Farewell to rural touring in Devon

JUST two weeks after writing here to warn about “philistines making false economies,” we are very sad to report that one of the region’s rural touring schemes, Devon’s Villages in Action, is closing at the end of the current spring programme.

It was wholly predictable that we would lose such an organisation because the fragility of local authority funding has made the financing of a proper rural touring programme unviable in a big county like Devon. You can read more about the loss of Villages in Action on our Arts News pages but basically the story is that only three district councils are still funding the scheme in a county with 10 district and borough councils, plus the county council. Even when you discount the three large urban authorities that still leaves seven districts plus the county council.

The loss of Villages in Action follows less than a month after news of the closure of North Devon Theatres Trust’s Queens Theatre at Barnstaple and The Landmark at Ilfracombe. Administrators were appointed to North Devon Theatres Trust on 23rd January and all future performances were cancelled at both theatres.

In a statement the Board of Trustees said: “Over the last 12 months North Devon theatres have seen a drop in attendances of nearly 20 per cent, including a drop of 8 per cent for panto. Our grant from North Devon Council was reduced this year and will be significantly reduced further in 2017/18 by over £110,000. No business can survive against these harsh realities. Even though a third of the audience normally comes from the Torridge District Council area they have never financially supported the theatre.”

It is a triple whammy for rural communities in the west and north of the county, and will mean that audiences outside East Devon now have to travel to Plymouth or Exeter for a wide and exciting variety of music, theatre and dance.

Exeter currently has the revitalised Northcott Theatre, the Phoenix arts centre, other smaller venues and a lively music scene, Torbay has a distinctly unadventurous seaside resort programme at the Paignton and Torquay theatres. Classical music fans can look forward to the Two Moors Festival in the autumn, with some outstanding classical and chamber concerts in churches and arts centres on Dartmoor and Exmoor.

There are some imaginative arts events and projects as well as literary and music festivals in Budleigh Salterton, Sidmouth, Seaton and Honiton. Plymouth has the Theatre Royal complex staging everything from major musicals, opera and ballet to adventurous small scale theatre; Plymouth Pavilions hosts big name rock and pop tours, and Peninsula Arts has a cutting edge multi-media programme.

Artsreach in Dorset is one of the country’s most successful and respected rural touring schemes – but here as elsewhere throughout the rural touring network the tiny staff, supportive board of directors and village promoters all have to work very hard to maintain the quality, diversity and popularity of the programme.  Dorset is in the throes of a local authority reorganisation which will see the existing nine borough, district, county and unitary councils become just two (rural Dorset and the urban conurbation of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole). You do not need to be a Nobel Prize for Economics laureate to spot that the existing structure of grants from the rural districts and county council will be significantly reduced.

Carn to Cove in Cornwall operates in a very similar way to Artsreach, bringing a wide programme of theatre, comedy, world music, jazz, classical, folk, children’s entertainments, dance and more to village halls across the county. The distance from the region’s cultural centres at Exeter, Plymouth, Bristol, Bath, Poole and Salisbury makes Carn to Cove very important in a county without a major venue but a vibrant tradition of music, theatre and visual arts including the wonderful Kneehigh Theatre Company and the breathtaking open air Minack Theatre.

Hampshire’s Hog the Limelight operates in a variety of venues including museums and historic buildings, but is not a conventional a rural touring programme.

Rural Arts Wiltshire has had an up-and-down existence for several years, but appears to have found some stability, with a base at Pound Arts Centre in Corsham (which, if you are a Poldark fan, you may be interested to know provides the historic town centre scenes for the Cornish money, mining and sex drama). Rural Arts Wiltshire is actually a cross-border organisation, with some villages in South Gloucestershire. The scale of the programme is smaller than in Dorset or Cornwall.

Take Art! in Somerset, like the rest of the county’s arts organisations, lost its funding from Somerset County Council and now operates a smaller programme, with more community and collaborative events. But with Somerset’s other venues, Strode Theatre, the Merlin, the Brewhouse and Bridgwater Arts Centre (plus the South Somerset-funded Octagon Theatre at Yeovil, it continues to provide a wide-ranging programme of arts events.

So, it is a sad farewell to Villages in Action and to the two North Devon theatres, and a closing nod (once again) to former Chancellor George Osborne and his warning that deep cuts in cultural budgets are “a false economy.” QED

Fanny Charles