The only way for Essex

The Backstage Centre in Purfleet boasts state-of-the-art training and production premises
The Backstage Centre in Purfleet boasts state-of-the-art training and production premises
Brian Attwood was editor of The Stage from 1994 to 2014.
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Not so long ago some bright spark had the idea of sinking millions of pounds into a so-called backstage training hub in the Essex marshlands.

In recent years we’ve seen more than one arts building metamorphose into that bane of public funding, the white elephant (try The Public in West Bromwich for starters).

I don’t rule out that I might be left eating my words in a few years but I believe the Creative & Cultural Skills Backstage Centre in Purfleet is going to be a game changer in the cause of behind-the-scenes training.

Having promised its champion, director of programmes Rob West, I would pay a visit, I finally made the trip out of term time for a tour conducted by him and colleague Jonathan Roberts.

I’d advise anyone with an interest in the sector who’s completed their A levels to make a note of the centre and look on it as a serious option.

So what’s the big deal?

Let’s start with the stunning array of facilities, purpose built and state of the art.

Many years ago as a Stirling university undergraduate, I worked briefly on the flyfloor at the Macrobert (so long ago that I believe it was still spelled with a capital ‘R’).

To conceive how far things have moved on imagine if you will a 21st century equivalent that has more in common with the deck of the USS Enterprise, equipped with full wheelchair access and a wire grid so strong it can support a small car (allegedly). Take a look if you have a head for heights:

I should have known better than to bemoan the passing of the old-fashioned manual flying set, for there among the state of the art equipment was the very item.

It’s easy to forget of course that, while it’s essential every student is at the cutting edge of backstage innovation because that’s the way theatres are heading, different rules apply in a large part of the sector.

Says West:

We want them to have the best and newest equipment but it’s no good just training them on that. When they go to an older regional or even a West End theatre, they are going to have to master much older equipment. This is about equipping them for world of work, wherever they work.


Go to the sound studio and the same rule applies. State of the art but with some items that hark back in time.

The trump card for the academy is that it isn’t a training facility alone but a working site whose services are continually out for hire with work and study continually combined. There’s many more production companies that have yet to glean the benefits but not the Royal Opera House whose marvellously eco-friendly Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop lies next door.

And a final credit is due for the academy’s local contribution. The outer reaches of the Thames have long been one of Britain’s forgotten locations, with much of the area going to seed since the later seventies.

In its none too pretty heyday the region produced its own very local brand of creative energy, celebrated in Julien Temple’s 2009 film Oil City Confidential, centred on the area’s most famous musical export, Dr Feelgood

Appropriately the best view from the academy is a panorama of the marshes, the freighter port and the impressive expanse of the Lower Thames Crossing bridge. There’s a sense of movement  and of that creative energy reviving after too long a time dormant.


  1. Brian
    Its not like you to leave the comfortable confines of central London, my heart still carries the scars of your cutting remarks to me about Birmingham where Europe’s biggest public library has just opened which in addition to books has theatres.recital rooms and even boring meeting rooms, can we expect your next “thoughts from muddy marshes” to include a visit and comment on the New Birmingham? Purfleet looks a great facility, I wonder if this could not have been built onto the State Cinema in Grays one of our languishing old super cinemas which lies in suspended animation, still with Compton pipe organ, pending someone finding a long term use for it. Regretably even the enthusiast who built the web site has not updated since 2008. Why build new when the existing could have, suitably adapted provided the same training facility. I realize this a simplistic view but………………. we are in a business that needs vision and imagination

  2. I shall see what can do, Rog.

    For the benefit of anyone else, said comments were many years back when I had the Tabard (diary) role and had a theme going with our correspondent above. And I retract nothing about the old Bullring.

    That said have been there many times and more than once attended the Birmingham Rep stage of CCSkills/NSA’s wonderful Offstage Choices Roadshow (in fact we sponsored part of the event.

    Don’t know the state cinema but Tate Modern shows the benefits of refurbs. That said, do pop down there and take a look; I challenge you to walk the grid on the flyfloor while looking down!

  3. Glad you enjoyed the tour Brian. The CC skills team there have done a fantastic job at implementing an important vision for the sector. I remember in the early days, some sleepless nights, for those of us involved in making the case and securing the funding.

  4. Yes indeed Tom and I’d be the first to acknowledge the role you played in getting this whole thing off the ground. It could have gone the way of so many training projects and grand designs but thank goodness, it hasn’t and congrats on that

  5. As the Head of Safety for Earls Court and Olympia venues I am really pleased to know that such a great facility exists, gone are the days of multi year apprenticeships, going are the days of the untrained freelancer. Entertainment has metamorphosed in recent years and great respect is given to those that take on training to develop themselves and their skills. Combine this with the likely application of the CDM Regs to our ‘projects’ and it all comes together. The next generation will be tougher and smarter, lets hope the Theatres invest in technology to benefit from this.

  6. It seems some people might be getting confused with this and the excellent BackStage Academy in Wakefield, although perhaps the recent name change at Purfleet was for that very reason. Fantastic tuition from industry professionals on real live shows! What more can you ask for?

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