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Pete Willow, looks back at some significant moments in the cultural life of Coventry

Grand Finale Ukraine fundraiser. 2022. Photo by John B.Smith.

As already reported in Elementary What’s On, it’s been ten years since the city’s Albany Theatre was rescued and relaunched. It was also quite a shock to me personally when I realised that five years have now passed since the CVFolk project was initiated, leading to many enjoyable folk music events in the Albany Theatre Studio, plus the memorable day of folk in the Main House that raised over £2000 for the Help Ukraine Emergency Appeal.

The first CVFolk Management Meeting took place 24th February 2018, when some of the leading lights of the local folk scene sat around my dining table and, fuelled by coffee, tea and biscuits, started putting together a strategy of support and promotion for folk music in the area. This was a response to Coventry’s designation as City of Culture and participants included Warwick Folk Festival Director Dick Dixon, prominent local folk artists Katherine Fear, Chris Green, and Rob Halligan, and performer and session organiser Colin Squire.

The Management Team grew to include such renowned singers and musicians Kevin Dempsey, and Kristy Gallacher, and organiser of the Coventry Singer-Songwriter’s group Jon Harrington. A particular boost for our voluntary group was the agreement by Selecter singer Pauline Black to become our Patron; Her own stellar musical career had started out humbly in the folk clubs and music sessions of Coventry.

Kirsty Gallacher. Photo by Loz Moore.

Our first Albany Theatre event was a public consultation of local folk enthusiasts, followed by a lively music session in June 2018. The Theatre’s Trust Director, David Meredith recognised how our aims – to raise the profile of folk in the region and support clubs and artists – coincided with the venue’s own mission to reach out to the community through performing arts.

At his invitation, we launched the monthly ‘Second Sunday’ events from October that year to highlight the breadth of musical styles played across the CV postcode area that could be covered by the simple word ‘folk’. Over the years, these shows have featured mainly home-grown artists performing everything from traditional music, to chorus shanties and a capella singing; from funky folk-rock to the haunting sounds of blues guitar and harmonica and the harmonious twangs of Americana (complete with Appalachian step-dancing); and from contemporary singer-songwriting (including some high-quality vocals) to informal and Irish-style music sessions where dozens of musicians swirl out some wonderfully uplifting tune sets on every instrument imaginable.

CVFolk Launch 2018. Music session.

The confluence of anniversaries turned out to be apposite. It was during this month’s superb CVFolk concert by the highly acclaimed new duo Donnelly and South (also celebrating an anniversary one year after they appeared at that venue to perform their debut full concert show), that David Meredith and I were able to announce a new era for CVFolk. The Theatre has agreed to adopt the CVFolk project – to support, promote and celebrate local folk – as part of its own programme of events. We aim to expand our own activities to include a wider range of concerts and sessions, plus workshops and masterclasses to open up the joys of music-making to the wider community. Exciting times indeed.

And quite moving times also for me on a personal level.

L-R: Pete Willow, David Meredith, Pauline Black, Rob Halligan

My own involvement with the Albany Theatre goes back to the days it formed part of the Coventry Technical College, many years before the college was wound up and the amazing art deco venue was saved from demolition. I first trod the boards in the theatre as a 13-year-old in 1965 when I played the part of Miles in William Archibald’s play The Innocents, based on powerful and spine-chilling Henry James ghost story The Turn Of The Screw. This was a production by Coventry’s The Rainbow Players and I even got a walk-on part in their subsequent all-purpose panto The Udder Side of the Rainbow – yes it involved a pantomime cow and no I didn’t appear as either end of that creature.

Pete Willow

The Albany Theatre also played host that decade for the Coventry Youth Drama and Mime Festivals – wonderful and well-supported events in the days when Coventry didn’t need a badge to be a genuine City of Culture! As a member of the Holyhead Youth Centre teams, I took part in three festival events and even reached the finals taking on the lead role in Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber.

Standing in the backstage area of the Main House these days, I can still conjure in my mind the ghostly echoes of laughter, applause, occasional shouting matches between producers, cast members and technical crew, and the gushing last night words of love and congratulation – ‘oh daarling you were maarvellous!’

The Albany Theatre has played a huge part in my life and I am as pleased as Punch that it still does today.


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