Cardiff’s workshop and centre for the arts: Its origins and early years

by Richard Watson

On 23rd March 1971 Chapter (Cardiff) Ltd, trading as Chapter, was incorporated and registered at Companies House; the original subscribers were Peter Strevens, Mik Flood, Christine Kinsey, Bryan Jones, Geraldine Anderson, Alan Saunders and Richard Watson.

Origins

The post-war world, days of hope and optimism

Chapter was a product of its time, a time of optimism and hope, where anything seemed possible. The years since the Second World War had seen the founding of the NHS, the abolition of the workhouse, a sustained post-war economic recovery based on full employment, public and private investment, public ownership of strategic and some previously failing industries, extensive house building, reforms of social policy and a massive extension of further and higher education, including the establishment of the Open University.

The future looked very bright, promising a better fed, better housed, better paid, better educated and increasingly egalitarian society. It was also a flourishing time for the arts: writers, painters and sculptors, composers and performers produced new work, in new directions, encouraging increasing participation and access. The appointment, for the first time, of a Minister for the Arts in 1964, not only emphasised the essential importance of the arts in the life of the people but also recognised the current flowering of new work and ventures.

Cardiff - a city of contrasts

Cardiff had many reasons to share in this optimism. The city had been made the capital of Wales in 1955 and in 1964 Wales was given its own voice in the cabinet. The Welsh National Opera, founded in 1943, was drawing audiences from all over South Wales and beyond. The BBC provided a locus for a wide range of music and radio broadcasting and with HTV, produced programmes in both Welsh and English for local and national broadcasting. The city also had two fully equipped theatres and a number of cinemas, including the Capitol in Queen Street, with a ballroom, three restaurants, a banqueting suite and a snooker room, as well as an opening roof. Sadly it is no more. There were also galleries and several small scale venues. Cardiff was home to the National Museum and Galleries of Wales in Cathays Park and at St Fagans. Cardiff was also a university town with a thriving music department and both the City’s College of Music and Drama and the College of Art brought new musicians, actors and artists to the city. As well as these professional and commercial organisations, Cardiff was also home to a thriving amateur arts scene. Many arts groups worked in different parts of the city for local participants, audiences and communities but there was also a number of amateur arts organisations working out of the centre, for the whole city and beyond, including four theatre companies and societies for fine arts, film and photography.

Nevertheless, although the city could lay claim to a rich artistic life, it also lacked some cultural features which a capital city might be expected to have, including a purpose built opera house and a concert hall. There were also few available and affordable resources, including studios and other working spaces, which aspiring artists of all disciplines could use to establish themselves and develop their talents. The city centre’s amateur groups did not have a home to compare to the newly built Dolman Theatre in Newport.

Not only the arts but the city itself and particularly its central area, were widely considered to be in need, at the very least, of a facelift. Comprehensive redevelopment, as carried out at Swansea, Plymouth and Coventry, had been the fashion in the post-war years but for nearly twenty years, Cardiff had remained without an agreed plan, much to the chagrin of the city’s would-be modernisers. Between 1953 and 1963, a number of plans were proposed but all proved abortive, leading to a growing sense of frustration in the city. In 1964, however, the City Planning Department was formed, headed by Ewart Parkinson, with Professor Colin Buchanan retained as a consultant, with a view to producing a comprehensive development plan for the city.

In November 1969, after much debate and rewriting, the City Council approved a plan recommending the redevelopment of the city centre. The plan did not neglect the arts and included a concert hall, a design centre, an entertainment centre and a new library, in addition to a 25,000 square foot arts centre, with a 300 seat theatre mainly for Cardiff’s amateur theatre, film and other arts groups. Early in 1970 the Council published the plan, by then known as Centreplan70 and organised an exhibition of the proposals, for explanation and discussion. The plan itself was submitted to a public enquiry.

An arts centre for Cardiff

Meanwhile, all had not been inactive in the wider arts scene and a number of people in the city were beginning to put forward ideas for a centre for the arts, which could be the focus for Cardiff’s cultural life. One of these was a proposal to convert the Alexandra Hotel and neighbouring buildings at the end of Queen Street into an arts centre. The idea, however, was overtaken by Centreplan70 and the council’s own arts centre proposal. At first the Council released little information about this proposal although there appear, from the Council minutes, to have been some individual responses, particularly from Cardiff Ciné Society and Cardiff Little Theatre but these did not result in any action.

All these proposals answered a demand for performance and exhibition space, but not for artists’ studios and workshops. That, however, was the driving force behind an independent project to establish an arts centre in the city. This was the brain child of the Arts Centre Project Group, which was formed by two Welsh artists, Christine Kinsey and Bryan Jones with Mik Flood, a journalist, late in 1968, a good year before Centreplan70 was published. In fact Mik had sketched out an idea for an arts centre, earlier still, in 1967, in the night shifts at the pitside in the steel works of Guest Keen, where he was earning a crust. They believed that there was a lack of affordable and accessible facilities for artists to work, to share experiences and to show their work to the public. There were exhibitions of contemporary painting, drawing and sculpture, for example in the Howard Roberts Gallery, but there was no space to display the diverse range of art that was developing at that time. Above all, there was an absence of affordable studio and workshop space. The Group envisaged a centre for both creative and social activity, encompassing all aspects of the audio-visual arts, which would also go out in the community: into schools, pubs, clubs, and hospitals.

Their first task was to seek out supporters, who shared their vision and then to carry out more detailed research to provide substantive support for the project. They searched for a venue that could fulfil all these needs and explored a good many buildings in Cardiff. They settled on the Bradnum Building, an old warehouse in Custom House Street and agreed a rent with the owners. They then published an invitation to any interested parties to join them. They had only one reply but fortunately, it was from Peter Jones, the then Visual Arts Officer at the Welsh Arts Council. With his support, they planned an 18-month programme of events to raise interest and funds. These included a 12-hour pop concert, which featured Pink Floyd, in Sophia Gardens and was supported by Steve Alison, films in the Globe Cinema (in Albany Road) and symposiums in the Reardon Smith lecture theatre. They also opened up an empty shop in Queen Street for exhibitions and performance. Then using this venue, they were able to contact other artists and members of the public, for an open discussion to discover what people would want for an arts centre. While engaged in these activities, the group prepared a detailed written proposal, which they sent to the City Council early in 1970, with a rousing call for its support. Their project by now was well researched, widely supported and ready for implementation.

Meanwhile the other anticipated participants in the Centreplan70 arts centre, the city’s amateur theatre and arts groups were preparing their response to the City Council’s initiative. In the summer of 1969, Richard Watson, a member of Everyman Theatre, was working for Cardiff City Council, as an IT specialist, partly in support of the City Planning Department. When shown the plans, he asked Ewart Parkinson about the proposed arts centre. Ewart replied that he was waiting to hear from interested amateur groups. Following a discussion, Richard agreed to convene a meeting of amateur companies to discuss their needs and prepare a statement of their requirements for the City Council. Following the meeting, Cardiff Little Theatre, Everyman Theatre, Orbit Theatre, the South Wales Art Society, Cardiff Ciné Society, Cardiff Camera Club and Cardiff Film Society formed the Cardiff Civic Theatre Group to coordinate a response to the City Council. This was done and on 4th January1970 the Civic Theatre Group replied to Ewart Parkinson with a short paper, setting out its aims and its members’ needs and requirements. The group also confirmed that the amateur groups had confirmed that the group would represent its members in all discussions with the Council.

Cardiff Council makes a move

The City Council now had two groups to deal with, which made matters more manageable for them. The groups, however, had different styles and objectives: the Arts Centre Group were eager and ready to get on with setting up an arts centre in the Bradnum Building and saw themselves not only as working artists but also as managers of the project. The Civic Theatre Group, on the other hand, wished to ensure that the Centreplan70 arts centre met their needs and saw themselves as users of the centre, rather than its managers. The Council, however moved to take a lead and matters speeded up. On 28th January 1970, the Town Clerk invited anybody, who was interested in the arts, particularly the City Council’s proposed arts centre, to a meeting on 11th February. In particular, Ewart Parkinson also invited the Arts Centre Group and the Cardiff Civic Theatre Group to prepare a joint proposal for an arts centre combining the aspirations of both groups. He also offered a choice of five surplus schools to house it. Discussions did not get off to a good start, each group being suspicious of the other’s style and motives: the Arts Centre Project saw this new approach as causing a delay, if not a threat to their project and the Civic Theatre Group viewed it as an unwelcome complication. Nevertheless the prize of a building and the support of the Council was too tempting to refuse and both groups agreed to set up a joint steering committee, with four members from each group. Their first duty was to choose one of the offered buildings and after visits and inspections early in March, the committee chose Canton High School - the biggest on offer with 27,000 square foot of space on two floors.

Unfortunately, at this stage, Robert Ernest, Orbit Theatre’s chairman, decided to pull his company out of the project, declaring that the old school was too large and that ‘you will never fill it’. They were followed later by Cardiff Little Theatre, which had some money and plans to fund its own premises. Nevertheless, these setbacks only served to make the remaining members of the Civic Theatre Group keener than ever to succeed. They and the Arts Centre Group both had plans for the summer of 1970 and it was agreed that each group would proceed with these activities. It was hoped that they would raise some funds and increase public awareness. The Arts Centre Group organised and ran an open-air exhibition of work, Pavilions in the Park, in Cardiff Castle, while the Civic Theatre Group staged George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan, in Llandaff Cathedral and the Dolman Theatre in Newport. Both the exhibition and the play were artistic successes. Neither, however, made much money and the both needed a lot of support and time from the groups’ members.

Chapter is born

After the summer’s activities, Mik Flood of the The Arts Centre Group rang Richard Watson of the Civic Theatre Group to discuss the situation. They considered that the summer activities had probably slowed down progress on setting up the centre and agreed that henceforth the steering committee should concentrate on the main task, rather than on individual or peripheral activities. They therefore agreed to set up a proper company structure with a board of seven managers, three from each group and a chairman, who had the support of both groups. Following some discussion it was decided to invite Peter Strevens, a member of Cardiff Film Society and a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff College of Higher Education, who was known and respected by both groups, to chair the board and he agreed to do so. The other board members were Mik Flood, Christine Kinsey, Bryan Jones, Richard Watson, Geraldine (Gerry) Anderson and Alan Saunders. Gerry was one of Cardiff’s first drama teachers and Alan was a solicitor with the Cardiff firm of Athan Morgan and Shibko. These last three were all members of Everyman Theatre. In the summer of 1971, shortly before Chapter opened its doors, Gerry and Richard were married.

From then on progress began to accelerate and the first task was to agree a name. At one of the first meetings, they each put forward ideas for a name and after much discussion and debate, they all agreed on Bryan’s suggestion of ‘Chapter’ to be the company’s name. They started to gather support and raise funds as well as making the school a safe and usable space. A brochure was produced, setting out Chapter’s aims and plans, including the following:

‘The concept of Chapter as an arts centre is unique because it is comprehensive in providing for the needs of a whole community interested in artistic activity. The amateur, professional, the group, the family and the visitor’

It looked forward, with characteristic optimism, to opening in January 1971, a date that proved but six months premature. They set up a company limited by guarantee and registered as a charity. On 23rd March 1971 Chapter (Cardiff) Ltd, trading as Chapter, was incorporated and registered at Companies House. Chapter was born.

Taking over the building

The next stage was to move in. The building, however, had been empty for two years and was in a poor state of repair. Much of the electric wiring and many of the windows and lead water pipes were missing, in addition the renovation and conversion had to conform to a range of statutes and regulations, covering theatres, cinemas and public buildings, including even the Shops, Offices and Railway Premises Act. The founders now had a major construction project to complete, as well as the realisation of an artistic vision and the task of recruiting members, tenants, performers and exhibitors. With few available funds, they did much of the conversion work themselves with enormous assistance from the architect Ian Grant Roberts, who not only drew up ingenious designs for the conversion of the public spaces but also participated actively in the actual building work. By now, Chapter had a group of volunteers, who helped get the building ready, including structural engineer Peter Clark, ex steel worker Big Jim (Jim Fletcher), musician, designer and metal worker Lynden Lewis and the former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, who has fond memories of joining Paddy Kitson, then a Cardiff Councillor, in painting the bar and other public areas. Chapter owes a huge debt to these and many other volunteers, too many to mention here, who gave their time and energy to support the early development of the arts centre.

Funding

Money for the venture came from a number of sources. Both Cardiff Council and the Welsh Arts Council promised revenue funding to meet one third of the running costs each, with Chapter raising the rest from rents, bar and café takings and events. Capital funding came mainly in the form of grants from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Welsh Arts Council’s Housing the Arts initiative.  In those days the Welsh Arts Council usually made grants to supplement revenue. The bar stock and fittings were provided by Courage, the brewers, on the tie system, saving considerable set-up costs. Apart from these formal sources, Chapter also received generous gifts and materials from supporters and friends. The bar, for example, was the recycled reception desk from the Norwich Union Insurance offices in Park Place, Cardiff. Chapter was able, also, to come to an agreement with the City Police to lease the school’s playground as a car park for Canton Police Station. The presence of police cars around the building probably deterred criminal activity around the large and at first, mostly empty building.

Taking stock 1

Much progress had been made in the two years or so since Mik, Chris and Bryan had first discussed starting an arts centre in Cardiff, Ewart Parkinson had put an arts centre in the draft of Centreplan70, because he thought that ‘a city like Cardiff should have one’ and Richard, Gerry and Alan brought the major amateur arts groups together to respond to the City Council’s proposal. That such progress was made owed much to the efforts of the founding groups and to their willingness to pool their concepts and to create a new enterprise with a wider brief than either group had originally envisaged. They also had strong support from both Cardiff City Council and the Welsh Arts Council. For the latter, Peter Jones and his colleagues helped with advice and funding, as well as advocacy among the doubters; it was by no means certain that it would succeed. The City Council was also strongly supportive and the project had its backers in both the leading parties: Ron Watkiss, the Conservative Chairman of the Planning Committee, and Hugh Ferguson Jones, the Lord Mayor that year and leader of the Tory group, together with David Seligman and Paddy Kitson from Labour, ensured that Chapter enjoyed cross party support. The Council also offered to let the old school at a rent of £1,000 a year, described by some of its members and officers as ‘a peppercorn’. As there was some uncertainty, even scepticism, among some members of the Council that the arts centre would succeed, the initial lease was to be for seven years, when, if Chapter were a success, the Council would build and hand over the proposed arts centre in the City centre.

Early Years

The challenges

The newly constituted company had a name, a constitution and a building, as well as some funding, promises of support and much good will. Then the real challenges began. The old school had to be made not merely habitable but also an attractive venue, with a regular clientèle. Artists had to be persuaded to move in. The programmes of events had to be planned, delivered and developed. Moreover, the seven members of the original board had to do the work themselves, with the aid of friends and supporters. For the first six months they had no money to employ any staff. They had little experience of this sort of work but they met the challenges with enthusiasm, energy and boundless optimism.

Chapter’s official opening

The formal opening of Chapter was planned for 1st March 1972, as part of a festival, which was called Chapter’s First Birthday. It consisted of four theatre events, five film evenings, three nights of poetry and song and three exhibitions, including an exhibition of the work of Charles Byrd and a multi-coloured event by Bath Theatre Workshop. Throughout the Festival, the bar was open and food was prepared by culinary artist, Peter Kuttner, who provided a feast of brightly coloured dishes and multicoloured loaves of bread. Huge dixies of coloured (purple, red etc.) spaghetti were patiently stirred by Christine and Gerry. The opening was carried out by Vincent Kane, a well known Cardiff broadcaster, in front of an enthusiastic gathering. The net cost of the event was £187 but the whole festival brought in many visitors and Chapter’s minutes note that the outlay was more than covered by the profit on the bar takings.

The first artists and groups move in

The first members to move in were the South Wales Art Society. They were keen to stage their summer exhibition in their new premises but to do that they needed to take up their residence from 1st August 1971. They also demanded, at rather short notice, as a condition of moving in, that the bar be open. Not only was this not in the planned schedule but the conversion of what had been the girls’ school kitchen into a bar had to be completed by midnight on 31st July in order to meet the licensing requirements. The founders, therefore, with some volunteers rushed to finish the bar in time and were still painting the walls in the late evening at the end of July, with stage lighting powered by generators in the former playground. A consequence of this decision was that the bar now had to open daily from 6 pm until stop-tap and with no bar staff, the seven managers had to run the bar themselves. For Bryan and Chris and Richard and Gerry, both married couples, it meant two disrupted evenings per week. It could be a lonely evening, as there were very few bar customers at this stage.

By the autumn, however, the building was ready for occupation by working artists and groups. The first area to be used was that designated for visual art studios. These were rented out by the square foot of floor space and within a short space of time there were painters, print makers, sculptors, ceramicists, musical instrument makers, and artists working in a wide range of media. Amateur groups, including the South Wales Arts Society and Everyman Theatre, moved in and Bryan Bull and the Cardiff Ciné Society led the way in the conversion of an old cloakroom into one of the best small cinema spaces in Wales.

In the next few years, Chapter became home to a varied mix of individual artists and groups. By the mid-1970s the artists and groups in residence included:

  • Paul Brewer, writer, painter and photographer
  • John Dawson Evans, painter & antique restorer
  • Brian Giles (the Mad Potter), ceramics
  • Ann Gladstone, weaving
  • Maldwyn Glover, constructivist
  • Suzy Greengrass, music
  • Ken Hassall, graphic designer, photography
  • Jenny Hewison, TV illustrator, candle maker, painter
  • John Mercer, Electronic sounds
  • Linda Parry, children’s ballet
  • Alan Wood, painter
  • Keith Wood, painter & theatre maker (Highway Shoes)
  • Cardiff Laboratory Theatre
  • Diamond Age Theatre Group
  • Charlie Barber Music Ensemble
  • Don Tatem, violin maker
  • Charles Byrd, kinetics & toy maker
  • David Hughes, Red Light Theatre Group
  • Pauper’s Carnival Theatre Group
  • Moving Being, mixed media theatre company

Amateur companies:

  • Everyman Theatre
  • Welsh Chamber Opera
  • Cardiff Ciné Society
  • South Wales Art Society

In tandem with accommodating members, the managers also began to convert the row of classrooms on the western front of the building into a well lit and spacious gallery. Work also began on building Chapter's own cinema, furnished with equipment bought from the many cinemas, which were having to close down at that time. It was believed that the cinema would be a key feature in bringing the general public into the building. The girls’ school hall, on the ground floor was to be used as a performance space and for large scale meetings and other gatherings. Within a number of months, Chapter was a working reality, with resident and visiting artists and groups and a small but growing following, both in the local community and farther afield.

Public programmes

This following was the result of the programmes, which Mik, Chris and Bryan started to organize and develop, as soon as they moved in, capitalizing on their work in the Arts Centre Project. As well as Chapter events, there were programmes for specific areas of the arts: painting and sculpture, including installations and other static displays; music; poetry; and film. The programmes were printed in a monthly event sheet, designed by Peter Gill of Design Systems, which made an enormous contribution to advertising forthcoming events. The box office, like the bar, was run by the directors. The earliest programme to survive was for June 1972 and included an exhibition, music in performance, poetry readings, a short programme of films and a visiting theatre company. There was also a celebration of folk culture, including Welsh folk craftsmen and folk artists – instrument makers, songs, sea lore, religion, dance. The individual programmes were developed over the years, as Chapter became a recognised venue and the audience and following grew.

Gallery

In January 1972, exhibition display screens were still needed and commercial organizations were approached for second hand ones. By June, however, the matter had been resolved and the first exhibitions went ahead and included paintings and constructions by Terry Setch and David Sheppard and ‘disappearing sculpture’ by Peter Dockley, a sculptor in wax. In keeping with Chapter’s aim to promote the work of new artists, the Cardiff College of Art also had a display.

From then on the Gallery’s exhibitions became a regular feature of Chapter’s programmes. The work shown covered a wide and eclectic range. As well as established artists, like Polish-Welsh émigré Josef Herman (borrowed from private collections), there were several well-known painters, such as Gomer Lewis and Joan Oxland, and some rising stars, including Paul Hempton, exhibiting paintings and drawings. Chapter’s own members were not neglected and Paul Brewer and John Dawson Evans held an exhibition of their paintings.

Local artists also participated, not only the amateur South Wales Arts Society but also the professional South Wales Group, showing painting and sculptures. Overseas artists also featured, including prints by the American Robert Rauschenberg. Notable exhibitors included one of Chapter’s later resident artists: the painter and sculptor, Charles Byrd. Charles’ kinetic sculptures, a development of his abstract paintings, were popular with adults and children and his extraordinary ‘machines’, to the delight of young and old, were for a while, on permanent exhibition in Chapter.

As well as the fine arts, traditional and not so traditional craft work was also included in the Gallery programme. An example, featuring traditional crafts was an exhibition of medieval braid work with inkle looms: ‘The Inkle Weavers Art’.

Music

One of the earliest musical events was a jazz concert in March 1972 , with Don Rendell, a former member of one of John Dankworth’s early bands, with the John Silva Quartet, at that time one of Cardiff’s leading jazz bands. Other groups playing Chapter at this time were the Natural Acoustic Band and Dick Morrissey on tenor saxophone.

By 1973 there were weekly music events. Every Sunday the Folk Club met, with many participants including The Hennessys, Keith Pearson, Tundra and Hot Vultures. Tuesday evenings featured the John Silva Jazz Quartet, while on Fridays in 1973 Dave Lyons and Gary Turnock played folk. Judith Sorota provided a Classical Music programme which was extraordinary. She organised concerts which introduced audiences to Early Music including music performed by English Concert and harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock and the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble; as well as contemporary classical music by Peter Maxwell Davies, Cornelius Cardew, David Bedford, James Pattern, Scott Joplin and Eric Satie, to name but a few. Judith went on to organise the Spittlefield Music Festival. The resident amateur group, Welsh Chamber Opera, however, rehearsed and performed at Chapter; they also partnered their fellow amateurs, Everyman Theatre, in presenting Edwardian music halls.

Like the Gallery programmes, Chapter offered its musical audience an eclectic mix of work.

Poetry

The March 1972 programme also featured poetry, including an evening of songs and poems from Tolkein by a group called Dragblod. There was also an evening of poetry and music with the young Liverpool poet and musician, Adrian Henri.

In the following year the poetry programme had broadened to include the older but avant-garde poet Basil Bunting, reading his work, a lecture by John Silkin on First World War poets and Noson o Farddoniaeth a Chaneon, an evening of poems and song, Chapter’s first Welsh language event with Dafydd Rowlands, Emir Jones, John Hywyn and Heather Jones. This event was repeated the following year.

November 1975 saw the inaugural meeting of the South Wales Poetry Centre at Chapter, leading to the start of poetry workshops.

Theatre

Chapter theatre - in the girls’ hall

The former girls’ school hall on the ground floor, as well as being an area for large gatherings, was made into a temporary theatre. First, however, it had to be painted and as professional painters could not be afforded, an army of volunteers, including teachers from Whitchurch High School, came to help. The space was provided with retractable seating, for about 100, that could be extended into the hall when required. Stage lighting was supplied by Strand Electric for £1,000. The completion of the hall’s conversion was achieved when Geoff Moore and Moving Being moved into Chapter in the spring of 1972 and immediately this creative input of professional actors, dancers, artists and designers became the driving force in planning to establish a purpose built theatre. Peter Mumford, who was then Moving Being's resident designer, created a temporary space on the ground floor, which served until enough money could be raised to move into a permanent space on the first floor.

Some of the most exciting and innovative theatre in Britain was being created at this time by Moving Being and a symbiotic relationship developed between the company and Chapter, which was mutually beneficial. Other companies such as Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, Keith Wood Productions, and Paupers Carnival took up residence in the building. They joined the amateur companies, Everyman and Welsh Chamber Opera in an impressive range of resident theatre groups.

Moving Being’s pieces, as Geoff Moore called them, were mixed media performances, using sound, light and screen displays and featuring dance, movement and music, as well as the spoken word. Typical of their work were The Idea, the Image and the Space Between, a thought provoking abstract piece and Dreamplay, a revival and evocative adaptation of Strindberg’s original.

Everyman Theatre also used the temporary but serviceable theatre, mostly for twentieth century theatre: Philadephia Here I Come by Brian Friel, The Sport of my Mad Mother and The Knack by Ann Jellicoe, The Lover by Harold Pinter, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Tiny Alice by Edward Albee, The Bald Primadonna and The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco, as well as Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest.

As well as Chapter’s resident companies, the theatre programmes, even in the temporary theatre, included a varied and widespread number of touring companies, including Brighton Combination with Today’s Pig is Tomorrow’s Bacon - the modern police force!, which did not apparently disturb Chapter’s constabulary tenants; Natural Theatre Company and Bath Theatre Workshop’s Multimedia Extravaganza Show, as well as The Cardiff College of Music and Drama’s review, Arts Backwards. Among other visiting groups were Freehold Theatre Company with Beowulf and R.A.T.T. Theatre performing Reflexions from the Edinburgh Festival. One of the last productions in the temporary theatre was Stella Superstar by Galactic Theatre, the creation of the pioneer performance artist, Bruce Lacey and his wife Jill Bruce.

Of all the visiting companies at that time the most memorable was Serpent Theatre from South Africa, performing Sizwe Banzi is Dead, directed by Athol Fugard, with John Kani and Winston Ntshona. The company were playing at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs and it was something of a coup by Christine Kinsey to get these two fine actors to come to Chapter. It was December 1973 and the tyranny of apartheid was in full force in their homeland. They were the first black company to be allowed to leave South Africa to perform.

Chapter - a ‘proper theatre’

By the autumn of 1974, work began on the new theatre upstairs, along with a number of consequential changes, including the installation of a lift and the opening of a new front door in the south facing wall. The next big decision was to find someone to open it. The first choice was Joan Littlewood and although it was felt to be rather ambitious, Gerry Watson agreed to approach her. Joan invited Gerry to come and see her at her Stratford East theatre. On arrival she was shown into the theatre, where Joan and a stage manager were waiting. What followed felt to Gerry more like an audition than a business meeting but once Joan had decided to come, they retired to the bar and the rest of the day passed off well. Eventually, after almost a whole day of discussion and chat, Joan declared that the only thing that she had ever opened was a bottle but agreed to come and open the theatre in the following January. Gerry and Richard met her at the station, with a plan to take her to their home for a break. Joan, however, insisted on going straight to Chapter, where preparations, including sticking cork tiles to the walls, were still in full swing. She was delighted and declared that Chapter was like Stratford East, with everything being completed at the last minute.

She came to Chapter and joined by her husband, Gerry Raffles, made for a very entertaining opening. Apart from Joan herself, the main feature of the opening was a performance of Life Masque, an archetypal piece by Moving Being, telling the story of theatre, featuring a players’ cart, music and dance. After the opening, the managers took them both to dinner at a local restaurant. Also in the party were Victor Spinetti’s parents, whom Joan had earlier insisted Gerry ring up, to inform them that she would come and stay with them.

The enhancement of the theatre space made it possible for Chapter to receive most of the important small-scale theatre companies who were touring Britain at that time, making Chapter a real focus for both theatre artists and audiences. Among the first productions in the new theatre were a return visit by Galactic Theatre, with Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce in Manifestations of Obsessions and Fantasies and from Scotland, the 7.84 Theatre Company with Yobbo Nowt by John McGath. Everyman Theatre’s first play in the new theatre was Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot, followed by Tennessee Williams’ A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chapter was to welcome a wide variety of companies with many interesting productions over the coming years, including Pip Simmonds' promenade Woyzek, which used the whole of the building and Alan Osborne's Valleys Opera, Terraces, which paved the way for a lot of new writing in Welsh theatre. Many other British, European, US and international theatre and dance companies followed. These included The Wooster Group from New York, (including probably the first UK performances by Wooster Group member, Willem Dafoe). There were also solo performances by Spalding Grey (USA), Bob Carroll (USA) in ‘The Salmon Show’, Eiko & Koma (USA), Waste of Time (Netherlands) and Sal’s Meat Market (UK & USA) with John Ratzenberger, who went on to become postman, Cliff Clavin in the cult TV series Cheers. Cardiff Laboratory Theatre also started to stage many performances in their own space - the former gymnasium of the Cantonian High school.

Film

Cardiff had some ten cinemas in the 1960s, spread throughout the city. They provided, in the main, the same films, from the large distributors, at a variety of locations; rather than a wide choice of film. This enabled many film goers to see popular films in their own locality. It was more difficult, however, to see films from independent producers and foreign films which were not considered to be sufficiently popular by the main distributors.

The only cinemas which showed such films were The Prince Of Wales Theatre in St Mary Street, now the site of a Wetherspoons pub, which provided regular screenings of ‘soft’ pornography and The Globe in Albany Road, also now the site of a Wetherspoons pub, which advertised itself as Cardiff’s arts cinema. Apart from the commercial companies, Cardiff Film Society provided opportunities for the enthusiastic to enjoy a wide variety of films.

The provision of a cinema had been an important item in the Arts Centre Group’s original plan and ideas for its operation and content were well formed by the time that Chapter opened. Moreover, both the Cardiff Film Society and Ciné Society were members of Chapter and brought their skills and enthusiasm to the project. Almost as soon as the doors were opened an application was made for a film licence and this was granted early in 1972. Although starting with rather basic facilities, films and film festivals quickly became regular and popular features of the monthly programmes.

Among the films included in the 1972 programmes were Beyond the Law, a 1968 film by Norman Mailer, the American polymath and inventor of ‘creative non-fiction’ and three films by Kenneth Anger, the American underground experimental filmmaker, actor and author. Chapter also showed Ulysses, a joint British, Irish and American film of James Joyce’s novel. This had been banned by the City Council’s Watch Committee and was shown as a club screening to Chapter members. Although the Lord Chamberlain’s power to ban plays had ended by this time, local councils, through their watch committees, which were responsible for policing, could do so. It was a power infrequently exercised but its use was usually controversial. Opponents of this censorship were said to complain that the Watch Committees watched smutty or other controversial films in private and then banned them for everyone else.

One year later, the programme for February 1973 included eleven films, three from the USA, The Black Fox, ‘the true story of Adolf Hitler’, an allegorical documentary, which won an Oscar, The Savage Eye, written by Samuel Beckett and Beauty Knows No Pain, a 1972 documentary about the Kilgore Majorettes, America’s first dancing drill team. There were two from Poland, Eroica and The Saragossa Manuscript; and one each from Sweden (The Bookseller who Gave up Bathing), Denmark (The Red Mantle), France (Goto Island of Love), Yugoslavia (The Switchboard Operator) and Japan (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief), as well as The Magus a UK mystery film. The following December programme included October 1917 by the Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein, The Sicilian Clan from France and I am Curious – Blue, for members only, from Sweden. They also showed, from the USA, Boys in the Band, a landmark in the history of gays in film and The Goddess a 1934 film from China, as well as Shakespeare Wallah from the UK, an early Merchant Ivory production.

Within a couple of years a cinema was built, standard 35mm projectors were installed and, in September 1974, a cinema manager was appointed. A regular audience was built and maintained through monthly posters and information sheets in the cinema itself. Film festivals and similar events also served to encourage audiences. There was clearly an audience for international and independent film makers, something more than was provided by the main distributors.

In November 1975, Chapter was one of the venues for the Welsh International Film Festival. Films shown that month also included Cars that Ate Paris an Australian, not a French, documentary, the UK release of Medea, a 1969 film by Pier Paulo Pasolini with Maria Callas and The Passenger, also from Italy. Other films from mainland Europe included The Anderson Tapes from West Germany with a US director and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a 1962 French film about an incident in the American Civil War. There were also three films from Yugoslavia: Innocence Unprotected, The Switchboard Operator (once again) and W.R. Mysteries of the Organism, a documentary interlaced with a story of seduction, which examines the theories of the Austro-American psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich.

One British film was included, Gumshoe, with Albert Finney, Billie Whitelaw and Frank Finlay. There were six American films, including some on more general release. They were Night of the Living Dead, Pocket Money, with Paul Newman and Hank Marvin, The Getaway by Sam Pekinpah, Dirty Harry, with Clint Eastwood, Dr Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More, a film by Martin Scorsese.

The monthly programmes

The regular programmes quickly established themselves as the public face of Chapter and with vigorous encouragement from the Arts Council of Wales, grew in size, variety and scope. In November 1977, for example, the month’s events included exhibitions by the sculptor Kevin Harrison and of drawings and books by Graham Day, as well as photographs from Welsh Collections. The Theatre featured a major collaborative effort: Pip Simmons Theatre Group and Chapter, with Cardiff Laboratory Theatre in a production of Woyzeck; Everyman Theatre presented Rockall, a musical, based on The Tempest, written by Max Raymond, an Everyman member, with music by Sally Greengrass, one of Chapter’s resident artists. A wide range of music was provided with The Stan Tracey Quartet, playing jazz, a ‘circus show’ from The Mike Harries Band and Melvin Poore, playing the tuba. Classical music was represented by a violin and piano duo, Nigel Keatley and Rosalie Myers, as well as the contemporary classical group, OdB (Tim Souster [keyboards, viola, electronics, tapes], Peter Britton [tuned percussion, keyboards, synthesizers], Tony Geenwood [drums, percussion, synthesizers]). There was also live music in the bar.

By 1977 Chapter had two cinemas, had added late shows to the programme and was broadening the choice and range of films often selecting most of one month’s films from a particular genre or source. More than half the programme for November 1977 consisted of work by Val Lewton and Arthur Penn, both of whom were based in Hollywood. Lewton was a producer of horror films in the 1940s and his films shown at Chapter included Cat People, an erotic horror movie of 1942 and its sequel, The Curse of the Cat People, two of his 1943 films: I Walked with a Zombie and Leopard Man, as well as three films starring Boris Karloff: The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Arthur Penn was a producer and Chapter audiences saw six of his films including The Left Handed Gun, a psychological western, Mickey One, a French new wave art movie, The Missouri Breaks, starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and the 1967 hit, Bonnie and Clyde.

Also on offer were two 1970s films by Michael Schultz, a black film pioneer: Cooley High and Car Wash, an early (1971) US youth culture movie, called Two Lane Backtop, The Chase, an action comedy, featuring Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, made in 1975.

There was also a celebration of Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, one film from West Germany, Heart of Glass, and The Wild Party a Merchant Ivory film set in California.

As well as these commercial films, Chapter was also the venue for the Welsh Amateur Film Festival, hosted by the Cardiff Cine Society, a Chapter resident group.

The programme also included dance classes, provided by Moving Being, a fortnightly Poetry Workshop and Transcendental Meditation sessions.

Chapter in the community

Chapter was keen to establish links with the community and one way was through the Workers' Education Association which hired premises and ran regular courses. Chapter also began to run workshops for local schools in conjunction with the exhibition programme in the Gallery, as well as drama workshops, which were a new concept at that time. Local mothers were invited to run a nursery school, with the hope and belief that if young children were involved in using the building they would grow up accepting the arts as a natural part of everyday life. Chapter also provided meeting space for other groups, including the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and a summer school for Gypsy children.In 1972 Chapter's work in such areas was controversial and sometimes attracted hostile press coverage, but it was believed that if Chapter could not relate to a wide range of community life and be instrumental in breaking down barriers between the artistic community and the wider public, it would fail. Sadly this was the fate of many other arts centres in subsequent years.

It was feared that there was a danger that the local community might see an arts centre as a place for hippies etc, where they would not be welcome. Towards the end of 1971, therefore, a publicity scheme, involving the distribution of fly posters, leaflets and car stickers was organised and the gallery was opened. Christmas events were planned, including a children’s Christmas holiday film and a pantomime, as well as a New Year party, organised by Everyman Theatre. Gerry Watson started a weekly drama class for the under-12s in the main hall, at which the local MP and later Speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas, was an occasional visitor. As well as providing fun for the children, it was hoped that the parents’ experience of Chapter would allay any fears or worries. Further activities for children, on Saturday mornings, began in 1973 and the tradition of Saturday morning children’s film shows was perpetuated. Two years later, Moving Being began offering dance classes. The response of the local Canton community and indeed, the wider public was enthusiastic, starting a tradition of involving all ages from its home community, which Chapter maintains to this day.

Making Chapter a success in the local community and as importantly, in the South Wales arts world depended on more than hosting courses and events. A publicity plan was needed and of course, Chapter could not afford to hire expertise so it fell to four of the founders, Christine, Peter, Gerry and Richard, to develop a scheme. This bore fruit quickly and from early 1972, Chapter had some good press coverage, including an article by Peter Davies of the Western Mail and Echo, celebrating Chapter: ‘New Chapter opens cut price arts centre’. By early 1974, there were sufficient funds to commission a professional plan, from a Cardiff marketing specialist, Phillip Goodwin, which was accepted by the Board.

Politics and Public Relations

As well as the people of the local community and arts enthusiasts throughout South Wales, Chapter also had to mantain good relations with the City Council. Along with the Welsh Arts Council and other benefactors, the City Council were generally very supportive. There were, nevertheless, some councillors who were not so and one in particular, who let it be known that his aim was to close Chapter down. Unfortunately for him, before his aim was achieved, he was found to have an interest in a notorious ‘private’ club and had to resign.

The two topics which caused friction were films and other events, which had been banned by the Watch Committee and the hiring of rooms to those who were not considered to meet the Council’s expected criteria, as users of the building. Chapter was able to offer banned events by restricting admittance to its members. A few groups, which were hiring rooms, also were thought to be more political than artistic by some councillors. These included Shelter, the British Association of Social Workers, the Workers’ Educational Association and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). Of these, the last caused most controversy and in September 1973, CHE was asked to find new premises.

‘The Daily Round’

The metamorphosis of Canton High School into Chapter did not change the building’s needs, nor could a business like Chapter, however esoteric its style and activities, do without good administration, sound finance and regular maintenance.

Organisation

At first Chapter’s organisation consisted of a board and a building. The board members were known as managers, as they thought that the term ‘board director’ conjured up images of philistine men in suits. Moreover in the arts, director is often the title of a person in charge of a project or production. Thus the three full-time managers were the centre’s artistic directors, although in the first years the part-timers took on many activities. For example, Richard looked after the accounts and Alan handled the extensive legal work, all for no payment.

Chapter was established as a company limited by guarantee, with its members being liable for no more than £1, in the event of its liquidation. Members paid an annual subscription, initially £3 per annum, about £70 in today’s money, and £2 for concessions. Through the annual general meeting, they were involved in determining Chapter’s culture and direction. Members could be either individuals or groups and in many cases were also tenants, with studios, workshops or other premises in the building. Examples of early member groups were the South Wales Arts Society (SWAS), Everyman Theatre and the Workers Eduction Association, which ran courses in the building. Members could hire rooms or other space, an example was Peter Lloyd, who early in 1972, hired a room for paraplegic artists and craftsmen. Individual room rents for studios etc. were ½p per square foot per week. Group rents were to be in line, Everyman Theatre, for example, paid £117 p.a., comparable in real terms to what the company pays today and were charged, for performances 25% of the takings, with a dead rent, or minimum charge of £6 per night. Members were expected to pay their rents and subscriptions but otherwise, Chapter had a very tolerant approach to its members activities and behaviour; nevertheless, in early 1973 the Chapter Board minutes state that two members were banned, although their names were not recorded.

Administration and funding

By early 1972, having been open but a few months, Chapter had enough resources to start to set up an office and to employ some staff. In February, Julie Ward joined as a part time secretary but her role expanded to cover all areas, as Chapter developed. At the same time Mrs Porch joined as a cleaner. Mrs Porch lived in Market Rd opposite Chapter and would act as an envoy to help the neighbours understand Chapter’s work. Mrs Porch's support was invaluable. As money became available and new needs arose, decisions were taken to acquire equipment both for artistic and administrative purposes, often secondhand. Having taken a decision to buy a duplicating machine in January for no more than £150, a couple of weeks later, Athan Morgan & Shibko (Alan’s firm of solicitors) agreed to donate a copying machine.

Not all of the fund raising schemes were successful. One such scheme was a plan to organise a sponsored row by Mik, Richard, members and friends to the Flat Holm and back. There was much excitement but little practical action and the Chapter row never happened. The centre’s regular activities, however, and a growing number of visitors and participants, provided enough income to keep Chapter going.

In May 1972 Chapter held its first AGM, there was a good attendance from members and as well as the usual reports, there was a good question session, which helped to establish a rapport between the board and the members. In October of the same year, Chapter’s lease was renewed for five years and the company decided to register for VAT. A General Purposes Committee was also set up as a forum for users of the centre to express and discuss their views and needs. Along with its registration as an artistic and educational charity, these helped to make Chapter, in the eyes of potential donors and supporters and of possible users, a soundly based concern. At the 1973 AGM, the first changes to the board were made: Peter Strevens stood down, after three valuable years as Chairman but remained a manager and Richard Watson was elected in his place. Paddy Kitson, a Labour Councillor and WEA organiser, and Alan Biss, a welcome accountant, were elected to the board.

In January 1974 Chapter received £8,000 towards a new theatre, £5,000 from Welsh Arts Council’s Housing the Arts Fund and £3,000 from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Along with the new theatre, a new entrance and a new bar were planned. As a consequence of implementing these improvements, Chapter was closed from June to September.

Before then, however, a crisis had arisen. Because of construction problems and rising prices, for example, steel had risen by 33%, the cost of the project had increased to £15,000. In July Gilly Adams from the Welsh Arts Council, who became a great supporter and later chairman of Chapter, came to help. She urged the managers to make an immediate application to the Housing the Arts fund. A grant was forthcoming from the South East Wales Arts Association, a subsidiary organisation of the Welsh Arts Council. Fund raising ideas were discussed by the managers and a promotional brochure was prepared. With the help, advice and support of the Welsh Arts Council, however, the crisis was weathered and the theatre, with the new bar and entrance, were built. Meanwhile a Cinema Manager, Lee Buick, was appointed. In spite of its difficulties Chapter was continuing to grow and prosper. In 1975 Paul Chandler was appointed as the first Arts Administrator. His expertise in arts and financial management guided Chapter through difficult financial periods and set a foundation from which Chapter has flourished.

Taking Stock 2

After only five years from a start with a board and a building, Chapter had established a presence in the Welsh arts scene and its reputation for quality, innovation and ambition had spread much farther afield. Chapter’s achievements at that stage were well summarised by Christine Kinsey in an interview with Gilly Adams in 1998:

‘The English Arts Council commissioned a report called Three Arts Centres from their senior researcher, Robert Hutchinson. Chapter was one of the three centres which he looked at, and he took the year 1975-6 as the basis for his research. In fact he was quite critical of Chapter because he felt, perhaps rightly, that our administration left something to be desired, because of the rapid growth of responsibilities in other areas. Whatever, his review of the programme for that financial year makes amazing reading now. The theatre hosted 30 productions which included not only the residential companies, but performances from companies like 7.84, the Gate, the Bush, Nola Rae, Pip Simmons, Birmingham Arts Lab, Foco Novo, Paines Plough and Inter Action. In the same year the cinema showed 150 different feature films to audiences totalling more than 30,000. We usually showed 3 films a week and these were a mixture of commercial successes and continental films with the former supporting the showing of the less popular work. The success of the cinema led to the setting up of the film production work-shop, which was the only one of its kind in Wales at the time and Karl Francis's early work was associated with this workshop. Meanwhile Chapter's Gallery programme included happenings, performance, concrete, conceptual, minimal and kinetic art, painting, prints and sculpture as well as featuring the work of the 14 artists in residence in studios in Chapter and more documentary exhibitions. Chapter was also able to offer new opportunities to women artists: in May 1976 there was a month-long Festival of Women in the Arts, that concentrated on professional women artists in theatre, dance, music, poetry, film and the visual arts, who created, presented and performed their own work. Nothing like this had ever happened in Wales before. Robert Hutchinson remarked in his report "Indeed Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Princess Margaret, Lord Redcliffe Maud, John McGrath, The Marchioness of Anglesey and Bruce Lacy have at least one thing in common - they all visited Chapter in 1975-6.”'

As well as earning an international reputation Chapter did not ignore its roots. Chapter had two objectives: both to encourage artists from all disciplines to move into the building to produce art and to ensure that the local community was encouraged to use the building as much as possible. From the start a wide variety of artists, both individuals and groups moved into the building. Christine Kinsey, at the same interview described the original vision:

‘From the outset Chapter's raison d’être was to establish an environment in which all creative disciplines could be housed, and to encourage, nurture and support the making of all forms of art under one roof through the provision of rehearsal, editing and studio spaces. The need to communicate these ideas formed the basis from which the galleries, theatres and cinemas grew. The way that these spaces developed was a response to the need of each creative area within the building. We all recognised that this was a unique opportunity to break down the barriers between disciplines and to open channels of communication between the different art forms so that links would be forged. The underpinning belief was that all aspects of the creative spirit would flourish in an atmosphere of understanding and co-operation.’

The City Council never did build the promised arts centre in the redeveloped town centre but this may have contributed to the achievement of the second objective of involving the local community.

Throughout its life, Chapter has both remained true to its founding ethos and purposes and developed organically. Indeed the original aims of bringing artists productively and creatively together and involving the local community were augmented, almost from the start, by the rolling programmes of exhibitions, film, theatre and music, which has established Chapter’s international reputation, as well as maintaining its growing local following.

Chapter now and then

Chapter is now halfway through its fifth decade and is looking forward to further expansion. In many ways, this is a far cry from an enterprise that started out with an empty building and a board of seven young enthusiasts, whose average age was less than 25. Chapter is able to attract investment, if not on a massive scale, at least enough to provide a sense of momentum and promise. The roots of this success, to a great extent can be found in its foundation and early years, when an ethos was established, to which Chapter has largely remained faithful.

It is arguable, however, whether such a venture would succeed in getting started, let alone surviving today. Chapter’s founders, initially two separate groups with rather different objectives, formed themselves despite initial differences into an active and enthusiastic team, where everyone contributed their most and best. Mik, Chris and Bryan had a well researched plan for an arts centre and had established a wide network of supporters, while the Civic Theatre Group assembled a broad range of supporters among Cardiff’s amateur artists and their followers. Such powerful factors would always have helped to make such a project successful but other advantages were peculiar to its time. The Welsh Arts Council was able to provide money, advice and support, without having to reach particular targets or to meet externally defined criteria. Cardiff Council, which was strongly supportive, had greater financial and administrative powers than today and was generally able to exercise its discretion more widely. In society generally, finance was seen as a resource to be used to achieve a wider range of benefits rather than a mere return on investment. There was little appetite to return to the sound money and unemployment of the twenties and thirties. In short, Chapter’s foundation pre-dated the fashion for ‘market solutions’, which has dominated the past 30 or more years in the United Kingdom and the Western world as a whole.

Notwithstanding these timely advantages, the credit for establishing Chapter lies with its founders. In spite of youth and inexperience, most were under thirty, they threw themselves wholeheartedly into a project with optimism and vigour. In the face of many difficulties and the need to learn as they went along, they persevered, without losing sight of their objectives and ethos. It was also the latter, a determination that Chapter should be first and foremost a nursery and seed bed for art in all its forms that enlightened the early years and continues to do so today.

Author’s note

Sources for this article are:

  • Chapter archive
  • Cardiff Corporation minutes
  • My own memories and records
  • Contributions from my fellow surviving founders, Mik Flood, Christine Kinsey and Geraldine Watson.

Acknowledgements

My thanks to Mik, Christine and Geraldine for their contributions and comments and to Alice Burrows and Megan Price of Chapter for help with accessing the archive and with proof reading and editing.

© Richard Watson, 2016.

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