Success of a small venue with big ambitions

On a sunny late mid-August day, I’m in Elland, south of Halifax and there’s a storm brewing.

Chantry Dances Duology, inspired by the life and loves of Vincent Van Gogh, comes to the Square Chapel this month.
Chantry Dances Duology, inspired by the life and loves of Vincent Van Gogh, comes to the Square Chapel this month.

Fortunately, it’s a storm of anticipation as Sally Wainwright is in town, preparing to start shooting on a second series of one of the most critically acclaimed television series in recent years. Wainwright is the woman who created a TV heroine and series that put the Calder Valley on the map, although not, some in the town have argued, showing it in the best of lights.

Happy Valley, the ironically titled television show featuring a barnstorming central performance by Sarah Lancashire, lifted the lid on a sleepy Yorkshire town and found a very dirty can of worms inside. Hebden Bridge was name-checked in the series, but it was the whole of the Calder Valley that became the setting for a story of kidnapping, murder, rape and violence.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Wainwright, gently spoken with a very obvious core of steel, is going to direct four of the six episodes of series two, as well as writing all of it and when we meet is finalising preparations for the shoot beginning the following week. She is also unapologetic about ruffling the feathers of some who felt the TV series made the area seem a hotbed of violence.

Wainwright actually loves the Calder Valley, where she grew up, to the extent that she is considering a move back home, she tells me.

While she doesn’t feel the need to be making amends to the area, any necessary reparations will surely be covered when she comes to Halifax for an event being held at the town’s Square Chapel on September 30. Wainwright will also be bringing some friends along, with George Costigan, who plays Nevison Gallagher in Happy Valley and Judy Holt, who has appeared in much of Wainwright’s television work over the years.

Costigan, well remembered in Yorkshire still for his part in the cult movie Rita, Sue and Bob Too, says: “It’s an honour and a privilege to be talking to, interviewing and spending time with Sally. All actors are servants of writers. When the writers are as good as she is, it all becomes an effortless privilege. It’s rare and so is she.”

David McQuillan, director of the venue, says: “This is a real coup for us, as Sally not only grew up on our doorstep but she continues to use the area in her writing. Last Tango In Halifax and Happy Valley have both received huge critical acclaim and we are really excited to welcome Sally to Square Chapel as we embark on the next chapter of our story.”

That next chapter for one of the smaller, but culturally important, venues, included last week an announcement of a £6.6m new extension on the Grade II listed building.

The last few years has seen the staff at the venue, both in front of and behind the scenes, working tirelessly to secure the money for the capital redevelopment project. The funding has now been secured and work begins this month with a completion date of summer 2017.

Sally Martin, the director of the venue during the past few years when the plans were being pursued, says: “The success of the fundraising is an amazing credit to community action and commitment. Literally hundreds of people have donated their time, effort, skills and inspiration to achieve what the centre has achieved. The investment in the building means we’re part of the culturally-led regeneration happening in this quarter. It’s wonderful to see money being invested in the town and I’m delighted to see culture and the arts leading the way and bringing new life into Halifax.” Which is all great and admirable, but once you’ve built the building, you need to fill a venue with acts. In that regard too, the Square Chapel appears to be raising its game. This autumn season is the busiest the venue has ever planned, with nine family shows, 18 theatre productions, 26 live music events and 12 talks programmed over the coming months. This summer the venue also began screening films for the first time.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider the modest start of the venue: the Georgian Chapel was bought by six local people for £25 in 1988. It has come a long way; these days it attracts around 40,000 people per year to events and activities and has gone from being run only by volunteers back in 1995 to employing 24 full time equivalent staff and being supported by over 150 volunteers.

In a time when arts funding is under constant threat, it is one of the success stories of Yorkshire theatre and one that is well worth celebrating – something that Sally Wainwright knows only too well.