Royal Tunbridge Wells may be the traditional voice of Middle England’s morality but the busybodies are in danger of being drowned out after one of its nightspots was named the best small music venue in the UK.
Music industry bible NME today awarded the title of Britain’s best small venue for 2012 to Tunbridge Wells Forum. This site, which was once a public toilet and has hosted groups including Oasis and Coldplay, celebrates its 20th anniversary next year.
The Forum triumphed out of a shortlist of 10 venues from around the country, including Bristol Thekla, the Stoke Sugarmill, Norwich Arts Centre and the Belfast Limelight. Outgoing NME editor Krissi Murison said the Tunbridge venue's "excellent booking policy, esteemed national reputation and undeniable passion for music shone through".
Jason Dormon, who co-founded The Forum, said the award was it was testament “to all those who have put so much time and effort into making the venue what it is”. From those painting the walls and unblocking the toilets to those who bought tickets.
Tunbridge’s reputation may even have helped. “It’s a bastion of middle class England in Tunbridge Wells. That helps as people can rebel here and really stand out,” Dormon said. “We hope this national recognition for the town reminds everybody locally just what an incredible asset The Forum has been and can continue to be if local people and organisations support it.”
The independent music venue, which can hold up to 250 people, was set up by Mr Dormon, Michael Oyarzabal, Peter Hoare and Mark Davyd. They secured the lease to the building and opened in January 1993
“It was an old magnolia toilet block that was being used for brass rubbings. It was actually a really good size for what we wanted,” Dormon said.
The Forum had a “honeymoon period” of selling out for several years as the music scene at the time “was running high,” Dormon said. “Then we made it to five years, then ten. Our motto was ‘we’re still here’. Every year was an achievement.” He added: “For venues of this size it’s not about money but passion.”
It hosted a series of acts on the cusp of hitting mainstream recognition. Dormon said: “The bands would work really hard, they were learning their craft in these smaller venues. They needed to learn how to win over an audience of that size.”
Chart toppers including Muse, Biffy Clyro and Mumford & Sons have all played in the venue and Adele was a supporting act shortly before receiving mainstream recognition.
The historic town became synonymous with the moral middle class during the 1950s, when the sign off to newspaper correspondence “Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells” became famous.
Residents and town councillors attempted to change the perception in 2009, and tried to introduce “Delighted, of Tunbridge Wells” instead. As a nod to its heritage, The Forum last year staged Disgusting in Tunbridge Wells, a punk music festival headlined by local band Anti-Nowhere League. Sid Vicious, bassist of the Sex Pistols, lived in the town as did Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan.
Dormon said the stereotype does occasionally ring true. “We still have to deal with middle class reactionaries; there will always be a bit of that. Every few years, you have to win over a new generation.”
Earlier this year, Tunbridge newspaper the Kent and Sussex Courier was moved to ask its readers “Forget the ‘posh’ tag are we cool?” The paper suggested it was an easy target for “reverse snobs, due to its large contingency of wealthy residents and the Royal prefix”.