the Harbour Arts Centre

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The story of the Harbour Arts Centre from 1965
as published in booklet form in 1987, with an extra chapter covering 1987 – 2007, now here on the Web


In 1965 a group of friends in Irvine got together to form the core of an arts group, the leading lights of the group being Walter and Moreen Shields, Ian and Edith Clark, Willie and Elizabeth Gilmour, Harry Maxwell and Jim Graham. Their aims were to present art, drama and music to the people of the Irvine area, and to create opportunities for participation in artistic activities.

The idea of an Arts Centre slowly evolved as the Arts Group realised that, rather than holding activities sporadically in various public halls, permanent premises were needed to act as a base.

The Group's interest had been stimulated by a visit to Cumbernauld New Town, where a similar group, with the help of their Development Corporation, had acquired two cottages and converted them into a small theatre and other rooms. We also asked them for information on constitution, rules & money-raising.

Ian Clark, the first secretary, found what he could foresee was an ideal home for an Arts Centre. Edith well remembers his excitement as he told her, and he remembers Edith, on first seeing the building, telling him, “You're crazy”. Barnet House, by the harbour, consisted of a hall, three ancillary rooms, “two dubious toilets and a dirty little kitchen”. It had had a chequered career as a Bethel Mission hall, an emergency mortuary, a scout hall and latterly a hosiery factory, which had moved to new premises, leaving its lingering smell of oil from the wool. The enthusiastic eyes of the Arts Group viewed this semi-derelict building as the perfect site for an Arts Centre.

Application for the use of Barnet House was made to the Town Clerk of Irvine in November 1965. The Arts Group felt that the Town Council would give sympathetic attention to the application, being well aware of the establishment of similar arts centres throughout the country and especially in the New Towns. From the letter to the Town Clerk:
“This group [the Arts Group] is just beginning; it could form a nucleus; it could promote and make accom-modation available not only for local talent but also for visits of theatrical, musical and art productions from outside.”

It was also stressed that the Centre was not intended to be a profit-making organisation, although some income would be needed to cover running expenses once the Centre had started. The Council was therefore being asked for both moral and material support.

The building was at that time designated as industrial premises, so there was an added hurdle to jump. Gradually the members of Irvine Town Council were persuaded that the idea was worth supporting, but the matter remained in doubt right up to the last moment, when Provost Anderson, an enthusiastic supporter of the Arts Group's plans, used his casting vote in our favour. That was in December 1965; the rates were waived, and the premises were rented to the Centre for the nominal sum of £5 per annum.

Plans were now made to convert the building for use as an arts centre. The hall would be converted into a 100-seat theatre. One room was to become a coffee bar, while the two other rooms would be used for art exhibitions and committee meetings. Financial assistance was sought from local industries and businesses as well as from local councils; the main help is listed later.

Although the group had previously met informally, the record of the first formal meeting begins as follows:
Harbour Arts Centre - Minute Secy - Mrs Shields
Meeting of above committee was held at Mr Clark's house, 35 Kilwinning Road, Irvine, on Sunday 19th Dec. 1965 at 2.30 p.m.
Present: Messrs Shields, Blakely, Graham, Longmuir, Clark, Maxwell; Mrs Shields, Mrs Clark, Mrs Flannagan, Miss Gilmore.
Business: (1) Report by Secy (Ian Clark) Secy gave details of negotiations between Group and Irvine Town Council leading to acquisition by Group of property known as Barnet House.

Walter and Moreen Shields, and Jim Graham were English teachers, Charles Blakely was a Classics teacher, David Longmuir an Art teacher, and Harry Maxwell a Clerk of Works for the County Council; Kirsteen Flannagan was an artist best known for her flamboyant personality and creative embroidery and Avril Gilmore was an Art teacher, as were Ian and Edith Clark. Subscription was set at £1.

In the meantime the Group had presented its first public entertainment in the Dunlop Memorial Hall in Dreghorn on 4th December 1965. Entitled “Miscellany”, it included poetry by William McIlvanney and drama readings by Jim and Jean Graham, as well as children's art and a film, and was the first of many Miscellanies.

Irvine District Council were enthusiastic about the Group and its aims. They had agreed to let Dunlop Memorial Hall to the Arts Group free of charge while the Arts Centre was being prepared. As District Clerk Jack Ramsay wrote to Walter Shields:
“It would appear that both your group and the Council are trying to do much the same thing in the encouragement of cultural interests in the community at large. With the advent of the New Town, the formation of such a group is most propitious.”

The Council then invited the Group to take over the running of an already-planned Art Exhibition in Dunlop Memorial Hall during Easter week of 1966. The exhibition would be sponsored by the District Council and the works displayed provided by the Arts Council. All reasonable costs would be paid; the Arts Group would not be out of pocket. The Group agreed, and the exhibition was duly opened on 9th April '66 by local industrialist and philanthropist R. Clement Wilson. Exhibits included 22 oil paintings, six water colours and two pieces of sculpture, all by contemporary Scottish artists. In his opening speech, Mr Wilson said:
“Contemporary art is imaginative; it is unpopular with some people, and some, like myself, may not agree with it. However, the least we can do is to try and understand it, since, unlike older forms of painting, it requires explanation, and I do not think we have any right to be critical of it unless we make some effort to understand it, and then let our criticism be selective and constructive.”

Running concurrently with the exhibition was a series of lectures on various aspects of art: glass-blowing; design approach to painting; palette knife portrait; watercolour; and silk-screen techniques.

As this was going on, committee and their friends were working hard to repair and decorate the building. Harry Maxwell used his skills and contacts to organise the various tasks.

By mid-May the Arts Centre was ready to welcome the public for the first time. On Friday 19th May 1966 about 60 people filled the newly decorated hall for the first entertainment in the new premises. Introducing the programme in the room that was to become a coffee bar, Mr Walter Shields, the Centre Chairman, noted with pleasure that every seat was filled and went on to explain the intentions of the people who had worked to establish an arts centre in Irvine and the “raison d'etre” of such a centre.
“It is clear from the response tonight that there is an audience for the Arts Centre. Our job is to bring that audience into contact with performers and so bridge the gap between them. If people have difficulty in understanding or appreciating what an artist or performer is trying to do, they should have the opportunity of asking questions and of discussing what they have seen or heard.”

There then followed the first performance: “The Poetry of Willie McIlvanney and the Folk Guitar of Eddie Gillett”. This programme was in itself something new - a combination of poetry and folk guitar. In the first part of the performance Willie McIlvanney, who had just had his novel, “Remedy is None”, published, read four of his own poems, and Eddie Gillett sang and played folk songs ranging from “The Twa Corbies” and “Sir Patrick Spens” to “Mr Tambourine Man”. The main item in part two was a group of nine companion poems called “A Catechism of Clay”, with guitar improvisations in E minor. As an experiment the programme was very successful and much enjoyed.

Thus the Harbour Arts Centre was launched twenty-one years ago. [written in 1987]


Diversity and variety are the keywords for the first few years, as the Centre enthusiastically set about the task of promoting all aspects of the arts.

Gallery exhibitions ranged from paintings and pottery to metal and “electro-sculptures”. Musical presentations covered the whole range from traditional Scottish and folk music through jazz to classical music. There were also poetry evenings, social events, and discussion nights, while those with specific interests started off the Special Interest Groups which have been a feature of Centre activity ever since.

One of the first interests catered for was folk music, under the driving force of Eddie Gillett. He started the Marymass Folk Festival in the Centre, liaising with the Marymass Committee, and using the Centre as the base in 1966 & 1967, while the artistes going out to the Cross Keys, Ship, Bute, Fullarton Arms and Kings Arms. Problems arising from how the Centre was used in 1967 led to the Festival being run thereafter from the Eglinton. Artistes in 1966-67 included Davie Stewart (a travelling man), Danny Kyle, Ann Lorne Gillies, Matt McGinn and Robin Williamson (who played to six people in the Dirrans Hall, yet achieved fame later with The Incredible String Band). The sing-a-rounds in the Cross Keys were a highlight of those years. Another successful night was “The Sensible Shoe Show” with Danny Kyle and Drew Goodwin contrasting and comparing “urban folk” and “traditional folk music”.

The Film Society began in autumn 1966, under the convenership of Willie Gilmour, succeeded by Norman Venus, providing the opportunity to view films from eastern and western Europe, Japan and the USA, as well as from Britain. George Hayden was the projectionist. “Ulysses” in 1969 filled the theatre.

The Irvine Camera Club had been founded in 1956 in the Kyle Studios in High Street and had moved to the YMCA building in Townhead and eventually to a cottage in Friar's Croft. With their third ‘home’ due for demolition, they eagerly approached the new Centre, and discussions took place between Ian Clark and Camera Club representative Jim Wyper. The 20-strong club moved to the Arts Centre in January 1968, cleaning out the paint store and converting it into a darkroom.

Though discussed earlier in 1967, it was not until December of that year that Mr Dalton asked for the Drama Group to be given some financial assistance, and the committee agreed to grant it £5. Director James Kennedy aimed at as high a standard as the amateur theatre could attain. Their first production was “The Shadow of a Gunman” in 1968, the cast including Ron Alexander, Bob Alexander, Pat Kelly & Bill Paterson [corrected from the original, as Matt Brown, Pat Kelly and Margaret Sloan were in the cast of the second play – to be checked].

There are many small details which catch the flavour of the early years. Steve Pagano, the first drama section convener, also undertook maintenance when every week brought its own crisis. He and his wife Joan were great supporters. A group from the Cross Keys Angling Section, including Tommy Parsons and Tom Colyer, gave some help at the beginning. Modules were made by the boys of Geilsland Approved School (summer '67). Mrs Isobel Venus undertook the post-neo-classical “decorative panel in plaster in the the theatre” - an eye-catching Poseidon, which disappeared when the Centre was renovated in 1972.

Performances were punctuated by the irregular and loud flushing toilet at the street end of the theatre, one perfectly timed (true!) to coincide with Cairney's “before him Doon poured a' her floods”. Storage was in the railway wagons at the rear, where some sections were always wet and lights kept fusing, and other sections were drier.

Some problems have proved perennial. Committee questioned the first quarter 1967 electricity bill for £27 11/-, thinking they must be on the wrong tariff. David Longmuir was publicity convener, with all the problems familiar to his many successors: “"it was decided that money must be spent on publicity for the next few months to see if attendances would be improved. £5 as a maximum figure was agreed.” A regular cleaner was organised in 1968 for “two hours weekly at no more than 5/- an hour”. Keys were also a problem – “if we get any more keys, we won't need to lock the place”, said Harry Maxwell - yet no-one had keys when they were needed!

A subscription reduction was decided in Sept. 1966, from £1 to 5/-; half the original was retained as two years' fees, and the rest was offered in refund! It reached £1 again by 1971, and £2 in 1975.

The Centre played its part in town affairs from early on. Members of committee were in discussion with the leisure centre architects in 1971. Performances were staged not just at the Centre, but at other venues, such as “Ballet for All” presenting “La Fille Mal Gardee” in Ravenspark Academy in 1970.

There was plenty of opportunity for participation and self-expression. On “Critics’ Nights” members discussed films and productions which they had seen. The “Irvine Times” report on the first one (Oct.'68) reflects the excitement of such an evening:
“Recent functions were reviewed by appointed critics. These were the film “That Man from Rio”, by Mr W B Shields, the poetry reading evening, by Mr D Hutchison, and the exhibition of work by contemporary Scottish artists, by Mr Ian Clark. Following the reviews a lively discussion took place, particularly on the exhibition.”

Discussions and “Public Forums” on topical local and general issues such as comprehensive education, Scottish nationalism and the formation of Irvine New Town provided a platform for debate within the local community. In November 1968, a discussion on the topical subject of Race Relations in the United States was led by Dr Loretta Savage from Milwaukee University, then lecturing in sociology at Edinburgh University; she described some of the causes of prejudices which, she said, if allowed to develop, could lead to widespread racial discrimination.

To achieve this variety and richness HAC worked with other public bodies. Discussions were organised in conjunction with the Workers’ Educational Association, which had aims not dissimilar from those of the Centre. One of the first discussions organised jointly by HAC and the WEA took place in 1966. The Irvine Times reported it as follows:
“On Sunday afternoon a conference is being held in the Harbour Arts Centre on ‘The Arts - Who Cares?’ The aims of the conference . . . are to stimulate discussion about the place of the arts in our society as a whole, and about the particular place of the Harbour Arts Centre in the life of Irvine . . .”
The participation in that forum of Equity Secretary Alec McCrindle and the Town Clerk of Cumnock (like Irvine’s Bert Whyte, knowledgable and interested) shows the range of people involved in helping the Centre at that early stage.

The University of Glasgow Department of Extra-Mural Activities also provided assistance. In early 1967, for example, it organised a series of six lectures at HAC entitled “Writers in Turmoil”. Tutored by David Hutchison M.A., the aim of the course was to introduce people to contemporary literature and in particular to “some of the more important developments in literature since the war”. A small but enthusiastic group attended.

The Scottish Arts Council too lent its support. It provided several exhibitions, eg Picasso's "Buffon Prints" in Feb. 68, which cost £8 for the two weeks. The guarantee against loss system of sponsoring professional drama began then, the two-person Theatre Roundabout production of "Hamlet" in October 1969 being one of the earliest to visit.

Apart from these educational and cultural activities, social events such as dances, barbeques, jazz and carnival nights also took place at the Centre. Miscellanies involved Meg and Robin Whyte, singing folk songs, Matt Brown in an organising role, Ian Clark on exhibitions, and several in drama sketches. For a jazz concert, two stages and two lighting set-ups allowed a continuous performance with alternating bands. In June 1967, Irvine Pensioners' Social Club were treated to entertainment and supper – songs by Frank Shirley and George McCrorie, items of mime and music by boys from Irvine Royal Academy, a judo demonstration by Irvine Judo Club, a film about Irvine in 1960 and a film of the opening of Dunlop Memorial Hall. There was another Old Folks Night in June 1968. Centre members such as Mel Adams were favourite entertainers.

The Arts Centre, therefore, was not simply home to the arts but to a social and leisure centre, an educational centre and a community centre, providing Irvine New Town with important facilities and attractions for all sections of the community.


An important feature of any arts centre must be participation, and the Centre's Special Interest Groups have created many different opportunities over the years. Their strength and diversity has been a major source of support, in that they attract a wide range of people, their meeting evenings are spread over the week, and their members have often been willing to help in the Centre as a whole.

The Film Society began in 1966, the Camera Club arrived in 1968, and the Drama Section’s first production was the same year. The orchestra arrived, and an official Junior Section began, in 1974. 1981 saw the start of the Art Group. A Dance Group ran for just over a year (1977-78), and wine-making enjoyed two seasons (1982-1984). A folk section began in 1986. Though only two, the Camera Club and drama section, have lasted most of the 21 years, the others prove that the Centre can, as it should, respond to needs as they arise. Here, we review all except the Drama Section, now called Harbour Theatre, to whom chapter 4 is devoted.

The FILM SOCIETY structure was a prerequisite of obtaining films from the distributors. Titles shown included “Blonde in Love” (Czech), “That Man from Rio” (French), Bunuel’s “Viridiana” (Spanish), “Zabriskie Point” (USA), Tati’s “Traffic”, Zeffirelli’s “Taming of the Shrew” and the Russian “Hamlet”. Several evenings screened shorter examples of creative work from round the world. Its fortunes varied both from year to year and from film to film. To vagaries of popularity were added vagaries of heating, such as evenings when the big gas blowers (once the only means of heating the theatre!) were on before the showing and again at the interval. You could always tell a Film Society member by the three overcoats, fur boots and a permanent nasal icicle! Projection conditions were never ideal. For Miscellany I, a three-sided screen was constructed to reduce projector noise, but a hole for projection was omitted, and had to be cut before the film could start; then projectionist Ian Clark became so engrossed that he did not notice the film coming loose and spreading itself at his feet.

The Film Society's most successful season was probably that of 1974-75, with 42 members and its own printed programme, organised by Frank Bowie, but it fell by the wayside in 1976, in spite of the efforts of Peter Short. The advent of Magnum, with its comfortable facilities, did not have a direct effect, and they had their audience problems too. Jim Duff attempted in 1980 to revive the monthly film, but it again became unviable in 1982. It certainly provided hours of pleasure and individual films have caused much debate, but currently lacks the appeal to ensure success.

The CAMERA CLUB has met in the Centre nearly every Monday evening of each winter for 19 years. The permanent darkroom has given its members opportunities to spend long evenings perfecting their work. Each month’s programme contains two speakers, one practical session, and one competition evening; the speakers are usually very good, the practical sessions provide training, and the competitions provide stimulus, as well as ammunition for plenty good-natured banter. The Centre as a whole has gained the readily offered assistance of enthusiasts pleased to have a good home - people such as John Murray, Dave Lane and Jim Wyper being well known to the members at large, while we should mention also Bill Hamilton, Alastair Rankine, Eric Scott, P A Blow ('Pablo'), Ernie Cave, and late members Barclay Fullarton and Jim Dunne.

Recent [1987] achievements include their 1984 win of the Ayrshire Inter-Club trophy (monochrome and colour sections) for the second year running in 1985, and some of its members coming quite high up in the Scottish Photographic Federation contest the same year. Their members usually get something into the Paisley International Slide Exhibition, showings of which the Club used to host. In 1984 they presented a Centre audience with an ambitious audio-visual tape-slide evening, containing contributions from Bill Craig, Jack Paul and Eric Scott. Their annual exhibitions always create interest; there were over 100 entries in 1986, and 144 in 1987! A recent innovation is the Irvine Library exhibition each September.

The Camera Club involvement with the rest of Centre life has varied over the years, and depends, as with any other interest group, on the interests and spare time of the individuals in it. Many come only for the Club evening, but their attendances contribute greatly to the life of the Centre. Even during their closed season (April to August), most Mondays see an intent group of their members swapping tips and comparing notes, or making arrangements for summer outings.

IRVINE NEW TOWN AMATEUR ORCHESTRA was launched, under the guidance of Tom McCutcheon (Music Club) and Roddy Kennedy (Community Development Service), in 1971. Originally they met in various schools, with all the problems of access and 9.00 pm finishes, until an offer from Jim Foulds, of rehearsal space in the renovated Centre, was eagerly accepted in 1974. Numbers rose to about 20, and they have continued meeting at the Centre ever since, under Tom McCutcheon's guiding hand. Describing themselves as “a group of people who play together because they enjoy it”, they gave their first public performance in the Centre in Nov. 1975, and their second in 1977, as well as contributing to the Olde Time Music Hall in 1978. Currently, they are down to three members (Tom, Clive Jay and Pauline Anderson), but they deserve much greater numbers. A JUNIOR SECTION became practical when the appeal of the Centre widened in 1974. Young people have, of course, always been welcome, and two earlier initiatives deserve special mention. Young members, organised by Eddie Lovett, formed a Disco Group in late 1970, hoping to finance the project from subscriptions, ticket sales and donations. The first disco was in Nov. 1970 and was followed by successful fortnightly Sunday disco nights. The project lasted until summer 1971, when a fund-raising 400 hours non-stop disco marathon (a world record not recognised by the Guinness Book!) ruined much of the equipment! The other initiative was the planning, by members of committee, of evenings at which the drama departments of the local academies put on junior miscellanies for each other, their parents and Centre members, though most of the audiences were friends or parents. There were five between 1971 and 1974, and they prompted the move towards a Junior section.

The official Junior Section was set up with its own constitution and with Andy Long as Junior Convener in August 1974. It offered a baby-sitting service for parents who wished to attend Centre shows, but few, if any, members took up the offer! It also held guitar classes, taken by Andy Doole, in 1975. The Section petered out in 1975 when its founder group went their separate ways and when the adult organisers became involved in other Centre activities, though several juniors became involved in the drama section.

The Irvine ART GROUP began at the Centre in the autumn of 1981, as a direct response to demand from those who had attended the first Summer School that year. Some thirty people enrolled for the two classes, one held in the afternoon, the other in the evening. Paper, paints and other materials were provided and tuition given by Chick McGeehan and Carolyn Stewart. More recent tutors have included Paola McClure and the successive MSC employees.

Since then, the Wednesday art classes have remained popular, the Gallery providing a pleasant setting for such an occupation and the harbourside, when the weather permits, providing inspiration and popular subject matter. Further inspiration has been gained from occassional visits to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the Burrell Collection.

The classes cover all aspects of painting and drawing, as is indicated by the syllabus introduced in 1986 by Suzanne Le Blanc, which includes such topics as fundamentals of drawing, tonal drawing, pastel and chalk drawing, watercolours, life drawing and oil painting. Of course, those wishing to specialise can do so. Work by members of the Art Group is shown in the annual display in the Harbour Gallery, and two members of the group, Jim Clark and C E Harvie, have staged solo exhibitions.

A MODERN DANCE SECTION began in Sept. 1977, due partly to a growing interest in that art form on the Scottish arts scene at that time, and partly due to the particular interest shown by local dance teacher Douglas Boyd in starting an Irvine group if the Centre could provide a space. Organised by Liz Rankin from Darvel, and using the Centre on alternate weeks, the attendance steadied to about 7 out of 13 paid-up members by 1978. Two of their workshops involved Basic Space director Shelley Lee and ex-professional Kedzie Penfield from the USA. The section gradually came to an end in 1979, mainly due to the practical problems of finding suitable rehearsal time in the busy Centre schedule. There was a brief attempt to restart a Dance section in 1983.

The WINE-MAKING class was the result of a chance discovery that Vic Davis, Secretary both of Ayr Wine Circle and of the Scottish Guild of Wine Judges, who had taken a class in Irvine a few years previously, was keen to do so again. From autumn 1982, up to 18 members met on Wednesday evenings in the dressing room, armed with plastic buckets, notebooks, food processors, hydrometers, acid testing kits, raw materials, demi-johns and abundant enthusiasm. Vic's methods, recipes and records taught a more scientific approach to wine-making. Each evening Centre members waited with bated breath for leftovers, but the undoubted highlights were the shared end-of-term parties with the Art Club (who provided the food). The class continued for two years.

The HARBOUR FOLK CLUB was inspired by the success of post-Harbour Festival ad-hoc concerts in 1985, and was formally inaugurated in August 1986, under the leadership of Eric Park. To enable the Club to get off on a sound footing, the Centre underwrote initial losses; fortunately this amounted to only £108 over some thirteen performances. At the beginning of 1987, after departures for a number of reasons, Susan Green and Allan Jones, running the Hamilton Folk Club while now living in Irvine, came to the rescue. As a result of the hard work and dedication shown by all three, the Club is now financially viable and provides the only regular outlet in Irvine for Folk Music. It meets every second Wednesday.


** a selection of cast lists appears at the end of this chapter **

The Centre's drama section is the largest of the Special Interest Groups. Many people have participated in productions at one time or another and even more have come to see their shows. Their first production was “The Shadow of a Gunman” in summer 1968, with tickets at 3/6. Director Jim Kennedy aimed at, and achieved, a very high standard.

A few months previously, in April '68, the section had requested a £25 grant towards their first production, though this sum “was felt to be very high by many of the committee”. Now represented on committee by Willie ('Buzz') Barr, who itemised what the money was needed for, they were guaranteed £15. After the production, the group were allowed to keep the £22 profit, and announced their October production (being asked by Mr Dunford to make a note to leave the Monday night free of rehearsals because the Camera Club had a visiting lecturer booked that week).

Their second production, the revival of the 1949 James Bridie play “The Baikie Charivari”, in October 1968, was less of a success, mainly due to the play itself, one of Bridie's lesser dramas.

Their third production, “Playing With Fire”, starred Bill Paterson and Shelagh Tutchener. Bill (later of 7:84) was one of Jim Kennedy's fellow drama students, brought in to strengthen the group and provide experience; he appeared in several productions.

The list of productions over its 19 years of existence includes almost every form of drama, including Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, revues, thrillers, modern classics, farce, comedy, Theatre of the Absurd, ‘Coarse’ theatre and pantomime. There have been many contributions to Miscellanies, many bar shows, several appearances at local galas, and Rod MacCowan's street theatre group of 1981. Workshops have also been held, summer ones in 1976 and 1982, and technical sessions at various times. The group took the name Harbour Theatre in 1978, giving it a more definite identity both in the Centre and in the area. Moreover, several of its members have progressed from the Centre to the professional theatre.

The plays performed are chosen from suggestions submitted to the Harbour Theatre committee. Being amateur, they can afford to be ambitious in their choices, performing plays with large casts and plays which would not be profitable in the commercial theatre. The press reviews printed with this chapter show the vitality of their productions. Each play involves careful casting, to give chances to newer members as well as for quality, rehearsals for casts and for technical crew, backstage work on costume and set-painting, the whole production finally coming together. Things are done the professional way – it makes everyone's lives easier!

One outstanding season was 1971-72, when a memorable production of “The Crucible”, Brendan Behan's “The Hostage” and the other play of that season attracted 1248 people over 15 evenings. “The Crucible”, Arthur Miller's play about the New England Community of Salem faced with ‘witchcraft’ and bigotry, is recalled by those who saw it as “the most professional production done by the Centre”.

Staging, in the small space available, has always been inventive. A high stage was created for “Black Comedy” in 1969, so that Willie Smith could go under it from one trap door to another. Balconies have been designed and built by Andy Doole. The first was for “The Hostage” in 1972 (and stayed up for several months), the second (a re-usable one, in sections) for “Anne Frank” in 1981, and used since in “The Trojan Women” and “Macbeth”, and four pantos. Greek columns were produced for Anouilh's “Antigone” in 1975.

Special effects have been equally inventive. In “Cinderella”, Eric Potts as the Fairy made his initial entrance sliding down a rope from concealment on the balcony down to stage level, and Robert Hunter made a similar entrance in “God”. Sound effects have been created for many shows by Andy Baird, such as various ghosts, and a wheelchair bumping down several flights of stairs for “The Real Inspector Hound”. Memorable effects include the “Beanstalk” ladder, the “Macbeth” ghost of Banquo, and Snow White's carriage. One of the most attractive sets was for “Under Milk Wood” in 1975.

Joan Ure, the Scottish playwright whose talents did not become more widely appreciated until after her death in 1977, wrote “Coda” for the drama section in 1972, and “Condemned for Ecstasy” for Ingrid Smith and Sirkus Theatre (mainly drama section members) in 1977. The latter used a bizarre piece of local history, concerning late 18th century Mother Buchan (Sheila Campbell) and her Buchanites (who set up a religious commune in Irvine and later in Galloway) to portray the hopes and frailties of humanity. Sirkus first presented this at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1977, then at the Centre; they also did other plays by Joan Ure both at Fringe and Centre.

The Fringe connection began in 1975 with the revue “The Pubs is Shut”, a very successful comic look at the Scots’ attitude to alcohol. Borderline, the professional theatre group set up by, and based at, the Centre after the renovation in 1974, had offered the amateurs a late-night spot at their venue (St Columba’s by the Castle). The hall was full to capacity all week and ‘The Scotsman’ referred to “the amiable talent of the HAC drama group”.

Taking shows to Edinburgh continued in following years. The Centre took an acclaimed version of Peter Nichol’s harrowing drama “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” in 1977 (full houses at both performances – a rare experience for amateurs at the Fringe) and Sirkus Theatre shows included Joan Ure’s “Something in it for Cordelia”.

A temporary break-away group, Root Ginger, presented Christopher Fry’s “A Phoenix Too Frequent” at the Centre in 1976, but lasted only one production. On the other hand, Harbour Theatre have constantly attracted new members, most notably those of the former Irvine Parish Players in 1979-81.

Shows have often been taken to other local venues. “Graffiti” and “The Bear” went to the Marine Hotel in 1974. The “Olde Time Music Hall” went to several places, including Ardrossan Bowling Club and Dundonald Festival Week, in 1979. “Joe Egg” was taken to the MacRobert Centre, Stirling, in 1979 and to Magnum and Arran in 1981.

One of the major developments in recent years have been the pantos. The HAC-based Borderline presented “Babes on the Broo” as the Christmas show in their first year, and continued with Stuart Mungall’s “Whaam!” in 1975. Then, after two years without specifically Christmas shows, Harbour Theatre presented Xmas revues in 1978 and '79. These were followed by the pantomimes which Irvine as well as the Centre has come to regard as an annual event. They introduce many local people to the theatre and, in the process, involve large casts and boost the Centre finances. The 1986 panto ran for a record 12 evenings, with 97% audiences.

At the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum, Harbour Theatre finally, in the Centre’s 21st year, produced its first Shakespeare, in a bold attempt which played to six full houses and came off magnificently, appreciated by adults and school parties alike.

We should end this chapter with a few light moments, of which there are always plenty in any drama club: Willie Smith's teeth shooting out in “Endgame” and the audience not quite sure whether it was part of the play . . . Jim Tannock, in the charnel-house in “Leonardo’s Last Supper”, earning great applause for the unintentional accuracy of a thigh-bone fling which struck a skull on a shelf and landed it into a barrel which supposedly contained rotting intestines . . . The said Tannock remembering his lines for “The Trojan Women” . . . On the final night of “The Bear”, the audience seeing a stage-hand switching glasses of colourless liquid and the electrifying effect on the unfortunate Roddy Kennedy when a swig of mock vodka turned out to be the real thing . . . In a scene of high drama in “The Anatomist”, Dr Knox shouting “Stand back!” as he is about to smash a window, but the HAC glass resisting, and resisting, and resisting, and leaving the poker dented for posterity . . . In the same play, the longest improvised scene in HAC history, after the line “there is Walter at last”, when the cast realised that ‘Walter’ was comfortably ensconced off-stage, and invented conversations and an unscripted exit while he was fetched . . . Finally, from “Joe Egg”, never the same two nights running, the chase where two characters repeatedly have to just miss meeting each other, on one evening almost meeting head-on through the same door, but deftly avoiding a disastrous change of plot by a quick about-turn. Using the same door cannot be said of Harbour Theatre – they have opened most of the doors of theatrical tradition, and succeeded markedly in the vast majority of productions.

A selection of cast lists:

"The Crucible" cast in Nov.1971 comprised Dorothy Taylor, Brendon McKay, Christine Wyper, Kirsteen (now Kirsty) Wark (as Abigail Williams), Eleanor Watson, Jean Doole, David Gilmore, Carol Dunlop, Helen Flack, John Smelt, Sheila Campbell, Willie Smith, Craig Lockhart, Shelagh Tutchener, Roland (now Ron) Emslie (as Francis Nurse and as Deputy Hopkins), Tony Stott, Ian James, Alan Black and Carol Quinn.

"The Hostage" cast in March 1972 comprised Alastair Rennie, Trish Black, Brendon McKay, Ian James, Marlene Johnstone, Willie Smith, John Smelt, Jamie Garven, Sheila Campbell, Jean Doole, Margaret Beeley, Iain Brown, Alan Black, Roland Emslie and Annette Roux. James H Kennedy directed, Andrew Baird, Linda McGregor and Shona McClure stage managed, Simon Tutchener did lighting, and Stephen Tutchener sound.

"The Breadwinner" cast in June 1975 comprised Richard Charnock-Smith, Sheila Campbell, Christine Stevenson, Colin McLeod, Trevor Turner, Celia Hacking, Eleanor Watson and Andy Long. Iain Campbell directed, and the stage management team were Mike Parry, Gaye Stephen, Ingrid Smith, Dale Evans, David Brownridge and Bernard O'Hagan. Tickets were 50p each!

"An me wi' a bad leg tae" cast - the world amateur premiere of Billy Connolly's play - in June 1984 comprised Andy Baird, Isabel Silver, Jim Tannock, Stuart Kane, Rod MacCowan, Patricia Baird and Jim Greer. James S Duff directed, Sheila Campbell stage managed, assisted by Jackie Muir and Gary Winn, Malcolm Rae did lighting, and David Finch did sound.

"Dangerous Corner" cast in Oct.1987 comprised Rosemary Philips, Mary Lindsay, Carol Savage, Helen Adam, Martin Smith, David Parker, Andy Hill and Geoffrey Sproat. Isabelle Murdoch directed, Sheila Campbell stage managed, assisted by Jim Greer and Suzanne Fraser, and Malcolm Rae, Christine Stanley, Sharon David and Pat Baird covered technical, lighting, costume and props respectively.

"Cutting A Rug" cast in Sept 1989 comprised Carol Savage, Iain Silver, Julie Coombe, Frank O'Neill, Craig Atkins, Isabelle Murdoch, Donald Munro, Graeme Robertson, Pat Baird and Jim Tannock. Christine Stanley directed, and David Murdoch stage managed.


The Centre has played a major role, especially since 1974, in bringing the best and newest of small-scale theatre to Ayrshire. Often our programme provides the only opportunity for audiences in the area to see companies which they would otherwise have to travel to in Glasgow or only hear about in the press reviews. Often, too, the chance to see their work lasts only until they seek out larger venues to match their success, or their casts move on to higher things or they break up as a result of financial or other problems.

Their quality of their work can vary, but often it is unbeatable, and gives audiences a high standard by which to judge what they see elsewhere, in live theatre or on television. The programme has featured a high percentage of ‘Fringe First’ shows. The Centre's role has been to make possible the staging in Irvine of the supreme stagecraft of these companies. Let us take three examples - Paines Plough, Cheek by Jowl and The Medieval Players.

Paines Plough first visited as the result of our persistence, after successes elsewhere with the plays of author David Pownall. “Music to Murder By” (1977) concerned the Renaissance madrigalist Gesualdo, who composed while plotting the murder of his wife, her lover and their child, and the 1930’s composer Warlock. The result was a psychological thriller, a theatrical masterpiece. They returned with the strange “Inuit” (1978), which even the cast found a bit obscure, and a memorable adaptation of Boccaccio's “Decameron” (1981).

Another outstanding piece of stagecraft was Cheek by Jowl’s “Vanity Fair” in 1984; they well expressed the riveting combination of surface gentility and concealed motives, with each scene flowing effortlessly into the next. They presented this and “Pericles” on a return visit; we had already enjoyed their “Othello” (1982), for whose Desdemona the Centre was the first professional performance (three years later, she was seen on TV as Nancy in “Oliver Twist”).

The Medieval Players have appeared at the Centre annually for four years, making us aware of an otherwise untapped strand of European theatre. The small space of our theatre brings some problems for the company, but, more importantly, frights and delights for the audience. Imagine sitting in the front row while four towering actors, at lighting rig level, dance around on stilts, looking none too secure. Juggling acts begin calmly and build up to wild crescendos as rubber balls, apples (with bites taken en passant!), eggs (not hard boiled) and finally sickles and firebrands are expertly tossed within feet of the audience. This is the warm-up. The main plays have included tales from English (“The Reeve’s Tale”), French (“Pierre Pathelin”) and Dutch (“The Blessed Apple Tree”) theatre. Unfortunately, their next tour will be their last, before they too succumb to problems of funding – what a reward for success!

The actors in companies such as this are usually young, either trying to make a start, or actually on the point of getting themselves known. They are based in places all over Britain, from Edinburgh to Bracknell, and Kendal to London. They often travel in a Mercedes van which serves as their home for several weeks, with their set, their props, their overnight packs and plenty of communal joie de vivre. Irvine Harbour Arts is often their only West of Scotland venue apart from Glasgow, and the one they remember most, thanks to the intimate thrust-stage theatre and the friendly gatherings of appreciative audiences in the lounge afterwards. The vagaries of their schedule may see them heading off the following morning for Glasgow, St Andrews, back down south, or even into the Highlands.

The Centre has also played its part in encouraging new Scottish drama. The Stage Company brought Joan Ure’s plays “Something in it for Ophelia” and “The Hard Case” in 1972. In 1973 and '74 we booked the 7:84 productions “The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil” (with Bill Paterson, John Bett, and others now well-known) and “The Game's A Bogey”; in 1975 they returned with “My Pal and Me”; all three shows played to full houses. They outgrew our small venue once they achieved lasting national success, apart from a single visit in 1983 with “Maggie's Man”.

We have been able to programme the new work of other well-known authors. Tom McGrath’s “Laurel and Hardy” was performed by the Traverse Theatre in 1976, Tom Kinninmont’s “The Provost” by Borderline in 1977, Marcella Evaristi’s scintillating comedy of manners “Scotia's Darlings” in 1979, Stewart Conn’s “Hecuba” in 1979, and Liz Lochhead’s “Blood and Ice”, about Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein, in 1986; we have also seen “Filthy Lucre”, Carl Macdougall’s adaptation of Aristophanes’ “Plutus”, and Edwin Morgan’s translations for The Medieval Players.

In the 1970s Scottish author Donald Campbell wrote three plays, two of which were performed at the Centre. “The Jesuit” (1976) concerned Father John Ogilvie, not then canonised, and was set in Glasgow in 1614. His third play, “The Widows of Clyth” (1979), told of the struggle of five women of Clyth, a Caithness fishing village, to survive the aftermath of a fishing disaster. It was a moving drama, showing strength and warmth, and was adapted for radio a year or two later.

The company most recently specialising in Scottish drama is Theatre Alba, with “The Puddock an’ the Princess” and “The Lass wi’ the Muckle Mou” on two visits in 1986, and their third production “The Warld's Wonder” for our anniversary weekend in 1987. Their performances in broad Scots are a charming mix of humour and sincerity.

Borderline played all their early shows at the Centre until the attraction of the higher attendances in Magnum and the use of larger sets took them away. Borderline's scoop of Billy Connolly's first play, “An’ Me Wi’ a Bad Leg Tae” (1976), led to the author practically living at the Centre for a while and to a week of full houses in the Centre. In later years they returned with Juliet Cadzow’s Dario Fo trilogy “Female Parts” and a school show.

Pocket Theatre (whose name reflects the nature of these companies) toured from Kendal, bringing “Peer Gynt” on their first visit to Irvine, and “Hard Times” on a later visit. Several of their number subsequently formed Communicado Theatre, based in Edinburgh, whose performances in Irvine include “The House with the Green Shutters” (1983), “Carmen” (1984) and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1985).

There have been many other highlights: Compass Theatre’s “Odyssey” (1985), told using a few boxes and a pole for a mast, the actors’ movements giving a real impression of being in a storm, or portraying a grotesquely drunken group of lecherous suitors; Perth Repertory Company's superb “Whisky Galore” (1984); the same company’s “Duet For One” (1983), a picture of controlled conflict; Theatre Workshop’s “Suspense” (1984), by Patrick McGill, set in the trenches of World War I; Theatre About Glasgow’s “Twelfth Night” in modern dress, and excellent “As You Like It”; the same company's anarchic Fo farce “Can't Pay, Won't Pay” (1985); ATC’s exciting “Don Juan” in 1979 (their main activist, Dick McCaw, later worked with The Medieval Players); and Winged Horse’s “Cry of Spain”, complete with International Volunteers’ salute to an old member in the audience!

Many of the small-scale companies are (perhaps they have to be) slightly mad. One 1980 audience remembers being marched out onto the street by Madhouse Theatre, and being lined up along the pavement while the (pretend) cop marshalled unsuspecting local traffic (including a real and obedient police car), then marched us over to the waste ground behind the "Ship" for a dangerous human bomb stunt. The actor involved suffered severe burns a few years later in a similar stunt, and next appeared at the Centre in plaster and bandages. One audience, as they entered the theatre and went to their seats, met a caged hairy creature who groped at them as they attempted to sidle past.

Incubus from London must rank as the most scurrilous and longest-lasting of our mad visitors. Led by the irrepressible Paddy Fletcher, they brought shows such as “Strut and Fret” and a typically Incubus-ian adaptation of Apuleius’ “Golden Ass” to the Centre over many visits between 1974 and 1984. The regular Incubus visits ensured controversy among the planning sub-committee and anticipation among the membership. Those who swore they would never be back were always in the next year's audience!

More recent crazy performances have been given by Natural Theatre since 1981 (“Blood Weekend”), the grossest being “Eat Me”, complete with exploding cabbages, in 1983. They too fill the theatre, and add audience involvement to the mix. Less outrageous, but equally popular, have been the Entertainment Machine productions showing the inevitable chaos when the Farndale Ladies attempt to stage a show. One outstandingly hilarious and talented company, Theatre de Complicite, presented, in side-splitting fashion, vignettes such as a bible-clutching clerk on a beach near drowning in a half melted cornetto bought for him by an emaciated spinster. Unforgettable, but later tours went to larger venues.

Two-person groups can also be successful. Theatre Roundabout performed their “Hamlet” in 1969, revisiting the Centre with “Pride and Prejudice” and several other shows, until our audiences became used to more sophisticated fare. Mull Little Theatre, consisting of Barrie and Marianne Hesketh until the latter's death, called in to Irvine on three of their spring tours between 1979 and '81.

The comic two-some Tony & Derek have brought us zany versions of Wagner's Ring, Helen of Troy, and Lawrence of Arabia (the last-named starring Eric Park and Paul Lucky as impromptu Arabs).

Solo performers include John Cairney, who performed his “Robert Burns”, his “Ivor Novello”, his “R. L. Stevenson” and others from 1971 onwards. On one occasion, after two intrusive flashes from a local photographer, he worked his way over to the offending pressman, said quietly “Do that again and I’ll kill you” and continued with the show as if nothing had happened. Russell Hunter brought “Jock”, his portrayal of a Scottish soldier, to the Parish Church Hall in 1973, “Knox” to the Centre in 1975, “Jock” again in 1977, and “Xanadu” in 1980. All were powerful performances, producing a blend of pathos and humour. One inspired an older lady member of the audience to lean forward and whisper to him, “You're workin’ awfu’ hard tonight, Russell.”

David Kossoff, Jewish raconteur and master-narrator of Bible stories, appeared twice at the Centre. Margaret Dent, of Falkirk, presented her enthralling picture of Music Hall singer Marie Lloyd in 1975, but drew smaller audiences for her two follow-ups. Elliot Williams, the last of the barnstormers (and who had performed at the Ritz Theatre in Irvine in the early '50s) appeared in 1974, and, after the show, was presented with a special award by John Cairney on behalf of the Scottish Arts Council. Leonard Maguire performed “Getting Dark, Isn’t It?” in 1977.

While we take risks (as any Arts Centre should), disasters have fortunately been rare. One Aberdeen company (consisting of English actors) performed “The Comedy of Errors” in two half-hour acts! On another occasion, a two-person company, who had built their set from Irvine driftwood and a beer keg, were abandoned at the interval, or it may have been the end; no-one returned to find out.

Many amateur visits have also been enjoyed, one of the first being the West Kilbride Theatre Group in 1967. The best known has been the New England Repertory Company, U.S. drama students based for a year at Arundel, their studies culminating in a spring tour which we helped to establish. Their almost annual visits lasted from 1973 to 1985, on one occasion including a workshop for the drama club of a local secondary. They offered three different evenings of American drama each year, and the Centre booked all three. While their main tutor was Bob Shea, their standard was very high, in, for example, the stage version of Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road”, “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown” with the unforgettable vignette of Bob Shea as Snoopy lying doggo on the roof of his kennel, and mime programmes in which each movement of each actor’s body was precisely controlled. Later programmes tended not to reach the same heights, but were enjoyable nonetheless. Younger actors have also performed on our stage, such as the Scottish Youth Theatre with Plautus’ “Pseudolus” (1984) and, more recently, the enthusiastic KIDS, for whom the Centre provides rehearsal space.

This rich programme would not be possible without skilled technical help from our resident volunteers. The energetic Sam Nelson took on Andy Baird as his ‘apprentice’, and Brian Hogan and Simon Tutchener came in soon afterwards. Colin Crombie ‘tecked’ for most shows for several years, followed by Jim Duff and Malcolm Rae. There are also many unseen workers, who spread programme news by word of mouth, or, like Dorothy Lynam before the MSC scheme began, keep the press informed. Nor would an evening at the theatre be complete without a welcoming coffee bar, manned for several years by Margaret and Tom McCutcheon.

The Centre has proved beyond doubt that an evening out at the theatre in Irvine can be welcoming and rewarding, enjoying the best of the talent which exists both in Scotland and further afield.

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