Jonny Davenport (The Old Courts)

Listen to this episode of Culture Plan B here.

Music introduction – Don’t Tell Me by Conrad Murray and BAC Beatbox Academy “I see your point of view, you laid it bare for all to see, but I disagree, but I disagree”

DAVID JUBB (INTRO): Welcome to Culture Plan B, I’m David Jubb, and this is the sixth and final episode of this series in which I will not be interviewing people who’ve chatted with Oliver Dowden about the future of culture and who are now first in line for a bailout. Instead, Culture Plan B will be meeting with artists and communities who create culture outside big cultural institutions, like most people, and because it’s the last episode of this series we thought we’d do something a bit different. Don’t panic it’s not the best bits compilation. We thought we’d interview an artistic director of a massive cultural institution. So, today I’m absolutely delighted to be talking to Johnny Davonport who is artistic director of The Old Courts in Wigan, more than one and a half acres of cultural centre bang in the middle of the town. Johnny, with Dave Jenkins and Becky Davenport, have restored The Old Courts after moving in in 2014. They’ve worked tirelessly to create an art centre that has been built owned and is loved by the local community. For me, it is exactly the kind of venue which, fairly funded, could complement a properly funded sector of thousands and thousands of independent artists and communities. We have currently got the structure of arts funding so very wrong and this is never been more highlighted than during the Covid crisis as Saad Eddine Said explained in episode 5, “Our systems and structure in the cultural sector, including the way we fund, belongs to another age not our one, the question is, how do we make change, how do our funders move from an unequal and dysfunctional cultural sector to one that supports communities, is owned by communities, and the artists they work with.” Let’s imagine what happens next year, when, in April 2021, the Crown jewels are probably still unable to fully open without social distancing and they come back and they ask for more cash it wouldn’t be surprising would it if communities say, “Hang on a minute didn’t you get a multi-billion pound bailout, what have you got to show for that?” When I think about the bailout for the Crown jewels of the cultural sector that is to be overseen, yes let’s not forget, by the chair of the Royal National Theatre, I feel deeply despondent about the future of funded culture in the UK. But when I speak to Conrad Murray, Common Wealth Theatre Anisa Morridadi Company Three, Saad Eddine Said, and now Jonny from The Old Courts, I feel incredibly optimistic. Arts funders, please catch up before it’s too late. I hope you enjoy this final episode of Culture Plan B and hearing from Johnny and all about the inspiring story and work of The Old Courts in Wigan.

MUSIC INTRODUCTION Don’t Tell Me by Conrad Murray and BAC Beatbox Academy: “Don’t tell me what to be, Don’t tell me how to speak, Don’t tell me how to love, Don’t tell me how to feel, Don’t tell me how to do, Don’t tell me how to think, Don’t tell me how to be, Don’t tell me how to think, it will be ok if we agree to disagree, it will be ok”

DAVID JUBB: I’ve got someone painting the house. The landlord got the decorators around, so I’ve asked him to be quiet for the next hour.

JONNY DAVENPORT: He can do the cutting in though can’t he, for the next hour.

DAVID JUBB: Yeah, yeah, yeah exactly, ‘cause he was on the roof scraping the mould off the tiles and that was like making a fucking an incredible…


DAVID JUBB: Right, okey-dokey, so, hello Jonny, would you be up for giving just a short, sort of, visual description of yourself for anyone who’s listening who might find that helpful?

JONNY DAVENPORT: Yeah absolutely. I well I’m, I’m wearing very comfortable summery style clothes. I am about 5” 8’. I’m a white Wiganer, quite heavily tattooed with receding hairline.

DAVID JUBB: Thank you very much and since last episode I’m, yeah, I’m still a balding man, I’ve got a stubbly beard. Today wearing 1.5 magnification reading glasses from the chemist, in denial I really need 2.0. I’m wearing a brown stingy brimmed hat and a green cheque shirt my daughter gave me for a birthday about 10 years ago at which point I think it was already decidedly second hand.

So, Jonny look, I’m a huge fan of The Old Courts in Wigan and I want to introduce you to our listeners. So, we’re talking about Gerrard Winstanley House, otherwise known as The Old Courts, which was a huge old courts of justice building in the centre of Wigan. And you are co-founder along with Becky Davenport and Dave Jenkins, and the three of you had a long history previous to The Old Courts at Eckersley Mill, which was rehearsal rooms for bands and musicians and when The Old Courts, I think became available in, was it 2014?


DAVID JUBB: Yeah that you jumped at it, moving in, I think with a bunch of tenants that came with you from Eckersley Mill. And so, the three of you, working with your local community have turned The Old Courts into a multi-arts centre with visual-arts, theatre, dance, spoken word, and, unsurprisingly, given your history, music. And The Old Courts hosts public debates, weddings it’s used by the local community for hundreds of events every year and, as well as, galleries theatres, gig spaces, shared workspace, artist studios, cafes and bars, many retail spaces for artists, you have a record shop, which I’m very jealous of, a vintage design studio and a charity shop indeed you’ve got 69,000 square feet of true civic space in the heart of Wigan. And, if this wasn’t enough, I think it was in 2017, if I’m right, that you spotted an opportunity, just two minutes walk up the road from The Old Courts, to get your hands on a derelict Grand Hotel which you’re in the process of planning the development of and the idea, I think, is that this 42 bedroom hotel would allow The Old Courts to expand its provision of artist studio space, and you’ll provide dedicated workspace and equipment on a membership model for early stage entrepreneurs especially, is it right, especially those in the digital creative industries?

JONNY DAVENPORT: Yeah, absolutely, I couldn’t’ve put that description better myself.

DAVID JUBB: I’ve got a bit more, sorry! I’m going to keep going. It just doesn’t stop when it comes to The Old Courts and the idea is it will provide in-house accommodation for artists visiting Wigan. I think you got support from Nestor with a loan to make all that happen. And as if that isn’t enough, then in 2018 you bought the Royal Court Theatre in Wigan, which is a theatre in which Charlie Chaplin performed and it was I think 3000 seat theatre, and I think it was last used as a theatre as a performance space 40 years ago with the aim of restoring it to its former glory. And you’ve started work on that. And you were helped to buy the theatre with funds from Power to Change. And what I love about this story is that I think you bought it in an auction, fending off interest from developers, who would no doubt have changed it into something very different.

JONNY DAVENPORT: Yeah, so that was really memorable day, so it was at auction at Bolton Wanderers stadium. We’d never to an auction before, certainly haven’t been to a property auction before and we were surrounded by people who clearly just sort of went out to buy £1,000,000 worth of property or to buy, you know, 10 properties, or 50 strips of land, and we just felt totally intimidated but no we’re here now, we’re not going to get it, but will try anyway and we’ll just get a little bit of experience out of it. So you know we started bidding and somebody was bidding against us and it was clear that he was looking over at us, he was sizing us up and we thought either he’s gonna think these haven’t got any money, ‘cause we didn’t fit in a room, or these are crazy enough that they’re just gonna keep bumping the price up to make it more expensive for me. Luckily he only been a couple of times, we won it and it was just the most surreal thing, being shepherded through to the next room to sign the paperwork on the theatre we’d just bought, and as a group we were just trying not to cry, we were just that happy, that excited, full range of emotions, it was yeah really memorable day

DAVID JUBB: Amazing. Congratulations on that purchase. I’ve been to The Old Courts in Wigan because I was lucky enough that you guys are part of a programme we ran in Battersea Arts Centre when I worked there and I know that your programme of work and what you do is nothing short of absolutely outstanding for freelancers, for creative businesses, for young people, makers who are members of the Wigan community, and for loads of other Wigan residents who you work with so collaboratively on everything you do you’ve supported the development of a huge creative ecology in the community in Wigan and you are increasingly admired nationally by arts organisations which are waking up to what you do. And I happen to know Johnny, that from 2014, in those early days, to 2019, over a five year period. That you received total revenue grant funding from Arts Council England in projects of 53 grand.


DAVID JUBB: Spread that over five years, that’s an average of 10 grand a year now that’s not to be rude about Arts Council England it is just to note, I think, what incredible things that with the right leadership, and the right intention, a community serving venue like The Old Courts can achieve and, I think, just helps us imagine what you would be able to achieve if you just received a little bit more every year from Arts Council. And perhaps, this is probably a bit cheeky, but perhaps just for the sake of completeness we should also know that during the same five year period, when you receive the equivalent of just over 10 grand year, as the only major centre in Wigan, the Royal Opera house in London received over 125 million pounds of revenue funding, which is over 25 million a year on average. Som Johnny, tell us how. How do you do it for 10 grand?

JONNY DAVENPORT: Well the honest answer is, when we came into this we imagined what the funding landscape was probably like, it won’t be for us, so let’s, you know, let’s not dip our toe in that, this just needs to be about ideas, commitment, and graft, a little bit of risk taking, but graft. So that’s how we started off, we sorta thought well nobody’s gonna give us the equipment we needs, nobody’s gonna come in and decorate it, nobody’s going to basically provide the infrastructure that we need to put on the events that we know we can we can do now. So, we just got the keys to the building and we just cracked on. So, we took walls down, we put walls up, we scraped paint. The big thing to start off our project was being sympathetic to the building. It’s a Victorian building with the original parquet flooring through 90% of it. In the 80s that had had concrete put over it, then it had carpet tiles, things like that. And it really was friends and family helping us as well. Us doing 60/70 hours a week, some nights just working right through because we just felt well this is the only way to do it. And it’s really made us stick with our values really that nothing comes easy and nothing should come easy. Now, hopefully that’s not what we’re going to be doing in the future, but we’ve got teams in place, we’ve got processes now we’ve got that little bit more fluidity, but it absolutely came about with just pure graft.

DAVID JUBB:  That’s amazing. Could you tell me a bit about yours and Dave’s and Becky’s relationship? ‘Cause if I understand it, you three are at the heart of it, you’ve been the team that’s, kind of, really, led it, and I’d love to know a little bit more about your working relationship and how that’s worked and how you take on different roles, it’d just be great to hear more about the trio.

JONNY DAVENPORT: Yeah sure. So, the three of us actually have got some shared qualities but our backgrounds are just totally different. So, I’m a drummer, I’m 38 now, I’ve been a musician since I was 10, I’ve been in bands, I’ve lived a long studio life, performed live on the BBC, that was my lane really, so that, was my primary source of interest for this in the first place. Becky’s background is creative advertising, sales, these types of massively relevant and really creative but really practical functions that she brings. And Dave’s background is plain and simply about numbers and strategy. So, if we weren’t doing this particular project, there isn’t anything I could think of where Dave and I, or Becky and Dave, or me and Becky, or the three of us, would actually be compatible. But it just so happens, you know, you take one of us out and there’s just an incredible hole missing, there’s experience vacuum, if you like, and a skills vacuum. But this just, you know, it came at a time when Dave was looking for a little bit of a career change, and, in all honesty, Becky and I said to Dave, “Right, okay, we’ve got this project about to begin, but we are slightly daunted, we know what we need to be doing in terms of the events and who to engage, we feel like we’ve got that boxed off, but moneys involved and there’s big decisions, we’re not scared of them, but we want to take the correct, bold decisions.” So, Dave initially actually came on board to advise or we actually asked him for a couple of days of his time and, you know, six years later we’ve had, I would say, more than our fair share of Dave’s time. So, Dave,  you know, from the off with us, just became excited by it and so committed to making it work and making it happen there’s nothing like this in Wigan, which is great, but there is no precedent, whatsoever, so yeah, we just took it on, and yeah we’re still here.

DAVID JUBB: It’s amazing and tell us about some of the kind of programmes you’ve developed in partnership with local community or local artists or freelancers, just give us a flavour of some of the kind of stuff that you do on an ongoing basis at The Old Court.

JONNY DAVENPORT: From day one there was a lot of interest through our friends and people we’ve worked with creatively before, and they sort of came to us and said, you know, “It’s massive, the building, what are your plans for it?” So we were sort of like, “Well, we’ve got some plans, what are your plans for the building?” So, we always had that open door mindset and that probably was to our detriment at the beginning because we were trying to do so many things to make it everybody’s project, everyone’s building, that it probably made it 10 times more stressful for us personally than it needed to be, but that’s the way we did things, but in terms of programmes going forward, our music programme has been strong from day one, that’s, you know, your local grassroots music. There’s a fantastic scene in Wigan anyway. Albeit slightly dormant around the time we took on The Old Courts but it was there. We forged really strong collaborations with local artist groups, such as The Cross Street Artists who are based elsewhere in Wigan. We’ve just become friends with lots of groups of people and we’ve just been, I suppose trusting in the fact that if you’re kind to people, they’re kind to you, you trust each other then opportunities just happen. And we’ve made The Old Courts a building where the best art centres for me were no appointment is necessary, that’s one of the things I loved about Battersea Arts Centre, you just go in and figure out how you’re going to be involved. So, it was all about those collaborations with local visual art groups, Working Music Service have been fantastic with us, we run a school of rock in collaboration with them. And then you sort of take stock after a year or two and think, wow we actually do have a lot of, you know official or unofficial partners and co-conspirators in in the borough. But, yeah, music was the strongest element from the off, but if it was just music we wanted to do, we wouldn’t have taken on The Old Courts we’d have got something infinitely smaller, but we always wanted to go into visual art to theatre, which is why the whole CTN journey was just a huge catalyst for us.

DAVID JUBB: And CTN and is the Collaborative Touring Network. So it’s a partnership, which I understand now you run, your running the next, so it used to be run by Battersea Arts Centre and it worked with about 9 towns and cities and people who often sort of invading spaces like you guys did and taking over. Actually, which is also the formation of Battersea Arts Centre in 1974, when artists sort of moved in and took over and you’re now, I think, running that network around the country.

JONNY DAVENPORT:  That’s right and the other partners on it as well have been a fantastic source of information, support and confidence building for us. You know, bear in mind, when we were first given a place on the CTN, we weren’t even entirely sure how to label someone a producer, what does that entail? And I remember saying to yourself David just, you know, “I feel like we’re out of our depth.” You said, “You should never ever say that about yourselves. Always just think, you know, maybe everyone else is, or maybe we’re not interested.” We’re very good at saying, “Right, OK what does that mean? We’re not sure how to do that? Or we’re not very good at that, tell us more? And sort of nagging people and pestering people and being inquisitive has made us learn really quick. Our music game, let me go back to that, that was really strong anyway, but, you know, our theatre programming was, I would say it was weak, but it was virtually non-existent. So, it’s been a really steep learning curve for us.

DAVID JUBB: And the reason why I said that Jonny, ‘cause I remember that conversation, was because from my perspective, exactly what you said a few minutes ago when you invited people in and said, “What do you want to do with this space? How can we support you to do what you wanna do? And as you said that creates quite a stressful experience for the, kind of, people who are running that community serving venue because you’re serving and sometimes that is really stressful and worrisome but actually the reason why I said that, in terms of opening and running a venue, that is that is what cultural venues should be doing. So, the idea that you would come to us and sort of feel like “Oh, God, we’re out of our depth here.” I suppose I was just trying to say to you, “Man, we’re out of our depth ‘cause you are way ahead of us, you are, you know, in terms of co-creating and co-curating with local communities, you are, you’re smashing it. And I remember when I came up the first time, that palpable sense of shared ownership was something that is so special and you, I don’t know, there is something about a building when you walk inside it, I was having a conversation with young members of Company Three the other day, and they were talking about walking into big cultural institutions where they instantaneously feel, sort of, unwelcome there, they shouldn’t be there and the moment you walk into The Old Courts in Wigan if feels permissive, and it feels you can explore, and it feels in every decision then, from the tiles to the décor, to the welcome, to the programme information on the wall that tells you that that space is an open space, it is a space that you can come in and you can change. And so that’s why I said that to you because I, you are, you know you’re top of the ladder in terms of that skill area and so many other cultural institutions around the country could learn so much from you. Could you talk a bit about how, how you feel you’ve impacted Wigan in relationship to independent artists or freelance artist?

JONNY DAVENPORT: I just think it’s got so much better. The problem was, prior to having a sort of a centralised, safe place for, you know, for freelancers who can be surrounded by like-minded people, who can get work, who are taken seriously, prior to that it was almost like, and this is probably true of so many other towns, if you want to do something with this, you want to have a career, just go to London, or go as near as you can to London. That’s the theme that we’re trying to smash through with our audience development as well. But with freelancers here, it’s not necessarily that they couldn’t find any work but by the time they travel to it, it wasn’t worth their while ‘cause they could get a day here and there, these types of things, but also one of the things that we do well, and this is absolutely a Dave Jenkins thing, this is, if a freelancer is an incredibly talented individual they sometimes, they tail off and move into another sector or they’ll go work in a job that isn’t using their talents to the best of their ability. Purely because they don’t understand what they need to have in place. So an example will be, there’s a fantastic film maker that we know he’s done a lot of work for and with The Old Courts, but he was just totally stressed out and intimidated by bookkeeping, tax returns, he didn’t realise that there were potentially grants available for equipment. And it sometimes, as well it can be the things that freelancers don’t particularly want to do as well, they just want to do the thing that excites them and gets the juices flowing and reminds them why they’re doing what they do. So, I think sometimes an arts organisations role isn’t necessarily just to do creative things it’s to make sure that people can, it’s to enable creative work.

DAVID JUBB: And do you still have all your, sort of, smaller studio spaces in the building that artists use? How does that work?

JONNY DAVENPORT:  That is possibly the most flexible element of everything that we do because we’d be really naive if we said, “Right okay this room…” This is random example but… “This studio space is £200 a month, that’s how much they are.” So, what we do is, we don’t like to do stuff where people apply about space online and then they get a yes or no blah blah blah. If possible, we say well come in, come and have a coffee with us, and not only will we be able to get to the bottom of what it is you need, you’ll see if you like us as well. Our ideal tenants are people who are happy with the situation. It’s not just space, there’s actually cheaper space elsewhere in Wigan, but you’re not just getting space when you come to The Old Courts. It’s the whole creative ecology that we’re trying to manage. And that genuinely has led to so much work, with a dressmaker, a vintage dressmaker works on site. I was looking on Instagram earlier this morning, so the same film maker who I was just referencing then, he’s done a load of photography for her during lockdown, of her products. And just things like that, it’s, and that hasn’t got our name on it, or anywhere near it, that’s people who met through our building going on and just getting on with it, you know, cracking on with their careers, and that’s you know that’s why we do it.

DAVID JUBB: And it’s probably too much of a detailed question, but I’m just intrigued as to if you are an artist, what are the sorts of rates that you would pay for a space in your building? You said it’s super-flexible yet what does that actually mean?

JONNY DAVENPORT: Say you wanted to dress the old court, which is a Victorian courtroom, with all of the original features, including the judge’s ink well she say incredibly dramatic space, you could hire that out, for example for a week, you could dress that. We’ve even got a lady who designs, basically she themes rooms for any occasion, she’s got thousands of pounds worth of props, we could put you in touch with her and you could have it for a week, the BBC hired our whole building out for a week to film World on Fire, so you know you are talking, these are really high, but then we’ve got down to an artist might come to us and say, “I had a studio at home, it’s flooded, I just need somewhere for a couple of days.” We might say, “Right, okay, give us a tenner for that.” But it’s from one extreme to the other.

DAVID JUBB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s really interesting. And tell us, maybe, a bit more about some of the other, you mentioned earlier the School of Rock, talk maybe a bit about some of the work, that you’ve been doing to build up what I witnessed and experienced as an incredible affection between the surrounding community and The Old Courts, tell us about some of that work.

JONNY DAVENPORT: So, one of the favourite sessions we have on each week is jammers club. So, it actually started off with one or two, one or two gents from Wigan who were maybe about 60/70. They actually said they didn’t want to come to gigs, gigs too loud for them, we’ll come and just play. So, it sort of started offers as off the cuff as that. That’s now built up to a group, every Wednesday, of about 35/40 of them, they come down and they’ll jam, so we set up all the equipment for them. We’ve got them gigs off the back of that. That’s an actual social circle, but it’s broken off into other social groups as well so they don’t just see each other for that group, and it’s that type of thing really and, I think one thing that we’ve managed to crack, that if I’m honest, some people do sometimes turn their noses up at, is, a lot of the stuff we do, the actual, and I’m not referring to The Jammers  in this, but a lot of the work is of okay quality that’s produced, but we couldn’t give a monkeys in some instances, because, yes, we like to have excellent things happening in our building, and they do, but for us it always just boils down to like, you know, we would typically look in at The Jammers as we’re walking past and go, “How would I feel if that was my dad in there? Or how would I feel if that was somebody’s aunty?” I’d be made up if they were in there getting that support, and again that’s one of the reasons why we do what we do. So, that group is, that’s a really good example, and you know, we quite often see some of those faces at events and a real mark of success, is that they don’t know us all. ‘Cause when we started there was one or two or three of us rattling round this enormous building and if we heard a dog or something at the other end of the corridor, it’s a bit like, “Who’s in?” type of thing. I said, that needs to not be the case, so yeah there’s so much been going on in the building for years now, it’s just, again people taking ownership of it.

DAVID JUBB: That idea of taking ownership feels like it’s a real sort of consistent value that runs through everything that you do and I’m really intrigued about the fact that, it in everything that you’re describing, it seems like you see yourself as facilitators and supporters and developers and nurturers of other people’s ideas and you’ve been keen to point out a few times that you say,  “That’s not us.” Or, “That’s not Old Courts.” And I just think there’s an interesting generosity at the heart of that, that is quite rare in relationship to cultural institutions, I think cultural institutions, tend to, kind of, if something’s going on and it’s good and people like it, they sort of wanna be, they want, you know, whether they want their name all over it, or they want it to… Because I think there’s something about what you do, which is something I admire enormously, which is about providing, yeah, literally sometimes physical space or metaphorical space, or resources, or advice, or connections, or a trajectory, or a path and to enable people to come together. And you said right at the beginning of this conversation about people in Wigan thinking that, you know, maybe culture wasn’t something that they would connect with or engage with. Do you feel you’ve seen a shift in that in terms of the time that The Old Courts has been open?

JONNY DAVENPORT: Seriously, if you’d surveyed a large number of people, and just said, you know, “Be totally truthful, what is arts and culture?” I think the common thread would have been Shakespeare, the word posh, and this sentiment of, “Not for us” I did some youth group sessions at the, at our last building Eckersley Mill with some kids who had been excluded from school, or they had the threat of expulsion. It was with a fantastic poet called Mike Garry from Manchester. And the kids, one of them said something, and I thought “Wow, that is the most poignant thing.” He said like, “Culture doesn’t happen in Wigan. We’ve only got like Northern Soul and Wigan Pier.” And I thought, “Wow.” That’s kind of the mindset and it’s just, I think are our initial job was to just hold a mirror up to the people of Wigan and say, “Do you know what? Well, what is culture then? If we if we haven’t got it here, what on earth is it?” So, yeah, there’s definitely been a crazy sort of tempo change for, not just the amount of cultural activity, but the appetite for it. So, you know when we started it was sort of, can we get anyone through the door? And don’t get me wrong, I think all arts centres still have those, you know, those really stressful events, don’t they? Where the work is great, but people don’t get it, or you know. We now have an influx of Wiganers who say to us, “What about this? Have you thought about this?” Or, you know, “My friend was in Leeds at the weekend and they saw this, have you thought about this?” And it’s just that thing about people, its ownership isn’t it?

DAVID JUBB: A hundred per cent.

JONNY So people feel compelled to bring ideas to us. And as well, something that, it just makes me absolutely beam with pride is, sometimes we’ll see on social media people have tagged us in on an idea and they go, “The Old Courts will do that” Or, you know, “Mention it to The Old Courts.” And its brilliant because I’m not The Old Courts, neither’s Becky, neither’s Dave, neither’s Michelle, neither’s Derek, you know. All of our staff, they aren’t The Old Courts. The Old Courts, it’s an idea really, isn’t it? Yes, it’s bricks and mortar but it’s just, it is an idea. And I know that sounds ridiculously vague and idealistic, but, but it is, it’s a way of thinking I suppose. The Old Courts is just it’s an old court building, so we called it that, but it’s just trying to be positive in your locality. That’s the same for Wigan, it’s the same for Hull, the same for Thanet, you know, these are some of the partners we’ve worked with on the Collaborative Touring Networking. It’s not just a Wigan thing, you know, our problems, or our negative perceptions of our hometown, but they’ve just got a Wigan accent, that’s the only difference, you know.

DAVID JUBB: I mean I think I so agree with what you’re saying. And I think that the idea of The Old Courts is partly, surely, the idea of people being able to, and feeling like they are welcome to, and feeling like they are encouraged to, and feeling just like that it is natural to just connect with one another. I always remember there was this piece of research that was done at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which is now the Leeds Playhouse and it was done, this is a long time ago, it must be like 15 years ago, maybe, something like that, and they had a big housing estate on the road opposite the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and it was noted always that there was very few people who would come from that housing state to the Playhouse, and you know whatever they offered, whatever tickets they offered, special offers this, that and the other, and people didn’t come. And they did a project which is basically, I can’t remember what it’s called, but basically they did a project where they got staff members to go across the road and knock on people’s doors and say, “Hi, I’m, you know, I’m David, I work in the West Yorkshire Playhouse across the road and I just, yeah, wondered if you’ve ever been and what you think of it, and whether you’d ever come, and also just wanted to say hi.” And part of the conversation was that it was always about inviting people to go and meet them if they fancied it, for a cup of tea, or whenever, if they ever fancied going over. And this project basically, kind of, shifted the perception within that housing estate of the Playhouse because suddenly it became about this opportunity to connect. It didn’t come, it wasn’t about this opportunity to see something experimental, you know or even to go out for a night out, it was actually simply an invitation to connect, it was an invitation to connect with another human being, and also to know someone. It just reminded me of when you were talking about the guys who play the music in their 60s and 70s, and then I, I kind of recognised those sorts of guys from Battersea in terms of people who would get to know the building for one reason, but then would actually, you’d find them then going and seeing all sorts of different stuff, not because they were fans of experimental theatre, or fans of this, or that, because it was The Old Courts cause it was the Battersea Arts Centre, because they had built a set of connections there that, exactly what you said Jonny, is ownership. They felt a sense of ownership, which was there for this thing that was being put on was there’s because they own the place, it’s their gaff. And it’s just something about that I think, you know, they might like what they see, hate what they see, there’ll always be vocal about what they see and they’ll always talk about it, but it’s just that that thing of ownership, is something that cultural institutions in this country, I think are so bad at. It’s amazing to me that that report happened 15 years ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse, which seemed to me to be like a, kind of, profoundly brilliant and obvious thing, this is what we need to be doing. And yet we’re still focusing on, kind of, marketing and offers and wondering and wrestling with how do we get those people in? And how do we… Well, just make them feel like they own the building.

JONNY DAVENPORT: Yeah, just be kind to people. I mean we’ve employed that from day one, because when I see people, people, in terms of audience development, people give us various chances, so you know, when we put our first theatre events on. We put a couple of shows on, and they were really good, but nobody turned up, and people were like, “It’s just a theatre place now isn’t it?” I was like, “Well no, that’s something we’re trying, well go on, you’re being critical, what do you like? What would you like to see?”  It’s really difficult when you’re starting off to show people what an arts centre even is, when you don’t fully understand what yours is going to be anyway. But it was that little thing about putting our arm round people and saying, “Well, come on, let’s come up with the idea together, bring your band, bring your event or, you know, bring your theatre show, you know, come and develop your work here. Again, it’s just the open door policy, but because people care about The Old Courts, they give us a lot more slack, because we do listen to feedback, we listen to everything that people say, we filter that down into actions, and as a result, to a large degree, a lot of the things that we do really well is because people have told us what needed to change. If you don’t take that on board then us personally, we’d just have a massive Victorian building, but nobody in it.

DAVID JUBB: Yes, I remember that. Yeah so Covid? What has happened? What what have you guys been doing? Have you been doing nothing?

JONNY DAVENPORT: So what we’ve done is, the digital editions, which is The Old Courts online, so a little bit like these podcasts really, it’s relying on remote technology but the end product is, we’ve actually paid for 343 artists to perform during lockdown from anything ranging from their nan’s house where they were quarantined, to outside ‘cause it’s the only place their phone could get a signal, just an any conceivable difficulty or quirk if you like we’ve had them. We’ve got a big creative writing and spoken word scene in Wigan and I feel like that’s a discipline that’s really prevalent in a lot of towns, it’s the same in Wigan. So, we’ve decided to self-publish a book online. We’ve created a link on our website for a short period of time where anybody can submit their work, and literally the brief was ‘How do you feel at the moment?’ So, we didn’t want to go too, sort of, Covid specific. But we’ve had 177 submissions they’re all and going into the piece of work by the way. But we’ve been through the work and we’ve identified at least 60 of those who will be new published writers as a result of this work. So, things like that, it’s just we thought, “Alright, OK, so we can’t do what is our bread and butter, let’s skill ourselves at doing something else. And In addition to that we’ve been running a welfare programme that’s taken up an enormous amount of time. But and I wrote this down because if I got these statistics wrong, I would be in trouble, so our volunteers have delivered 800 or just over 800 food parcels so far and we’ve handled 550 welfare or loneliness calls. Our volunteers have been overseeing a welfare service, if you like, that was set up in conjunction with Wigan Council. So basically, if somebody’s lonely or somebody’s running out of food and, bearing in mind this was when people couldn’t go out very easily, you know, it’s like uber locked down type of thing. So somebody might ring up Wigan Council on the number that they gave them and said OK, “I’m really lonely can’t get in touch with my son.” This type of thing. I’m elderly, I just needs somebody to talk to.” So, all of these calls came through to us and we handled all of these. So, we built a programme on our internal computer system that we use for everything we do with The Old Courts. So, that scheduled callbacks, it logged information and our volunteers would put in, you know, notes about the individuals, so if that person had been scheduled for another call, if it wasn’t that same person, they could look on and go alright okay actually this gent’s really hard of hearing or this lady, she doesn’t like calls in late at night or you know. We thought it was going really well and it was. And I only realised quite how well… I’m a massive Everton fan, and I really follow ‘Everton in the Community’ which is an award-winning community initiative, fantastic. I saw an article written by Denise Barrett-Baxendale, who is the CEO of Everton, and she was hitting out some stats of what they’d done with food parcels and welfare calls, and I was absolutely astonished we’d done more than a Premier League football club. So, I fed that back to our stuff and I said, “Do you know, I just wanna make you aware, and everybody’s efforts are fantastic and crucial, but just this is the level that you’re operating at.” And I personally haven’t taken a single one of those calls, I haven’t done a single one of those parcels so, you know, the credit absolutely goes to our volunteers, but I just thought, you know, this isn’t anything whatsoever to do with visual art, with music, theatre, but this is our value for this period. And we’ve decided we’re going to, in some form or another, we’re going to keep that going indefinitely, as long as it’s feasible, you know, well into next year hopefully. And I think that’s one of the things that we do well, it might not be the things that you envisage you’d be doing when you founded an arts centre, but who’s to say that of lesser importance in anyway shape or form. And its galvanising our community. Actually, that endears all those people towards us anyway, so you know, it’s a win-win for all involved, on both sides of that phone call, and our volunteers were, you know, totally happy to do it and got the biggest sense of achievement from it.

DAVID JUBB: Do you remember how it started? ‘Cause everything you’re saying makes 100% sense and it completely, like others that have, other organisations, and cultural organisations and artists that have been doing this, it feels like a continuation of actually, as you say it’s different, but it is also the same it’s different, in that it’s not putting on gigs, it’s not hosting people together, it’s not creating culture in an obvious way, but actually it is creating culture and it’s creating connections and relationships, and it’s finding ways to connect people just in, it’s just a different context as you say. What was it that made you guys go, “We need to do this?” Or was it a conversation with the council or was it a sense that you were missing people, or people were missing you? How did it come about?

JONNY DAVENPORT: It was a bit of conversations with the council. We’ve got a fantastic relationship with Wigan Council. The things that that they can do to enable culture, they do. The things that they need not to do to enable culture, they also do some we’re in constant dialogue with, you know, various people at the council for various reasons, and this probably the part of the podcast that is gonna sound the most corporate: customer service to us is absolutely everything.


JONNY DAVENPORT: It just blows our minds how negligent people are with customer service in all walks of life. I am astounded on a daily basis, hasn’t happened today yet, but it’s early, where just people don’t value personal interactions with people, and personal even if it’s online. So, for us, it’s always been about customer service and this just felt like a really urgent extension of our customer service, you know, values if you like. And besides that, our staff who have been manning the phones just thought, “Do you know what, we’re we’re at home, we frustrated as hell we’re not at The Old Courts working and I wanna volunteer for this.” So, some of them volunteered for it. We’ve had 80 odd volunteers externally, and it’s just, these people just wanted to put back and, you know, all power to them, and that’s been, you know we’ve had the full range and demographic of people. There’s actually people who you could argue are isolated and have probably had welfare calls they’ve come back and said, “That was amazing, I’ve got so much use out of that and that’s actually spurred me on, who can I help? And that’s job done isn’t it.

DAVID JUBB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s amazing and your value around customer service is so bang on in terms of what you feel when you come into The Old Courts ‘cause, I feel I’ve been banging on about community serving venues and actually the consistent thing there is service, is this idea that we are, you know, we are at service, it is our role to serve to support. I’ve often felt in conversations with people in the cultural sector that somehow people sometimes slightly turn their nose up at that idea, or that they feel that actually somehow, you know, it’s not about service, it’s about creating great art that will inspire and will, you know, amaze people. Yeah of course it’s about that, but actually, in order to do that you have to be in service as a space as a venue, as an ecology, as a community of people, there is an element of being in service, and to go back to your earlier word, being kind. It feels like what you’ve done during this period of time, yeah, it feels, yeah, as you say, maybe a different kind of activity, but also an entirely and totally natural extension of what you’ve done, it’s really interesting to hear that you’re thinking of continuing into next year.

JONNY DAVENPORT: That service as is, might actually be required, you know, because of the current situation, it might still actually be required then. But, you know, hypothetically saying it isn’t, how else can we use that? And we’ve spent a lot of time, and money really, trying to get into our customer’s minds to think how can we do this better, picking up the phone and speaking to people. You know, not many, sort of, directors from an arts centre I would guess are going to say, “Right, let’s spend our time cold calling people for their opinions.” ‘Cause that’s just going to be nigh on pointless. But it’s about finding another little way, is there another way? How can we get more face time with people? And do you know what that actually just makes, so we think, that makes the job nicer as well. You know when you were saying about service, I think some people are slightly uncomfortable with that word being attached to themselves, and I think that’s an ego thing and it is, you know, this whole elitest mentality, and that’s one of the big things that when we entered all of, you know, this this world of arts and culture, we were really intimidated going into lots of places and we didn’t feel like we could just be honest and vulnerable in our questioning. And the moment you find someone else in another arts organisation or show or whatever it is who actually has walked a bit of the walk and you can start picking at them and they’re receptive to that, that is just the most liberating thing, because you think, do you know what, I didn’t know, or do you know what I did know that, and, yeah so, maybe I’m actually quite good at this. It’s confidence, isn’t it? But you have got to be humble doing this. Everyone’s learning and I haven’t met anybody in this sector yet, Dave Moutrey, for example, lovely guy.

DAVID JUBB: CEO of Home in Manchester

JONNY DAVENPORT: He just sort of said to me, I had met him at the old Rep in Birmingham, and I had about a 20-minute conversation with him and that 20 minutes was amazing CPD for me. It’s not always easy to put yourself in those positions ‘cause you don’t know everybody yet, although you know, it’s a small world, it’s a small sector, that’s another reason you should be kind to people, I literally, like I say, I’ve learnt more in that 20 minute conversation with one person, yeah, be kind to people.

DAVID JUBB: When you look back at the journey, which I’ve heard you humbly say, as well, that you’re still at the beginning of, actually what you have achieved in the last six years, I just think, and I think what you have achieved also during this god awful COVID-19 situation, is just incredible, and so many parts of the cultural sector have so much to learn from your approach and your values and the way of your going about it. But in terms of having gone on that journey and having unlocked The Old Courts, and gone in there and opened it up and created relationships, and built a community of artists and creatives, and built a community around The Old Courts, what could the cultural sector do differently to mean that there are more Old Courts, in more towns around this country? What are some of the issues within the way the cultural sector is organised or funded or structured that would have made things much more encouraging, kind, and supportive for you?

JONNY DAVENPORT: Well, for me, it’s quite simple isn’t it? You know, when I speak to people in towns I feel, you know, like similar to Wigan, who maybe been doing this a lot longer than us, as a lot of people have, they’ve historically struggled to get support. That’s a culture that I feel is starting to change, the narrative has definitely changed. It’s London in particular, it’s a metropolis of opportunity for a Wiganer going down who’s, some of the facilities, just some of the really basic things that lots of small towns don’t seem to have. The flipside of that is, as well, the ambition of people in small towns needs to change, but I suppose that’s partly through knowledge of what opportunities are available, but stating the absolute obvious, there’s talent everywhere in every single part of every single town across the world. But just, I think what would be a really good leap forward in solving this problem would be just a couple more sort of places like The Old Courts where they’ve done it with nothing to start off, I think that’s a good lesson, that resonates locally as well because it is like this stereotypical Wigan thing, it’s just graft, you know, you get nothing if you don’t work hard, and that’s true but there is a balance to be had. But I think things that really help are really edgy, overtly working class groups of artists, so Young Identity in Manchester, they’re a brilliant group of poets and their stuff is just mind-blowingly good, but they are from Manchester and, you know, they don’t curb their accents as well. I, and other people, have been guilty of that, sometimes you think, “How should I talk in this room?” Well talk as you do and just be confident of who you are and realise that the culture… you know, culture doesn’t happen in Wigan, we’ve only got this, we’ve only got that, that’s Wigan culture type of thing. It is this whole notion of holding a mirror up to your town and think you know not, how can we be more like this other town? What is it that makes us stand out? And let’s absolutely ram that down people’s throats. And it’s just being edgy, but I do think, you know, how funding is split up, that that’s, you know, it’s just so, so unevenly spread. But a testament to the places that don’t have the funding is, it’s, you know, it’s life on a struggle, but they are finding a way. So, you know, it’s this thing about, you know, what we say, “Imagine what we could do if we have this.” I just think maybe…

DAVID JUBB: Then maybe it’s an unfair question but: what is this? You know, what is, what does The Old Courts aspire to have every year as, you know, the moment you’re doing everything that you do through hard work and through scraping together bits of project funding and all bits of investment or loans from other people as we talked about earlier. But what would make a difference, you know, in terms of being really able to, both sustain what you’re doing, but also really kind of enrich it and grow it?

JONNY DAVENPORT: The answer is, it’s loads of different things, I think. I don’t really even know why we started The Old Courts in the first place. At the time knowing what we knew then, I think we must have been drinking at the time when we made that decision. Because, you know, the journey we’ve been on we, it’s just, it was, it’s just constantly been up against it. But that galvanised us to think, “Well no, we’ll show’um.” I don’t know who ‘um are, but we’ll show’um. But now for us personally, we’re just getting, you know, we know lots more organisations, we know a lot more about the funding landscape, and, you know, we’re getting invited to do things like this, so, you know, we’re getting a platform to get our ideas out. It’s just a slow burning process isn’t it? We’ve played catch up a lot.

DAVID JUBB: It’s telling Johnny, that I ask you a question about what would make a real difference to The Old Courts, you know, what’s the sort of amount of money each year that, you know, would really help and support? And actually, your answer is to talk about hard graft, and talk about the work that you’ve done, and to talk about the fact that you have done everything for very little, and talk about that in the most sort of extraordinarily humble way. I can tell you that I sit, I have sat in the past, in rooms with artistic directors or chief execs or executive director of other venues, and they are so fast to talk about the money, they will tell you so quickly, how much they need, and, you know, what difference that will make and I just think it’s really interesting for us as a sector to reflect on the fact, that there is an organisation like The Old Courts in Wigan doing, what I think is the most, I mean I’ve, first time I walk around your building I cried, ‘cause it was just, I just felt it was the most extraordinary incredible set of achievements that were happening in, like, in every room and your organisation is, I think, is a testament to what community serving venue can do, and again I’m not saying this to knock the Arts Council, but it is not receiving core support. There’s some sort of fix we need within the cultural sector somehow, somebody at the Arts Council of England / Wales / Creative Scotland / Northern Ireland need to make a big change to enable the people like you and what you’re doing and towns like Wigan are much better supported.

JONNY DAVENPORT: If you ask me one single thing that has been the key to our success, whatever our success is so far, it is being careful with things, you know, we make some big risky bold decisions, but we think about everything, you know, down to the penny, you know, ‘make do and mend’ was our M.O. for the first few years of our existence. And, you know, if we waited around for 100 grand for a big touring rig before we put a gig on, we would have gone and done something else because it wasn’t happening. We do what we can with the resources that we’ve currently got, but, yeah, you know, hopefully when that changes, hopefully we can make a bigger mark, can put, you know, put Wigan on the map, but put arts centres from the UK on the map. This isn’t just, you know, we’re not on a Wigan crusade we just happened to be working Wiganers

DAVID JUBB: Johnny, that’s amazing. I mean if you’re doing what you do right now with The Old Courts, with your plans for the Grand Hotel, with what you’re doing, I mean walking into an auction house and buying the Royal Court Theatre, and you’re all doing that with basically no investment from our core arts funder. What you could achieve if you had £500,000 a year as core support, god only knows! But thank you so much for this conversation, I just think it’s been completely inspiring to hear what you’ve been doing and particularly during this period of time, during COVID, so thanks man, thanks for the conversation.

JONNY DAVENPORT: Thanks for the invite, I really appreciate it, always great to speak to you, and, yeah, thanks for the opportunity to get my thoughts out.

DAVID JUBB: Nice one, cheers. Jonny it’s properly amazing, I feel really emotional!


DAVID JUBB: It’s just incredible you’re… you know, I just from that first time I was lucky enough to get the opportunity…


DAVID JUBB (OUTRO): We hope you enjoyed this sixth and final episode of Culture Plan B. Big thanks to Jonny for sharing The Old Court’s inspiring story. To find out more just visit and do checkout their plans for the Grand Hotel for Wigan’s Royal Court Theatre and now the Wigan pier you can contact us at Culture Plan B at and do follow us on Instagram or Twitter for follow up on this series. We would love to hear from you about what you’ve made of Culture Plan B, and tell us what you think we should do next. There’s been some great ideas for guest episodes so we hope some of these will follow soon. This episode was researched and presented by David Jubb, the editors and sound mixers are Ian Dickinson and George Dennis. The music is from Don’t Tell Me by Conrad Murray with Kate and Nai, from BAC’s Beat Box Academy. Communication support from Antonia Goddard. With thanks to David Bellwood for helping us to make this series more inclusive and accessible, and, in addition to David, big thanks to our transcribers for the episode so far: Hannah Gibbs, Julie Osman and Kate Donachie. Original artwork by John Balsder and the producer and creator is Matthew Dunster.

MUSIC Don’t Tell Me by Conrad Murray and BAC Beatbox Academy: “Don’t tell me what to be, Don’t tell me how to speak, Don’t tell me how to love, Don’t tell me how to feel, Don’t tell me how to do, Don’t tell me how to think, Don’t tell me how to be, Don’t tell me how to think, it will be ok if we agree to disagree, it will be ok”