The Fairfield that I remember

By - Monday 23rd November, 2015

Private Eye cartoonist, artist and writer Barry Fantoni knew the Fairfield Halls in their earliest days. A place for the music is what matters, he says

Photo public domain.

When I taught painting at Croydon Art School back in the mid sixties I would often find myself finishing at six, and if I wasn’t teaching an evening class I’d pop next door to the Fairfield Halls and see if there was a concert that took my fancy. More often than not there was something. My preference was for classical music. Given that the hall was custom built for groups of musicians, it was always a great joy to hear it filled with Brahms and the late Romantics who wrote for large orchestras and choirs.

I understand that a refurbishment program is now planned. Hearing of it, I remembered this rich period of my life and the energy and excitement that the halls’ opening in 1962 brought to south London. During the same period I had regular work in Zurich. Flights to Zurich at that time were surprisingly modest, especially at weekends. I think I paid £35 for a first class return and picked up my ticket from the new Swiss Centre in Leicester Square. One evening on a flight back to Heathrow I took my seat and found I was sitting next to the conductor, Colin Davis.

Once we had reached our cruising altitude and had been told that our safety belts were no longer needed, he turned me and said politely, “Excuse me, but aren’t you the chap on the telly?” Many people asked the same question at that time.

I replied that, yes, I had been on the telly and added, ”And I believe that you are Colin Davis”.

He showed genuine surprise.

“How did you know?”, he said. “I am not at all well known. At least not by pop music standards”. “Pop music means very little to me”, I told him. ‘”It did once, but not now. I am more interested in the classics. Late Beethoven. Scarlatti”.

I know that Paul McCartney has musical ambitions

Colin Davis was quick to counter my dismissal of a trio of three blokes strumming and a fourth bashing a drum kit.

“Well, I for one like the Beatles”, he said. “I have met them a few times and from what I have heard, they write interesting and original music”.

“I agree on that point”, I said. “I know that Paul McCartney has ambitions outside writing songs with three chords and June/moon rhymes”.

I had painted the first portrait of the Beatles in 1963 and Paul had bought it, along with a number of other pictures. He also bought the old church harmonium that I rescued from a church in Streatham before they razed it to the ground to build a community centre. You can hear the harmonium on ‘We Can Work it Out’. I told him that Paul did not consider himself a mere pop musician. He was already talking about painting again, making films and writing music for the group.

Colin Davis listened carefully. Then he said, “What were you doing in Zurich?”.

I said that it had been a working trip. I then asked, “And you? Were you conducting?”.

“No”, he replied and left a pause. “This trip is to accompany Otto Klemperer. He is in the rear of the plane. He is conducting Bach’s B minor mass and I am helping him. As you know he recently had a stroke”.

I did know and said so.

“He is very frail”, Colin went on. “It is remarkable to me how he keeps going”.

Croydon built the Fairfield Halls to offer music for all

I saw the performance and will never forget it. It was not at the Fairfield Halls. It was at the Royal Festival Hall. But it does not matter. It could have been. What is important is that there is a hall where live music is played and can be heard by one and all.

Otto Klemperer was from Germany, where there is a great tradition of building a concert hall in every town and city, in the same way that the British have built football stadiums. Croydon built the Fairfield Halls in that same Germanic musical tradition of offering music for all. The halls’ renewal is is long overdue and I write recalling the many wonderful concerts that I attended at this fine venue while a teacher, and long after. Few concerts were finer than those given by the London Symphony Orchestra under the late (not yet) Sir Colin Davies.

Let us hope that the future will not only equal the past, but better it.

Barry Fantoni

Barry Fantoni

Barry Fantoni used to teach in Croydon. His other achievements include forty-seven years as a cartoonist on the satirical magazine Private Eye, scriptwriting on '60s TV show That Was The Week That Was, being an art critic on the Times newspaper and winning 1967's TV Personality of the Year award. Also a celebrated author, he's the creator of Mike Dime and of Harry Lipkin, the world's oldest private investigator, and has written a number of books on Chinese astrology.

More Posts

  • Andrew Kennedy

    Wonderful memories and evocation of the Fairfield Halls. I will link to this article from our Historic Croydon group page on facebook if I may, where we discuss the upcoming changes to Croydon.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      I’ve mentioned this to Barry Fantoni and he’s delighted :)

  • Terry Coleman

    My earliest memory of Fairfield Halls was Duke Ellington on the 25th January 1963.
    I went on to see all the big American swing bands there including Stan Kenton, a memorable live recording was made at one of his sessions.
    The hall is renowned for it’s acoustic quality.

  • Croydon Radio

    What lovely memories of the Halls. I think my first visit must have been in the early seventies aged 10. Classes from Kingsley Junior school set off down Factory Lane, through Wandle Park to see the 1950′s version of Scrooge starring Alistair Sim. It was the first time I saw a dramatised version of “A Christmas Carol” and absolutely loved it. It’s still my favourite version.