SPOTLIGHT ON: John Baldock. Exiting the stage

Brian Butler July 28, 2023

Lead Pic: John Baldock (L) with Brian Butler

As a little lad in Buxton, John Baldock was a shy boy and was sent to a local drama romp: “it was an opportunity to bring me out of myself – little did they know”, he tells me in his cramped office, upstairs and backstage at Theatre Royal Royal.

John has retired this month, after 18 years at the Brighton venue and 34 years in the entertainment business. John was destined for teacher training college, but his course got cancelled. “I’d heard of a puppet theatre in Buxton, and I’d seen a job as a puppeteer advertised in the job centre. Then I literally walked into someone who knew about the job. I was interviewed and I got it”.

So began his life in the theatre – playing in Buxton and touring with string puppets, rod puppets and Bunraku, which are half life-sized Japanese puppets. After four or fiver years, he left to become a floor assistant on children’s television at BBC Pebble Mill, Birmingham. A further stint at the puppet theatre then led to London’s Kew Gardens, where he worked in the visitor centre before becoming front of house manager at the new Wellcome wing of the Science Museum.

But he succumbed to theatre’s siren call, running front of house at the Theatre Museum, then in Covent Garden. After five years he became first theatre manager and then theatre director at Theatre Royal Brighton some 18 years ago. Apart from all the front of house and public-facing functions, the latter role has given him some involvement in programming the theatre seasons – including, he told me, occasionally saying “no thanks” to productions that wouldn’t’ fit or match the demographics of an audience he knows very well.

Slava’s Snowshow

By my calculations, he’s welcomed getting on for three million ticket holders to the building run by the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG). So what’s been his favourite show? “Slava’s Snowshow,” he answers briskly. “It just touches everybody. It awakens a sense of playfulness in people and thoroughly engages the audience. It is imaginative but simple theatre – I’ve always loved the power of suggestion”.

More recently he raves about the play The Doctor, which starred Juliet Stevenson. “It was absolute genius; a stunning piece of theatre. I was blown away by it – her performance in particular”. And how about a show that got away, that he’d liked to have presented to Brighton audiences? “Anything of Disney’s… Maybe Bedknobs and Broomsticks. But they’re too big for our stage.”

I reminded John we’d chatted when the theatre tentatively re-opend after Covid lockdowns. Did he now look back and think it might not have happened? “We were in danger. There was never a set date where the closure might end. ATG must have been thinking could they keep 40+ venues going? But thanks to them and the investors, we came back. All the team who left on furlough came back – very rare for theatre companies post Covid. We were very quickly back to where we had been, with a backlog of shows ready to appear, and a hunger from our audience. We went from a standing start to 110 mph and that’s our pace now”.

And that includes a lot of restoration work to the theatre’s facade, which is now underway in earnest. “Because we’re Grade 2 listed, we have to replace like for like”. This is most noticeable to passers-by as its well-known exterior balcony is being replaced. The situation was aggravated by water ingress during Covid, when routine maintenance wasn’t possible. So now the theatre is embarked on £4 million-worth of restoration work, including the frontage’s famous terracotta tiles, with a new balcony currently being cast offsite.

Increasing demands for power from visiting theatre companies means the theatre’s electrics are also being increased in output. And then there’s the next door bar – the Colonnades; the subject of much controversy and misinformation about its future. John set the record straight.

”Emotions were running high. I get that. People are very fond of the Colonnades. So the true situation is that the lease has now passed back to the theatre. It makes sense we should run it. There’s a lot of work to do on it, but it will re-open as a pub, open during the daytime as always. We may fit a pass door from it into the theatre foyer – that’s all”.

John said it seemed appropriate to bow out now when a new chapter in the theatre’s life will begin. “I had three weeks on furlough, but not much time off otherwise. I’m tired, to be honest. I have a special bond with this theatre and it makes it difficult to walk away. My successor Sophie Denney will be brilliant. I’m not giving up – I’ll look for something else to do. I’d do it all again. If asked I’d tell my younger self: try and enjoy all of it. Don’t be shy or nervous. It’s all going to be great”.

Look out for John’s thoughts on current ticket prices in my feature on the cost of a theatre trip – coming soon to Scene.