoll, “Gosforth Civic Theatre is a brilliant example of multiple funding streams coming together all to make a building work for a community. I live in Gosforth so my kids come down and they have their art shows there and come to the games nights [GCT Gaming Social], where they play on all the retro games, we sometimes have Labour party meetings, I’ve been for people’s birthday parties there and there are times when I’ve met up with people and just come for a coffee and a chat.”
It’s perhaps fitting that, when interviewed by Liberdade Company Member, David, Ken Loach described the importance of venues like Gosforth Civic Theatre in a way which is still relevant to how they operate today:
“It’s an important message that, there are places where people can come together, can share their jokes, their stories, what concerns them, discuss the way the world is. We are social animals, we need places to meet, to talk, to have a drink, to have a laugh. This looks like a good place where people can be that.”