Colin Fine, who became the owner of Bradford Playhouse last year, has such a diverse range of interests it’s difficult to know how to approach him. Theatre, language, music, dance, science fiction, personal development, mathematics, railways and canals! Even this is not exhaustive – he studied law and mathematics at Cambridge, did a master’s degree in peace studies at Bradford University and worked in IT, including a 14-year stint at Saltaire’s Pace. There’s no time to investigate all these facets but there’s plenty to focus on in his role as patron of the arts in Bradford, and particularly the part he has played in saving Bradford Playhouse.
Born in North London he enjoyed his time studying in Cambridge so much that he was spending most weekends there even after graduating. So he moved back, living in Cambridge throughout the 1980s and working for small software companies. “I applied to do a diploma in computer science,” he comments, “really to hang around in Cambridge. I got rejected so I took an interim job programming.”
The interim job led to other such roles. Then his company was taken over by an international conglomerate with dealings in the arms industry, which didn’t sit well with Colin’s values. On a posting to the USA, he tells me, “I’d be in meetings, talking about engineering problems, and somebody would say something that would remind me their problem was building a war plane.”
Full realisation though was a gradual process, and it was only when attending a personal development course that what he had to do emerged. “Everybody was invited to come up to the front and make a declaration,” he remembers. “I got into the queue to take the mic, and didn’t know what I was going to say. Out of nowhere it came: ‘I’m going to change my career to something that doesn’t support the arms industry.’ I was flabbergasted. I’d had no conscious intention of saying it.”
The upshot was that he would leave his job, that he didn’t know what he would do next and that he would be open about it. After discussions just before Christmas, “I resigned and on New Year’s Day, I was unemployed, with half a year’s salary in the bank. They didn’t owe me anything, but I like to think that my decision to be open was one of the factors.”
A variety of factors led him to take the Peace Studies MA in Bradford. After completing a dissertation on the role of self-esteem in conflict, “I hung around the University intending to do a PhD., looking for a topic in an area important to me. I didn’t find one.” Fortunately, what he found instead, was a fascination with theatre that set him on the unlikely path to owning Bradford Playhouse.
Colin explains the timing, “I saw my brother in The Gondoliers in 1990. Up to that time I rather looked down on Gilbert and Sullivan but I saw this student production and went, ‘That looks like fun!’ So when I came up here the following year and found there was a G&S society I joined it. Apart from a school play my first time on stage was the role of the Mikado in 1992. I assumed I had no hope because I had no experience, but they gave me the role.”
It was the start of a love affair with performance that saw him develop an impressive CV of singing and non-singing roles over the next twenty-odd years. However, even these didn’t satisfy him. “I was in shows, I was lighting shows, I was doing sound… I was technical manager for Theatre in the Mill, in a volunteer position.” A trip to the Edinburgh fringe with a University group which ended in financial loss led Colin to form a promotions company, Paradise Green, to provide fringe venues at the festival. “We hire a city centre church, build four theatres in it and then we sub-let,” he explains. “2015 is our 18th year.”
This mixture of love of theatre and pragmatism about staging it successfully may have been excellent preparation for his eventual ownership of the Playhouse. However a different kind of pragmatism meant he had to combine a paying job with drama and all his other interests. After working in IT in and around the University he applied to several theatre schools in 1997. To fund fees and expenses Colin sought a short-term contract with Pace. “They didn’t offer me a contract,” he says, “but a permanent position. I accepted, making it clear my intention was to stay for a year. 14 years later…!”
[column size=3/4]Those 14 years saw Colin working full time, as well as all his other activities – something he seems to have managed “..by not having any downtime. Also, I enjoyed what I was doing, I enjoyed working in Salts Mill and I liked the people, but for most of the time I was there, I didn’t let it take over my life.”[/column]
His career at Pace ended in 2011. “One of the triggers was that I still had my house in Cambridge that I bought 5 years before I came here, so the mortgage was paid off. My monthly outgoings went down a bit, but symbolically I was in a different space.”
This different space did not – originally – include retiring, but rather creating a new life, and taking a break. It was only after a financial advisor convinced him he was more comfortably off than he’d thought that the necessity of paid work diminished. At the same time he was moving away from being predominantly involved with the University’s Theatre in the Mill and toward other groups and venues, including Bradford Playhouse.
“I was never heavily involved in here,” he says. “I lit a couple of shows but I didn’t do a lot. It certainly wasn’t the focus of my theatre. I came to one or two things, probably in about 2011, and I was startled when I saw the bar and the state of repair compared to how I remembered it.
“It went bust in 2011 and I got talking to Jono and Clare [Gadsby, who run Bradford Playhouse]. Immediately, my reaction was that these people know what they’re talking about! A year ago, I was chatting to Jono, and he mentioned the guide price for the building. I went, ‘Ooh, maybe I could afford that!’ At the end of June last year, I saw that Friends of Bradford Playhouse were trying to raise money to buy the place because it was going to auction. I just said, ‘Right, I’m in.’”
Technically Colin is ‘just’ the landlord, with the Gadsbys and others running the theatre day to day, but he remains involved as a volunteer (“..a slightly special one..”), and appeared in Our Country’s Good at the end of April. He’s also keen to see as much going on in the Playhouse as possible. This is certainly the case on the day I’m there, with preparations for a weekend musical event, a rehearsed reading and the set for Our Country’s Good under construction. Colin also shows me the new music space, the Burnel Rooms, and the Studio, and talks about the upcoming Threadfest and a June performance of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which is already sold out on two nights.
Other aspirations include seeing the Playhouse build a regular theatre audience, and improving visibility and accessibility. On the latter points he says, “When we put a lift in it’s going to be outside the wall facing Leeds Road. Longer term what we want to do is to turn the building round so it faces onto Leeds Road. Maybe in 1935 having the entrance up a steep side street may have looked good, but it doesn’t now.”
“I get such a kick out of saying ‘my theatre’. But also, this is a bit of Bradford heritage. It’s an art deco building, it’s a purpose-built theatre, Priestley was the president here, and I care a lot about local history and heritage.
As well as these aspirations there’s the sheer pleasure of owning the Playhouse and being a local patron of the arts. “I get such a kick out of saying ‘my theatre’. But also, this is a bit of Bradford heritage. It’s an art deco building, it’s a purpose-built theatre, Priestley was the president here, and I care a lot about local history and heritage.
“I take every opportunity to talk up Bradford. I’m so excited with all the things that are happening. There are lots of people who want to talk Bradford down. I don’t!” says this adoptive Bradfordian.
I first encountered Colin when he presented the prize – which he himself had sponsored – for a poem for Marking Bradford Beck. He says, “I was talking about the parallel between the regeneration of the beck and the regeneration of Bradford. I said, ‘They both used to be toxic, and have been cleaned and are coming up!’”
If that’s the case it’s in no small part down to people like Colin.