Friday, 1 November 2013

Reportage: Wakefield's Unity Hall's future secured

For the past 25 years music venue Unity Hall has stood empty slowly descending into ever increasing dilapidation.

But now it will be restored to by a cooperative which has raised £4m by issuing shares to local businesses, community organisations and music fans.


The Grade II-listed building, which was built in the 19th century, has played an important role in the city’s past – and the work of the co-operative means it will also help to shape Wakefield’s cultural future.

The restoration project will create around 30 jobs, possibly up to 300, and transform it into a multi-purpose venue.

As well as a 600-seat music and theatre hall, there will be workspaces equipped with high-specification digital infrastructure for new businesses. a cafe, and conference facilities.

Chris Hill, director of Unity Hall, said: “There is a mass of creative business talent in Wakefield that too often moves away. Unity intends to be the focus for their energy and an advert to the world that Wakefield is on the up.”

The project has received financial backing from the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership which estimates up to 300 jobs could be created in the long term when the hall is up and running.

Roger Marsh, chairman, said: “The scheme represents a long-term driver of entrepreneurship, job creation and economic growth for the city region and in turn is likely to attract significant investment within the region.”


The hall is one of the first sights that visitors to Wakefield see as they leave Westgate station.

Kevin Trickett, president of Wakefield Civic Society, said: “It very pleasing to see that restoration of this important landmark building is about to begin.

“The building makes a big impact on people travelling into the city centre via Westgate, and in recent years, that impact has been far from favourable.”

The project has been backed by Wakefield Council.

Leader Coun Peter Box, who is also the chairman of the Leeds City Region leaders board, said: “I am very pleased that these ambitious plan to renovate a landmark building at a key gateway to the city centre are coming to fruition.

“This is great news for the district, as we are bringing one of Wakefield’s key buildings back to life.”

The hall has been subject to numerous makeovers during its lifetime but the cooperative want to strip it right back to its roots.

Mr Hill said: “Throughout the 60s, people were putting plasterboard over the lovely original tiling. Our job is to take all of the 60s rubbish out and take it back to the 1907 look.

“We have tried to conserve the building as best we can, the only concession we’ve made is that all of the stained glass panelling in the office area has been taken off and hung on the wall, because it’s really not very nice to work behind.”


The hall was opened in 1902 by the Wakefield Wholesale Co-operative Society.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Unity Hall was Wakefield’s most important music venue, and hosted some of the biggest bands of the era.

The hall also holds special memories for many older people who met their future husbands and wives at Saturday night dances.

But the next phase could be its most exciting says Mr Hill.

He said: “I just fell in love with the building – it was an absolute travesty to see the decline of such a wonderful building right in the middle of the city.

“I think the main difference from how it was in the 80s is that we want to bring in a wider music repertoire. We’ll definitely have touring rock bands, but we’ll also go towards the artier end of music – it will be fairly eclectic.

“And apart from the very top comedy acts, the capacity will be about right for a most good comics.

“We won’t be able to reach arena standards of bands, but we’ll certainly attract that second level of artists.

“This is a community facility, but we also have money to repay. So for instance, we couldn’t give the hall to a weekly event, but we’ll definitely be doing lots of one-off interesting things.

“A lot of towns boast about their cultural quarters, but it’s a reality in Wakefield. We’ve got the theatre, the Art House and the Orangery within about 50 yards of each other, and then you’ll have Unity Hall.

“We’re really serious about putting on joint events with places like the Hepworth – things like the lit fest would work really well. “

The co-operative aims to re-open Unity Hall in August, 2014.


UNITY MEMORIES

Chris Cameron was the guitarist with 60s act Bob Taylor and the Stranger and often performed on the stage of Unity Hall.


“Wednesdays would feature acts like The Undertakers and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. The Mindbenders went on to become 10cc and also Screaming Lord Sutch was a regular.


“They were thriving nights. It was about three and six to go in, and you got to see these bands that were on the up.

“It was definitely a night for people under 30 – unless they were music freaks – it was a good place to dance, it was a bit like Top of the Pops.

“The people usually went because they were interested in the bands. They’d stand and watch the music, by the end of the evening everyone was dancing.

“It was a show for people who were really into music. The audience was predominantly male, but there were some couples there as well. It was definitely more about the music than the social side.

“They had some amazing bands on, and the acoustics were really good and the atmosphere was great – I think that’s why a lot of bands went out of their way to play there at the time.

“Back then you could just hire the hall for about £15 a night so long as it was decent and legal, so you could put on what you wanted.”


Peter Morton played at Unity house many times during the 1970s and early 80s his time as the drummer with up and coming Wakefield band Strangeways.


“For us, it was our home turf. In my own mind it was very crucial for people of our age in the city because it was the one major gig venue that you knew that some of the big acts would come through.

“The only thing you had prior to Unity were what were called the ‘tech dances’, which were at the local technical college, and seemed to constantly book the Scorpions.

“For young people in the city who were into rock music, it was for a number of years the only venue, and therefore remarkably important.

“For a local band, we were certainly grateful for it. It gave us somewhere we could play that for Wakefield was a major venue. It wasn’t just used for gigs, it was also used for all night northern soul events.

“Between around August 1998 until August 2001 the Department of Music at Bretton Hall took it over, and I hadn’t been into Unity for a long time. It wasn’t in a great state of repair – it had got quite run down.

“Since Unity closed down, there’s never been a big venue in Wakefield that a relatively well-known act would be prepared to play.

“When Unity closed down it was a loss, not just to Wakefield but to all the satellite towns like Pontefract and Castleford. Getting to a venue used to be relatively easy, but for a long time now, you’ve had to travel to Leeds.

“The Pretenders played their first ever gig at the Unity supporting Strangeways in 1978. We were on the same label, and we already had a big following – we had a record deal and records out, and their manager wanted somewhere for them to play before they played London.

“It was from that gig that The Pretenders hit Brass in Pocket came from.

“We were in our dressing room chatting, and there was this pair of ridiculous trousers – probably a pair of pink leopard-print pants. Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders singer) asked ‘whose trousers are those’, and our singer Ada Wilson piped up with ‘if there’s any brass in pocket, they’re mine’ – and that’s honestly where it came from.

“I remember driving through Wakefield the night Captain Beefheart was playing . I knew the gig was on, but I wasn’t particularly interested in going along, even though this was the legendary Captain Beefheart.

“You should have seen some of the people walking down to the gig – the city was semi-swamped with people that were going to that gig – I remember thinking there were some very strange characters around.”

Bob Marsden played bass guitar in Strangeways, he said: “When Unity closed, Wakefield’s music scene died with it.

“With it re-opening, it will give the local bands a huge boost because they’ll be able to support bigger acts and play in front of bigger crowds.”

This article was published in the Wakefield Express on November 1, 2013


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