Overspill Overtures

A concert at the Basingstoke Anvil, copyright Anvil Arts, shared here with their permission.

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

On the 3rd May 1994, Richard Hickox conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for the opening night of a brand new concert hall. Elgar led the bill, with his Enigma Variations and cello concerto, and the celebration of new beginnings was marked with a world premiere – John Tavener’s Theophany.

Top classical venues – designed to optimise orchestral sound – are usually found in big cities, but this 1400-seat hall was built in the centre of Basingstoke. The Hampshire market town had been used as a byword for provincial irrelevance in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. Expanded into a ‘London Overspill’ town in the 1960s, its name is still often evoked as an example of soulless modern living – a suburban pointlessness.

The new hall was named ‘the Anvil’. While that sort-of described its bulky exterior, it also promised to put fiery creativity into the heart of this community – and a lot of noise. On that first night, the town’s Choral Society gave a rendition of Verdi’s Anvil Chorus.

This unlikely venue has since gained remarkable accolades from the likes of Sir Simon Rattle, who dubbed it ‘one of the finest concert halls in the country’. And this week, the Philharmonia will celebrate its 25th birthday, reprising the Elgar concerto with star cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and a new commission by Samantha Fernando.

As someone who grew up in the area, concerts at the Anvil were part of my musical education, and its anniversary has made me reflect on how lucky Basingstoke is to have it. Could the Anvil, I thought, be a useful example of what first-rate classical music can – or cannot – do for a town with a low cultural profile?

Basingstoke towers seen from the train station.

In the 1940s, George Orwell wrote that ‘the place to look for the germs of the future England is in the light-industry areas and along the arterial roads’. And if you haven’t lived somewhere like Basingstoke, you may not appreciate the weirdness of this existence.

While pleasant enough and with decent employment, its massive 60s expansion left it with little sense of identity. The post-war influx means many families have no ancestral ties to the area – mine included. There’s an unquestioned sense that, circumstances permitting, you could just as easily live elsewhere.

The overspill development also bulldozed much of its historic centre and rural character. It feels surreal to think of Basingstoke with a cattle market and stables – but it existed within living memory, where now there’s a heaving mall, multi-story car park, and office buildings.

A headline from 1962 hailed Basingstoke as the south’s ‘first town of the motor-car age’. And with its immense ‘Ringway’ road dotted with roundabouts, housing estates and retail parks, driving lessons are an essential rite of passage around here.

I remember practicing in the quiet suburbs. I was amused to find that, lacking any local history to draw on, the estate roads had been named with themes. I had fun spotting authors, painters, and composers. It’s a fascinating idea – that you can just knit the arts into the fabric of a blank community. Somehow, Gershwin Road and Ravel Close just seemed to emphasise the artificiality of it all.

In a piece for Prospect last year, Owen Hatherley said a visit to Basingstoke had once disturbed him – there was ‘no there there’. But half a century on from its transformation, he looked at its bizarre mix of office architecture and asked if overspill towns now have ‘their own story to tell’.

Similarly, I was intrigued to find out how the Anvil, as a 90s civic project, fitted into the bigger story of Basingstoke’s modernity.

Vue cinema and the Dallas-esque Churchill Plaza.

In the town library, I trawled the microfilm archive of the Basingstoke Gazette. The idea of a ‘civic hall’ to replace the old town hall (now a museum) had been brewing for some time, but the big question with such projects is funding.

The Anvil’s case is peculiar, emerging from complex details of local authority finance. The Gazette cited the borough council’s early repayment of a loan, ‘reinvestment interest’ and ‘future capital financing resources’ as bringing a windfall to cover over half the £12m cost. Another source has since claimed that this arrangement exploited a loophole with the Public Works Loan Board – one the government closed soon afterwards.

However it worked out, the council decided to build a hall to reflect the modern town, and which could boast world-class acoustics. The design they eventually revealed was a combined effort of RHWL Architects and Arup – the acousticians for Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

When announcing the plans, council leader Stephen Reid declared the building would foster a much-needed sense of pride:

For some time we have been the butt of jokes from people saying there is nothing to do in Basingstoke. People must never be allowed to say that again. The hall will be in use by day and evening and will be a magnet to draw people into the borough, promoting businesses and trade. 

In 1992, a scale model was put on display. But then, audaciously, the Gazette published a drawing by a local architect the council had turned down. His alternative sketch outlined an elegant neo-classical front, and a square with a statue of Winston Churchill. Depicted beside the council’s angular design, the aesthetic contrast couldn’t have been greater, and readers were asked to write in and say which they preferred.

Across the letters page, all hell broke loose.

‘Please go with the ancient design and spare us any more monstrosities’, pleaded one reader. ‘Another eyesore for the town’ raged another. The council’s plan was ‘visual torture bordering on the inhumane’. It was a ‘gun-boat’, a ‘battleship’, ‘something out of a space film’. Perhaps inevitably, one sought help from the carbuncle crusader himself: Prince Charles.

Part of the sketch published by the Gazette.

When it came to being the butt of jokes, it seems many felt a barrage of insensitive architecture was precisely the problem. One reader compared the hall to a recently-installed ‘triumphal gateway’: ‘what are the decision makers of this town up to? As a long-standing ‘native’ of this area I resent our town being ridiculed in this way’.

Others worried about parking, or whether Basingstoke even needed such a venue – ‘it is unlikely we shall get the Berlin Phil (or Jason Donovan) more than once a year!’

But the objections came to nothing. The council robustly defended their plan. A Labour councillor sent the Gazette a withering response: ‘there is no comparison between the two schemes; one is properly thought through […] the other is a cartoon. It is like comparing The Laughing Cavalier and Captain Pugwash’.

Having nailed its colours to the mast of modernity, Basingstoke was not going back. But it seems the furore of the neo-classical sketch had shown residents a glimmer of something longed for. Perhaps the more traditional town they had lost; perhaps a more respected town that might have been.

The plant tower ‘beak’ at the rear of the Anvil, one of its most criticised features.

There will always be people who loathe modern buildings. But what’s it like to run concerts in a place like Basingstoke? I met up with Matthew Cleaver, who manages the Anvil’s classical series. He’s worked there from the very beginning.

‘It was a really bold decision to build an international-standard concert hall’, he told me over coffee. ‘And at that time Basingstoke was even smaller, so from that point of view it was a massive leap of faith, and full marks to them for doing it.’

There was personal enthusiasm for classical music in the council, but they also saw a gap in the market. ‘There were various preliminary studies…which pointed out that actually, between London and Poole or Bristol or Brighton, there is nothing, there’s no large-scale classical music’.

In that case, I asked him, what percentage of the classical audience actually live in the borough? He estimated just under half. ‘The majority is from outside…but not by much. We know, for instance, that we get people who will buy the entire concert series from Bristol, from Oxford, from Kingston, from Southampton’. These most loyal fans snap the dates up as soon as details are released. ‘They will arrange their holidays around when the brochure is coming out’.

But if the Anvil caters to an appetite for orchestral music in the affluent wider region, Basingstoke still benefits from their additional spending. A 2010 economic assessment calculated that the borough gains a net benefit of £5m from the Anvil – the report has even been translated into Chinese, for that booming market in concert halls.

‘We used to have regular visits from delegations from other towns like Norwich…from all over the place people used to come down to see what we were doing, how it could operate in a town of that size’. This ended after the 2008 financial crash, which caused a dip in classical ticket sales across the country, though since then ‘things have been slowly building back up’.

Now that government austerity has slashed many council budgets, the Anvil’s success would be harder than ever for equivalent towns to duplicate, although the geographic impacts are notoriously unequal. While the Anvil continues to be funded by a combination of borough, county and Arts Council money, just a few miles away in Newbury an arts centre is asking for donations of £150,000 a year, after West Berkshire withdrew funding.

Clearly Basingstoke is fortunate to have this standard of venue. And yet I realised that, for all the anger about the design, the hall is surprisingly easy to overlook. Step out of the train station and you’re confronted with the gaping maw of The Malls, writ large in hideous nightclub lettering. But the Anvil, built years afterwards, is shoe-horned off to the side with nothing like the same visual impact.

Its south side reveals the bar and a concert billboard, but here there’s a whizzing underpass, beyond which the shopping centre looms like a fortress, funnelling its enclosed visitors through the town. Consumerism came first in Basingstoke – a concert hall was an afterthought. And it shows.

The Anvil seen from the south.

Similarly underwhelming is how the Gazette covered the opening night in 1994. Perhaps naively, I was expecting a front-page spread, or at least a big-picture feature to celebrate this new £12m amenity. But no. The concert only got a modest write-up a few pages in. Controversy sells, but classical music? Not so much.

My chat with Matthew moved on to my frustrations with Basingstoke’s civic limitations. I described how the town felt atomised – you go from your little house, get into your car, and drive to town. He agreed. ‘This fragmentation is really endemic I think…between the different estates and the people who’ve been here all the time, and then the commuters and the people who work in Basingstoke…the Anvil is one of the few places in the town where people from all the different areas come together as a single unified public’.

The Malls.

It’s important not to become too jaded – Basingstoke is still a relatively prosperous and comfortable place to live. But like the Anvil’s visual presence, the town seems to be held back by big decisions taken decades ago.

Historian Rupert Willoughby has described promised footbridges across the Ringway that were never built. A popular swimming baths found itself cut off by the new road, and fell into disuse. As a keen cyclist, I know it’s like a giant moat you have to work out how to cross. Having failed to move on from its utopian vision of the motor age, Basingstoke seems disastrously ill-equipped for a low-carbon future, unless big changes happen soon.

But when it comes to the overhaul of the town’s historic centre, Willoughby positively seethes. ‘Basingstoke had all the charm and individuality of a Farnham or a Wallingford’, he writes. ‘It needed investment, and a certain amount of sympathetic development. It did not need to have its heart cut out.’

The shopping centre on Church Street. A Wesleyan chapel was demolished for its construction.

In 2002, a shiny new mall was built – its Newspeak name of ‘Festival Place’ demanding an excitement it doesn’t justify. Willoughby calls it ‘an unabashed shrine to consumerism, tending only to reinforce the view that Basingstoke is rampantly philistine’. And yet, amazingly, his book doesn’t even mention the Anvil at all. You can build a first-rate concert hall, it seems, but you can’t make people care.

Orwell’s prophecy went on to describe ‘a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine’. And it’s certainly no surprise that lots of young people leave Basingstoke for more exciting prospects.

Like many graduates, for me that meant London. When you arrive there, you discover streets dense with overlapping histories. You find walkable communities, exotic markets, frequent public transport, a bewildering arts scene, and neck-craning infrastructure that speaks of possibilities.

Public art under a bridge beside Festival Place.

And yet for all this, the Anvil shows that high-quality classical music can thrive anywhere, if there is an opportunity and a will. But it also needs institutional support.

For decades, an organisation called Basingstoke Concert Club brought brilliant chamber musicians to the town – thanks to them, I was able to hear artists like the Takács Quartet and Chloë Hanslip in a local church. But in 2012 they announced they were folding, after 57 years. Their sad demise was explained by ‘a slow decline in audience numbers, rising costs and the inability to recruit more help on the committee’.

The Waitrose/John Lewis.

Thankfully, the Anvil continues to be a valued community asset – showcasing touring comedians, bands, pantomime, youth orchestras and local choirs. It may be easy to overlook, but Matthew praises it as a neutral space – ‘almost anything can fit in there, and almost any audience can feel comfortable in there.’

Nonetheless, as it was designed to be a concert hall, I’m pleased to see that the anniversary night is sold out. And I’m also grateful that, before I left to study music at university, I had the privilege of being able to hear top-level orchestras here – something that most other towns of this size can’t offer.

It’s the small details I remember most. Long, drawn-out horn chords in Mahler’s sixth. Ghostly muted trumpets in The Rite of Spring. Off-beat pizzicato strings in Brahms. The gleaming sound of Crispian Steele-Perkins. A continuo player who should have practiced more, a pianist performing Mendelssohn with his leg in a cast. Sitting with my first girlfriend in the front row and hearing Richard Goode singing to himself as he played a Beethoven concerto. The Wagnerian opening of Christopher Rouse’s Der Gerettete Alberich. Esa-Pekka Salonen winding up the final crescendo of Turangalîla like a man possessed.

At the Basingstoke Anvil, I was taught classical music as a live – and lived – experience. With all its thrills, contingencies and imperfections. As a respected art-form, and as a social occasion. As simply a thing you do – even in a joke town.

With special thanks to Matthew Cleaver, and Anvil Arts. Details of the Anvil’s current concert series can be found here.

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