It was one best known for staging It’s A Knockout, so how has Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre managed to land one of the biggest names in music? Sarah Freeman reports.
Peter Taylor is a born salesman and a born optimist. It’s just as well, because each year he boards a flight to California with the aim of persuading some of LA’s most influential music execs to bypass the O2, ignore flattering talk of playing Hyde Park and instead bring their acts to an island in a middle of a lake in Scarborough.
Not that he often mentions the name of the town. He knows few will have heard of it and even less will have enjoyed a fish supper in the Golden Grid. Instead, when Peter is lunching with those who pull the strings, what he sells is the chance to appear at “Yorkshire’s answer to the Hollywood Bowl”.
“Yes, most people laugh when they first hear those words, but I don’t mind,” says the 36 year old. “Aligning ourselves with that iconic venue is about creating an image which sticks in the memory. The agents of big music stars are inundated with offers of potential gigs. You have to be different. And we are.”
While Peter’s rebranding of Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre, built on a natural amphitheatre, might be ambitious, it’s clearly working. This week any lingering sniggers were silenced with the surprise announcement that in August Britney Spears will bring her Piece of Me tour to the Yorkshire coast.
Just one of five UK dates, it will followed by appearances in more well-known venues in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin and it is nothing short of a coup for the theatre which was best known in the 1980s for staging It’s A Knockout.
The news left most people wondering quite how Scarborough managed to bag the singer, who has recently finished a four year residency at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas - a show which sold one million tickets, won rave reviews and successfully secured her comeback after the turbulent wilderness years.
“We were helped a little by the fact one of Britney’s people happens to have grown up in Leeds, so was already familiar with Scarborough,” says Peter, who received confirmation in December, but had to keep the secret until this week. “But really this is the result of our determination to keep plugging away. We knew we had something great here, we just had to let other people know about it.
“While our amphitheatre might be unusual in the UK, there are a lot of similar venues in the US so I wasn’t selling a completely alien concept.”
Since the Britney announcement, Peter’s phone has rarely stopped ringing. There has been a steady stream of requests for interviews, most though have been gentle offers from other local businesses keen to get on board the Britney bandwagon.
“We’ve had calls from hotels and B&Bs asking if we need accommodation for the crew, we’ve had restaurants ringing up offering Britney dinner, but you know what, that’s great,” he says. “If the Open Air Theatre is doing well then it should be good for the town as a whole.
“If you go to Manchester to watch a gig, chances are you will be there and back in the same day, but what we want to do is encourage people to stay the night, maybe two. They can come see Britney and then have a mini-seaside holiday.”
With another big announcement due on Monday it looks like a bright new chapter for the Open Air Theatre whose history is a little chequered. The largest of its kind in Europe, the original venue was built in the middle of Scarborough’s Peasholm Park in the 1930s and during the heyday of seaside resorts hosted sell out shows boasting 200-strong casts.
The good times didn’t last. The curtain fell on those big musicals in the 1960s and the following decade the dressing rooms were demolished and the seating removed. It limped on for a while, but in 1986 the appropriately named James Last Orchestra played the final ever concert.
Owned and run by the council, it rose from the ashes back in 2010 with a gala concert starring opera greats Jose Carreras and Dame Kiri te Kanawa, but for the most part the mainstay of the summer line-ups have been pop throwbacks from Bucks Fizz to Jason Donovan.
With only a limited season it was always hard for the council to make the venue pay while keeping up the maintenance and running costs and a few years ago it began looking for someone to take over the programming.
Having grown up just outside Blackpool, Peter has seen first hand the challenges seaside towns can face and have set up Cuffe and Taylor in 2009 with the aim of taking music to non-traditional venues he arrived in Scarborough two years ago with a decent contacts book and big ambitions.
“I fell into music promoting accidentally after organising a festival in my home town of Lytham St Annes,” he says. “I’ve been at it almost 10 years now and I do believe these kind of events can help transform a place.
“The council couldn’t risk the public’s money trying to secure acts like Britney. It had a limited budget and it did its best with it. This I think is the best of both worlds. The council still owns the site, but it has given us a 10 year lease and we have come to it with a fresh pair of eyes.”
Peter has also made some crucial changes. While one of the venue’s unique selling points was that the stage was surrounded by water, it was also one of its downsides. The audience often felt disconnected from who they were watching, but now the lake can be covered for the biggest concerts.
“We have also sorted the online box office, and we are braced for tomorrow when the Britney tickets go on sale,” says Peter. “We want to welcome fans from across the UK and abroad, but we have also ring fenced a certain amount of tickets so people from town can walk right up to the venue and It’s nice to create that buzz.”
According to latest figures from Scarborough Borough Council, more than 75,000 people attended concerts at the Open Air Theatre in 2017 - arise of 50 per cent on the previous summer. The line-up then included The Beach Boys, Little Mix and Jess Glynne and attracted fans from Japan, Hong Kong Israel and Australia.
A council spokesman said: “Local bars, restaurants and hotels all benefit from the Open Air Theatre and there has been increased demand for overnight stays. Rooms are filling up fast for the Britney date even before the tickets have gone on general sale.”
Back at the Preston offices of Cuffe and Taylor, Peter’s to do list is growing fast. There are a few pressing questions like where to park the 20 trucks which will bring the Piece of Me tour to Scarborough and how to satisfy that inevitable rider.
“Actually we have heard Britney’s rider is quite modest,” he says. “It’s funny though, we had a list of requests from Tom Jones’ people, but when he actually got here, all he really wanted was a plate of Scarborough fish and chips. That we can do.”