Retired showbiz stalwart asked for his ideas to boost renovated arts venue

PUBLISHED: 12:03 31 August 2013 | UPDATED: 12:03 31 August 2013

Dereham Memorial Hall would be the ideal venue for a series of intimate live chat shows says Mr Cook.

Dereham Memorial Hall would be the ideal venue for a series of intimate live chat shows says Mr Cook.

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A retired tour manager who worked with a galaxy of stars during his 44-year showbiz career has been invited to give his views on the running of Dereham’s Memorial Hall – nine years after he first approached the town council.

Malcolm Cook worked alongside celebrities including Gene Pitney, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes during his long career.

The 72-year-old, who lives in Toftwood, first wrote to councillors in 2004, offering his expertise on how events could be staged at the flagship arts venue on Norwich Street, which was re-opened in December 2011 after a £2.3m renovation.

Since then, it has been criticised for the frequency of its use, with Breckland Council’s overview and scrutiny commission due to discuss next month whether the project justified the amount of public money spent on it.

And following a critical letter which Mr Cook wrote in the EDP’s sister paper the Dereham Times earlier this month, the town council’s markets and buildings committee has agreed to invite him along to its September meeting to discuss his ideas.

He said while the capacity of the Memorial Hall is too small to attract major touring shows, it could be ideal for more intimate “An Evening With…” events, including audience question-and-answer sessions with big names from his contact book.

His “live chat show” guests suggestions include Ian Lavender, who played Private Pike in TV sitcom Dad’s Army, Alvin Stardust, who Mr Cook used to manage, comedian Roy Hudd, Maurice Merry, who was Gene Pitney’s musical director, rock and roll singer Vince Eager, and John Leyton, the film actor who starred in The Great Escape and acted alongside Frank Sinatra.

Mr Cook said: “There are shows around which could go into a 200-odd capacity venue, but you would be hard-pushed to do a deal that was worthwhile.

“The fact the seating capacity is so small means you are really limited to who you can attract. In 1983 or 1984 I was asked to come up with ideas for the Yorkshire Home and Garden exhibition. There was a 1,200-seat theatre and I booked Pat Phoenix, who used to play Elsie Tanner on Coronation Street. She went in there and it was well advertised and she sold the theatre out twice for a fee of £1,500.

“That “live chat show” thing, could be done at the Memorial Hall with people like Ian Lavender, talking about his experience on Dad’s Army, or John Leyton, who I used to manage, could talk about his experiences on the Great Escape and with Frank Sinatra. I also used to manage Alvin Stardust and he has family connections in Norfolk.

“I don’t know if they would sell out, but if they were well promoted they could make some money. You could probably get these people on a percentage deal. People like John Leyton and Alvin Stardust might even do it as a favour.”

Mr Cook has also suggested re-naming the venue as the Dereham Arts Centre or the Memorial Theatre. Despite his previous criticism of town councillors, said he would “happily” offer advice to the committee.

“I think the design of the Memorial Hall is excellent, but now they need to make it pay,” he said. “The problem is like what happens when a bus driver climbs into the seat of a jumbo jet and is expected to be able to fly it. Why do people on councils, who know nothing about the entertainment industry, think they can just walk into a theatre and run it?

“What they have done there, they have done right, apart from one thing. They listened to Dereham Operatic Society and went along with their requirements for more space for their orchestra for their once-a-year musical.

“I staged a show with the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballet at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, which had a 1,400 capacity. You won’t get anything like that in Dereham, which is very sad.”

Dereham Town Council has drafted a short-term plan and three-year medium-term plan to increase the Memorial Hall’s usage, both for community and cultural events. The strategy includes making it easier for organisations and individuals to promote cultural events by providing box office facilities, front-of-house services and a technical manager.

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