The Plough Theatre

21st September 2017 Open Monthly Meeting

Denni Clarke introduced the speaker, Richard Wolfenden-Brown, a resident of Bude, who as well as running the Bude Youth Theatre is Director, and a passionate advocate, of the Plough Arts Centre, Torrington.  Richard is a man of slight build but a mighty voice and the U3A drama group could learn a lot from him about vocal projection!

He gave the chequered history of the building in the centre of Great Torrington.  Built in the sixteenth century as a suitably grand town house for a wealthy merchant, with splendid plaster ornamentation on the ceilings and fine wooden panelling, in 1750 it became the Plough Inn and remained a public house until 1910.  However by the end it was not in good shape: in 1875 the council had had to address ‘the bad state of the closets and the dungpit’, and had ruled that the contents be removed every day to prevent ‘any nuisance therefrom’… (no parallels were drawn with certain present local facilities).  In 1911 a neighbour was given permission to keep his cow inside the Plough premises, which it is agreed still represents the nadir in the building’s history.

It was demolished the following year, but rebuilt in 1913 as a drill hall for the Devonshire Regiment and the North Devon Yeomanry, ready for the young men to leave from there for the front just one year later.  In World War Two, with its music and dancing licence, it was well used by the Americans stationed nearby and it is said that Glenn Miller was an early example of many stars who have performed over the years.

After the army’s involvement ended in the sixties, local people decided that the space should be a dedicated arts centre and raised funding with Torridge Arts and Recreation in the seventies, and then from 1992 the Beaford Centre, before establishing The Plough as an independent company and charity at a momentous public meeting in 2002.  By this time the building had been much improved by the addition of a cinema, a gallery, dance studio and bar/café area but the money had run out.  Enormous financial commitment was called for from the local community, and this was bolstered by moral and practical support from several of the well-known actors and speakers who had performed in the past, notably Dame Edith Evans and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Portillo and Alistair McGowan.  The turnover has grown, from £68,000 in that first year, to well over £600,000 now with only 3% coming from public funding, and the range of performances, exhibitions and workshops offered is impressive. Richard reminded the meeting that Torrington is only 24 miles from Bude, and said that evening parking in the town is plentiful and free!

He quoted an Italian poet and philosopher, Cesare Pavese, who said that we remember moments rather than days, and he shared with the members many photographs of people who have appeared at The Plough over the years, each of which prompted a fascinating memory of an amusing moment. A word of thanks must go here to John Dabbs on the laptop projector, who kept up valiantly with the lightning tour of Richard’s gallery folder, encompassing acts as diverse as Ian McKellen, Frankie Howerd, Germaine Greer, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth (“the most expensive tickets we ever sold”), Tibetan monks, John Cooper Clarke, and James Naughtie of the Today programme which was once broadcast from The Plough. We all enjoyed hearing that George Melly had arrived off the train wearing a flat cap, of nondescript design save for the peak which was a huge two-foot long fish sticking out in front.  It was also interesting to note that the only two celebs who had ever donated their time for an entire evening for charity, with no personal gain or benefit at all, were Tony Benn and Ann Widdecombe (possibly the only time those two names have been linked).

It was clear throughout his talk that Richard felt strongly about the power of the arts, and especially theatre, to transform lives and communities, and though time was short he did mention two events of particular significance during his work in young people’s performance.   He was involved with taking a group from the Plough Youth Theatre to Poland with a production of ‘Korczak’, about the Treblinka death camp; during the trip the children were able to visit the graves of the people who were their characters in the play, which must have been an unforgettable and most moving experience.  And last year with the  Bude Youth Theatre Richard both wrote and directed ‘The Last Train to Bude…?’, which gave rise to Connect Bude, a growing movement which aims to reconnect Bude with the national rail network.

Lindsey Sandilands