Felixstowe: Closing Spa Pavilion is bananas says Richard Digance

Entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to Richard Digance about why Felixstowe’s Spa must be saved, the trouble with TV talent shows and why he doesn’t miss the cameras.

“It is stupid, idiotic council workers who can’t tell their a*** from their elbow who butcher the arts,” says Digance when I break the news about the Felixstowe Spa Pavilion’s uncertain future.

The Ipswich Star’s Save Our Spa campaign was launched after Suffolk Coastal District Council decided to pull its �240,000-a-year funding as part of cost-cutting measures.

Leisure operators and campaigners have until June 8 to submit their business plans for the 913-seater site, with the council warning it might not stay as a theatre if somebody comes up with an innovative idea to turn it into a different sort of attraction.

The current operators are set to leave next January but the Spa is still open with a full programme of shows over the coming months, including Digance on May 25.

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“It’s absolutely disgraceful,” says the musician slash comedian, a regular performer at the theatre for the last 25 years.

“The Spa is one of the few that even in my heyday I never ever sold out,” he laughs “but the audience are mega, which is why I keep going back.

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“There are places where I think ‘well, I don’t want to work there anyway’, but that’s not the case with the Spa. It’s a good old traditional theatre and if you’re going to kill tradition it’s what Great Britain is built on and it would be catastrophic.

“It should be saved. If there’re any benefit concerts I’ll be there because I’ve earned a living from theatres like the Spa all my life and I hate the thought some bureaucratic council person can close not just my livelihood but the entertainment of the town; it’s bananas.”

Digance says a lot of his favourite venues are really struggling. Closing them sounds like an option, but what then he asks?

“What you going to do with it, where is the entertainment going to come from. You’re not going to have people getting in their cars and driving to wherever, they just won’t bother. They’ll just go and get a DVD, so suddenly live entertainment has another kick in the teeth.

“There’s always mention about how many pubs are closing, but there are four theatres a week closing in Britain. That doesn’t sound a lot in comparison, but there aren’t as many theatres as there are pubs and it is disastrous.

“This is I think the third recession I’ve lived through because I’m older than most people,” he laughs. “Although this is the worst one, one thing’s for sure, you climb out of it. You have to otherwise the whole world would go bust.

“What happens then, what happens to Felixstowe when it hasn’t got the entertainment, it’s very short-sighted. To strangle any theatre is awful, dreadful.

“Once the Spa’s gone, it’s gone. I would like them [the council] to come to my gig; I’ll show ‘em what entertainment is, I’ll show ‘em everybody having a sing and a laugh. Are you saying this country doesn’t need that right now because it b***** well does.”

One of the great folk entertainers of the 70s and 80s, he’s currently halfway through a 104-date tour; laughing his evergreen career is down to him being resilient rather than brilliant.

“Nobody’s snapped at my heels and been there to go ‘well I’m better than Digance so I’m going to steal his thunder’.”

Big name comics like Ross Noble have said they were inspired by watching him on telly growing up. Something he takes as a huge compliment.

He doesn’t miss the cameras though; growing sick and tired of showbusiness many years ago he just wants to be himself.

“I wanted to walk between the music business and showbusiness, nobody had really done that. I thought ‘well, I won’t get the telly obviously’ but I’m not too bothered about that because I’m not a big fan of modern telly.”

He’s certainly no fan of Britain’s Got Talent, but we’ll get to that.

“I thought I’ll be me and anyone who wants to come and see me will and I’ve never really come unstuck. I don’t really have the divine right to have been around as long as I have.

“The point you made, which is a good point, is that I’ve never really been in fashion. If you’re not in fashion you’re never going to fall out of it.”

He’s very aware he’s been around a long time and with age, he says, comes a need to test yourself.

“I don’t want people thinking they’re coming to see the same old show with cobwebs on. I’m very aware of the image of older performers and I don’t want that image so I thought well get out there, get on the road with a whole new show and see how it goes.”

Digance’s appeal is his honesty on stage, sharing his true stories with audiences.

One of his new songs is about the pecking order of a school photograph; how kids are put in certain places in order of their ugliness, size or degree of grubbiness.

It’s an observation everybody from ten to 110 gets.

“I love that sort of storytelling; it’s what I am and I have no desires to be anything else.

“When people say ‘you don’t do telly anymore’… my stories are fairly deep and long. I can’t possibly go on Loose Women and give myself a trimmed three minute appearance on a show I don’t particularly rate anyway.

“If I can’t tell it how I want to I’d rather not do it.”

It’s a stand that once cost him a spot on a Royal Variety Performance Show; but he has no regrets about that or giving his financially rewarding but creatively destroying stint working on cruise ships the heave ho.

“I want to be in a zone where I’m proud of myself. I’ve got some person in the middle of b***** nowhere asking me what I do and [am I] that chap on Countdown.”

To quote Jessie J, it’s not about the price tag.

“One of the 15 comedians who hold our television screens at the moment, because it is a bit of a closed shop, earned �2million in one night at the O2. I can’t relate to that, I’m a working act, a performer.

“If somebody rang me up and said do you want to do a gig for �2m they’d wake me up in hospital. I don’t see it, I don’t understand it. Comedy can’t be best performed in an arena; I don’t care what anybody says.

“It’s all about connection and it’s very difficult to connect to 20,000 people night in night out. That is a money making project as far as I’m concerned.”

Digance believes they wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the over exposure of TV. He hates Britain’s Got Talent with a vengeance.

“I don’t believe performance is a competition, I believe it’s from the heart. It’s all very well these panellists being superstars and stealing the show. Last week I was watching and Simon Cowell was judging while eating a Satsuma and a bar of chocolate; I thought how arrogant is that?

“This person is doing their utmost to get on. For every winner there are thousands who chuck it in because they feel failures, that can’t be right.

“I never picked up a guitar to earn �2m in one night, to say to people ‘I’m better than you let’s see how we get on in a competition’. I picked up the guitar because I thought I’d stand more chance of getting girlfriends if I played Bob Dylan songs.”

Did it work?

“Sort of,” he laughs.

Digance doesn’t agree that BGT, X Factor and so on are the modern day successors to Opportunity Knocks and New Faces.

The difference is people who appeared on those shows were acts already serving their apprenticeship working the club circuit.

“I think that’s very different to what’s being offered now, where it’s brutalising kids who aren’t any good which is unforgivable in my book. It must destroy some of these people the way they talk to them, sling ‘em out. The smugness of it, who are these people anyway, to judge someone’s life, their whole musical career and to put them on a scrap heap at 17-years-old?

“I don’t care how many times you see in print that Richard Digance is moaning about it because I don’t care; it’s wrong and that’s what modern TV is.”

He wants no part of it, preferring to put a fresh set of strings on his guitar, hit the motorway and spend two or so hours in front of an audience.

“I don’t think I’ll ever sell out the Royal Albert Hall again, maybe I don’t have aspirations to do so. I’m perfectly happy and I’m enjoying some more offbeat venues at times.

“But I can tell you it is very nice when I get in my car and I’m going to places I know like the Spa because I have that safety factor,” he laughs.

Here’s hoping the Spa is there for him next year.

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