The only way is opera! Essex gets a cultural boost

The arts are flourishing in Thurrock, despite the town being voted the most miserable in Britain this year

Sanchez Manning
Sunday 09 December 2012 01:00 GMT

Even estate agents couldn't deny its landscape is a bit, well, industrial, and it was condemned earlier this year as the "most miserable place" in Britain. Yet Thurrock in Essex has been chosen as the second home of the Royal Opera House (ROH) and is experiencing an improbable, but full-blown, cultural revolution.

One of the driving forces behind Thurrock's artistic awakening is the new BBC director-general designate, Tony Hall. The former ROH chief Lord Hall picked the area as the location for an ambitious project to move all its stage production out of London. This decision led in 2010 to the opening of the 14-acre High House production park, where the sets for all forthcoming ballets and operas are now created before being shipped to Covent Garden.

The bucolic £60m development, complete with orchard, vegetable garden and a children's park, stands in stark contrast to the chemical factories, cement works and shipping port that surround it. But the real surprise has been the effect the arrival of the Royal Opera House has had on the residents of Thurrock.

First, there was the opera charting the history of Thurrock – Ludd and Isis – which was staged by the ROH and performed by a local cast. Then there was the creation of the community choir, which has performed with the ROH's professional chorus.

Now there are regular showings of ROH productions on big screens at High House and plans to bring touring works of opera and ballet to community theatres.

Lord Hall, 61, has called the impact the production park has had locally "mind-blowing", while others say Thurrock is at last on the map for the right reasons.

"It was incred- ible to see the talent come through in so many different ways – costume designs, the making of the props and costumes, the music, singing, dancing. It really was quite mind-blowing," Lord Hall said. "And there were wonderful stories of people getting to know their neighbours, or children finding they had a new skill or talent that they could use."

Lord Hall said the idea for erecting the production park on the site of what was originally a 16th-century smallholding came on the back of a fortuitous phone conversation on a train. He said at the time the ROH needed to relocate their production workshops, then in Stratford, east London, because they were in the middle of an industrial estate set to be redeveloped for the Olympics.

And so it was, with impeccable timing, that Andrea Stark, who was then at the Arts Council and is now the chief executive of High House, called Lord Hall mid-commute to ask if he would be interested in helping to regenerate culturally Thurrock.

"Everything seemed to fit: we could build a state-of-the-art workshop, and we could put down some strong roots in the area by working in schools, colleges and with the local residents," Lord Hall said.

The arts bug appears to be spreading further. In July 2011, the first Thurrock International Celebration of Culture – a month-long festival of arts events – was launched. In June this year, Thurrock's first International Film Festival attracted entries from all over the globe, and in July, the inaugural Thurrock Art Trail showcased the work of 60 artists.

The chief executive of Thurrock Council, Graham Farrant, said: "What the Royal Opera House has done is put culture in the mix and it's changed the way local people feel about culture. They've helped people find their voice and helped us to grow it."

In July, Thurrock had come bottom of the Government's happiness survey. Some cited the rise in crime and constant fly-tipping, but others have said the depiction is unfair.

The plan at High House is to expand employment opportunities, particularly for young people. Last month, the first national skills academy for the training of backstage skills opened on the site.

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