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PeoplePeter Hitchin

Peter Hitchin

“My childhood home was in Tunbridge Wells, on the Kent and Sussex border. My father was the headmaster of the senior school, what would now be called a comprehensive. I found it something of a disadvantage, growing up, to be the son of the headmaster; it’s a bit like being the son of the vicar, and I suppose I felt I had to try a bit harder to be delinquent. I went to the local grammar school for boys; there was a separate grammar school for girls opposite, and I can’t say I really enjoyed it.

I left with three “A” levels but didn’t want to go to university; it was 1962, a very exciting time and I headed for Europe to be a beatnik, hitch-hiking around and getting odd jobs. I briefly met Pablo Picasso that year in the south of France and spent time in Paris trying to become a Left Bank intellectual. Soon London began to “swing”, and I had various short term jobs in London, in an advertising agency and working in a gallery on the Kings Road, that sort of thing. I wasn’t really thinking about what I wanted to do. I was just living for the day, but eventually the thought coalesced that I might become a writer. To that end I enrolled in a teacher training college in Winchester (now the University), thinking that I could be like William Golding and write books in the long school holidays. They quickly saw through me at the college and I left after the first year. However, I stayed in Winchester as I had made many friends there, mostly at the art school. It was an experimental time for art schools, which were in their heyday. Brian Eno was there, and he did his fine art degree show in sound rather than in the plastic arts. It was a good city and I enjoyed living there. Eventually I had the idea of starting a tutorial college with a group of tutors, and I rented a house outside of Winchester where we started tutoring teenagers that had been excluded from their schools, and helping them get through their “A” levels. It became very successful, and after two years I moved the college into Winchester. We were tutoring teenagers, mostly from independent schools from all over the UK, providing them with individual tuition and getting them to university.

By now I had married. My wife was from Bridport, and we would come down to visit her family; while I was out on a walk around the area, I came across Symondsbury Manor which had been empty for some time and was romantically overgrown. I think it was 1975, the time of the oil crisis and three-day week, so quite a few houses had become too expensive for their owners to keep up. I completely fell in love with it, and although the college was going well in Winchester and everyone told me it would be financial suicide to move it to Bridport, I didn’t listen; I managed to raise a business loan, sell the Winchester property, and bought it. That was thirty-five years ago, and I have lived here ever since. Originally I moved down here with Ros and John Higgins, good friends of ours. John, who was a builder, and I undertook the restoration together. Nowadays we let one end of the house for country house weekends and weddings, and we live in the other.

For another five years I kept a tutorial college going in Winchester which I used to visit once a week. Then I opened a study centre in France, and in the 1980’s, with a group of Art School lecturers, I started the West Dorset Art School, also in Symondsbury. I can’t say that the Art School was a great success. We weren’t able to get accreditation to offer BA’s; we were much too small and so it became difficult attracting students. We changed the Art School eventually into studios and low cost accommodation for artists and that proved very popular. Many of them came to Symondsbury, found their feet here, and then decided to stay on in Bridport, and I think this may well have contributed to the area now having such a thriving art scene.

In 2003 I noticed that the Palace in Bridport was up for sale, and I was looking for a new project. Again it was really the building that attracted me, I just wanted to restore it; I wasn’t really looking to run a cinema particularly. Once again, friends in the entertainment business told me it would be financial suicide (this time they were pretty much right). I got it open and re-decorated eventually and the interior now looks splendid thanks to the help of friends who rose to the challenge of painting fresh pictures on the large empty panels around the auditorium. I ran it for a while but it needed a younger hand at the helm. It’s tremendously difficult to make a venue succeed without any financial support from the Arts Council. Fortunately first my son Gideon and now Gabby volunteered to run it and it’s now it’s a great success. We are getting good audiences which have given us the confidence to put on top acts. Amongst the performers, the Bridport audience is becoming famous for the appreciation and response it shows to comedy and music. Well known artistes are keen to come to Bridport even though it’s a relatively small venue for them. They like the town and they like The Electric Palace. I am still the “eminence gris” behind it, and I give it my support, but I’m not so involved in the day to day running of it, which is a great relief.

I have always painted; it’s really my abiding interest and a lot of my friends are successful painters. I’ve got hundreds of my canvases stacked in the attic. They’re not as good as I want them to be but I like the process of creating pictures. I don’t think it’s important to exhibit them but I have, this year, had an exhibition in Dublin- really my first. The paintings are homage to James Joyce, and were exhibited during Bloomsday. That was great and they are about to be reviewed in The Irish Times. I should paint more than I do but I just can’t resist exciting schemes and trying to make ventures work. I believe there is a lot of creativity in building a business if it is approached in much the same way as making a work of art.

Bridport is an extraordinary town and I hope it will manage to hang on to its unique atmosphere. There are fewer and fewer towns that still have independent butchers, bakers and greengrocers in the profusion that we have. Our small shops, combined with the multitude of junk shops, artists’ studios and of course, the market stalls, make it a vibrant place to live. Hopefully, the Electric Palace contributes to this and I believe that as long as Bridport can foster its character, it can thrive. The town is getting frequent mentions nowadays in the national press because of its creative scene and its “lifestyle and scenery”. It’s difficult to impress the value of this upon the local authorities and I wish that the town planners would do more to support the small shops and individual businesses through this present recession, rather than allowing chain stores to homogenise our town, as has happened in so many other places. I am very encouraged by the terrific audiences we are getting at the Electric Palace; to me they demonstrate the true spirit of Bridport in all its diversity and enthusiasm.”

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