Croydon – from concrete hell to cutting edge?

A new arts and entertainment initiative aims to do for the unlovely borough what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao
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The Independent Culture

Its mass of office blocks and car parks have earned it an unenviable reputation as one the ugliest spots in Britain. It's boring, drab, dull. Call it what you want – nobody likes Croydon. There is universal permission to be as rude as you like about this urban punchbag. No joke too corny. Take Jimmy Carr, who was in town on Tuesday night, and quipped later on Twitter: "I'm having a knife crime in Croydon. Sorry, nice time. It's like 1974." When he played a gig there earlier in the year, he joked: "An audience member proposed – she's not even pregnant. That's a first for Croydon."

The unwritten rule on the comedy circuit is that you don't pass through these concrete woods without adding another line in the Croydon gagbook.

Blame David Bowie – who called Croydon a "complete concrete mess" when he was there briefly as a student. Or the 19th-century writer William Cobbett, who wrote: "From London to Croydon is an ugly a bit of country as any in England." Selling Croydon may just be one of the toughest PR jobs in the country.

Yet Toby Kidd, who has worked with the rock group Franz Ferdinand, still believes he can help add some shine to the much-maligned south London borough. He has been brought in to curate a new arts and entertainment programme in the town hall building, transforming old rooms with disco lights and star performers. The idea is to conjure up some long-awaited Croydon cool.

Mike Fisher, the leader of Croydon Council, has heard all the teasing before. "It's such a shame," he said of Carr's tee-heeing at Croydon's expense. "It's a cheap joke," he sighed to the local paper this week. "Some of his jokes are more akin to the 1970s." The trouble for Fisher and others is that, as far anyone outside of Croydon is concerned, the town is indeed trapped that bygone age.

When ambitious proposals to regenerate the area in the style of Barcelona, with new public squares and more interesting architecture earlier this year, the idea was roundly mocked. There was hardly a newspaper in the country which didn't succumb to the temptation of a teasing compare-and-contrast factbox. Barcelona: Gaudi's cathedral, the Picasso Museum and Barcelona FC. Croydon: A tram and the birthplace of Kate Moss. All the jokes, bruised Croydonites argue, actually mask a cultural heritage. The remind anybody who will listen – sadly for them, not many – that the Davis Theatre, which once stood in the High Street, could lay claim to hosting Buddy Holly, on his only UK tour, and Ella Fitzgerald. The actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft, poet John Ruskin and film director David Lean (there is a David Lean Cinema in Croydon) spent their childhood years there. Another treasured association is with the composer-conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who is buried in Croydon. And as Bowie did briefly, Malcolm McLaren, Roy Hudd and Ray Davies of The Kinks, studied at colleges in the area.

Toby Kidd and his colleague Sam Hunt hope their programme at the Croydon Clocktower Arts Centre, inside the Edwardian town hall building, might finally turn the tide and end the jokes. "The Clocktower has been an open secret," Kidd says. "But there is huge potential in our customer base because there's no other venue that gives the high-quality mix of art forms we can. We have to make the Clocktower represent the immense talent and diversity we know is here, and not behave like a backwater. We'll be producing music, comedy and theatre in-house on a national scale."

The test of their endeavours will come in November with a month-long festival entitled Are We There? Hip DJ Mad Professor and indie pop band Saint Etienne are due to play the Clocktower. The comedian Shazia Mirza also joins the bill, but will no doubt lay off any "Croydon is dull" shtick. New talent will be given a chance to shine, too. Sam Hunt said: "This is the biggest borough in London and 160,000 people work here in the centre, but none stays after work or ventures out at lunchtime. We're going to change that, and show them what a great playground there is for them here. The programme has to pay for itself, so we're going to use the skills we've learnt in the rock domain for Croydon's workers and residents."