The only way for Essex

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.