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The Story of The Stables; John Dankworth remembers.

John Robert Brown

Today, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine live at Wavendon, near to Milton Keynes. Here, in the grounds of their comfortable nineteenth-century house, they have built a 400-seat theatre, The Stables. In June 2007 I was invited to talk and play at The Stables, as part of the Sunday morning series Jazz Matters. For me, the highlight was playing an impromptu clarinet and piano duo with John, totally unexpected and, of course, great fun. Believe me, he's a very good musician.

Over a quiet pre-performance coffee in John's comfortable office in the back rooms of The Stables we chatted about the origins of the building, about what gave him the idea to run a theatre, and some of the headaches involved in overseeing such a project.

"In the sixties, shortly after Cleo and I got married, we deliberately kept our careers apart, because everybody thought that when they booked one they automatically got the other as a free gift," he said. "They would be rather sullen and sulky when I turned up with a band with another singer in it! Cleo wasn't mentioned in the contract, of course, but they thought that Cleo would come on a 'special this month basis', a two-for-one offer." He laughs: " 'Wait - there's more,' he says, in a mock TV-announcer voice. 'Six steak knives if you book in the next ten minutes.'

"Then, in the Camden Jazz Festival in the early sixties, we decided to do something together. It made sense, and it was successful. In Camden they called it a lieder recital, with Cleo singing a variety of different styles of songs, with Laurie Holloway and myself doing instrumentals in between. We did this whenever we could find a small hall to take it. We went to several stately homes to do that. A silk manufacturer in Cumberland, who had built a little opera house for himself, inspired us. If a silk manufacturer could do that, then we didn't see why we couldn't. We lived in an old Georgian house in a village, at the time. We looked around quickly for a house that would work. The closest we could find was the house that we live in now, here at Wavendon, which had a stable block, which was little more than a shell.

"During the war it had been a place for manufacturing code machines. We are near Bletchley Park, of Enigma fame, though it was called a nut and bolt factory. We found out more and more about that as the years went by. It was derelict. Cleo and I wandered round with greedy eyes, deciding where there could be an auditorium. We showed our friends, who looked up in the air and said: 'Yes, marvellous,' and thought we were nuts, which we probably were, to have started it. As Ronnie Scott used to say, 'When I started a jazz club in the West End, little did I think!' We were the same, really. We wanted to do this so much, we didn't think how many headaches there would be, and how many other people you have to consider and involve in it with you.

"First of all, volunteers came by the dozen. All our friends who lived round here volunteered to help. Cleo's family and my family did a little bit of painting. Cleo's sister ran up the curtains. Effectively, we turned it into a semi-public building. We didn't even apply for planning permission; we didn't even know what that meant. And of course, it was a lot less formal in those days. There was no Milton Keynes here at that time. We were in the middle of nowhere.

"But Milton Keynes Development Corporation very quickly realised that we were going to be their only entertainment. It was expected to be ten years before they got a theatre - and it turned out to be much longer than that. So they very kindly provided us with a secretary, a bit of office equipment, and that sort of thing. We were able to run with a staff of one for a couple of years. Then we scraped up some money. We had three full- or part-time people, one on the box office, one doing the books, that sort of thing. So that's the way we ran from 1970, the first concert, up to the year 2000.

"But by 1995, people were saying: 'It's very nice, this old stables, but it's not altogether pleasant.' In the summer you were absolutely baked out of existence. In the winter, those in seats A and B, 21 and 22, had buckets in their laps to catch the drips coming through the ceiling. Something was needed to replace it. We had an architect among our customers who came regularly to the concerts. He quickly offered his services, then - as architects do, the same as you and I would if asked to write a two minute piece we might get involved until it ends up as a symphony - he did the same. Instead of a replacement for what was little more than a Nissen Hut in the old days - a glorified one, admittedly, added on to a bit of The Stables - it changed into what you are sitting in now, which is a theatre on five levels, if you count the flies, the gallery and the basement, on a sloping site. We built this. It ran into millions.

"We were thinking of something rather less than one million. His plan turned out to be five million. Of course, we had Arts Council grants. It's very nice of them to provide that, but not everybody realises that 25% of that figure you agree to supply, to their 75%. We had to raise over a million before we could get it started.

"Fortunately enough, Jim Marshall, who runs Marshall Amplifiers, lives here. He has always been very supportive. He came from the same part of London as Cleo. He knew of Cleo when she was a nobody, gigging for 32/6d, which was the London Union fee. He followed her career. When we approached him to help, he more or less said: 'What do you need?' We had to name the figure.

"That happened in the early days of The Stables. When it came to the new building he came up with another three-quarters of a million. That left just half a million to raise. You say that lightly these days, but you know how many coffee mornings that would take. Somehow we managed to do it. Of course, then the bill spiralled up a bit - not by very much, about ten-per-cent. But that's another half-million to raise when you are talking of five million.

"Eventually it got on the road. To our credit, and to our planning people's credit, and the architect's, we were able to close on the Sunday night in the old Stables. It was Acker Bilk. I played with him. We videoed the occasion, as we knew it was the last night and that they were going to work on it very soon. I came down first thing in the morning before the office opened, to have a last lingering look, and the bulldozer was already smashing it down!

"The following Thursday we had managed to finish the auditorium. We made a plastic tunnel to get the people in. Somehow we got it started so that we only missed four days' trading. We had to do it, otherwise we'd have been even broker than we were. Of course, it's all a non-profit-making thing, but they don't like non-profit-making things to be broken.

"It took three or four years to get it cleared off our books. I'm immensely grateful to the Arts Council for supporting us. It was a worry all that time. They didn't give you the money all in one go, of course. They had to see that the last bit was completed before they paid for the next bit, which all holds things up.

"Another slightly irritating thing is that the Arts Council also then tells you how to run the place - which you've only run for 30 years. Admittedly, that didn't apply to most of the places to which they gave grant., but in our case we'd been running for 30 years - albeit in a smaller place - and we knew how the whole thing worked. The Arts Council then decreed that we increase our staff from three to 17. Which was a hell of a compliment to the three who had kept it going all that time.

"It's Mr Micawber, isn't it? Income is a pound and if your expenditure one pound-and-a-penny, you are in trouble. We quickly realised that it was a little over-manned, so trimmed two people off. Since then, Milton Keynes has grown a lot, while we have gone up in popularity. We have 408 seats, but we are licensed to have standing room at the back to 450. Offhand I can't tell you what the occupancy is, but it's something like 86%, which is immensely high considering that you are putting on things that you know aren't going to draw, because they are worthwhile. If you are an arts centre your business shouldn't be just getting people in to fill the house. We occasionally get people like Bill Wyman and his band, and he will do two nights for us. Then the ticket price would go up fairly high. But we'd regard that as a fund-raising concert.

"Technically we are open all the year round, except that in September we close down for three weeks. We've got 17 staff, who can't be expected to run the theatre in the evening. They do 9-5 jobs. We have 360 volunteers, on a roster. And that's still barely enough to run about 250 events a year, which include concerts and commercial events, because you always get levels of enthusiasm amongst your volunteers. You tend to see the same faces again and again. Some will book in four nights a week. They regard it as a sort of hobby, or part of their lives.

"My interests in music are sometimes reflected in the programme. In the early days, Cleo and I made probably 75% of the suggestions. Our influence was great. I'm sure it would still be quite considerable if we had the time to spend on it."

As John and Cleo still spend a lot of time away from Britain, how does he keep an eye on the theatre when he's away? "Quite often they'll phone me where I am, or ask my opinion or something, or ask me to write a welcoming letter to this or that, or send me over by Fedex 100 letters to sign - that's when the 'Sir' bit comes in! It's about the only time I intend to use the 'Sir' from now on. If I were getting a 'Sir' for being a saxophone player I'd be very embarrassed. As you know, there are so many wonderful saxophone players about. If it were a world ranking, I'd don't think I'd get in the top 1,000 for actual technical ability!" He laughs. "It's not what it's about, it's what Cleo and I have been able to do for music in fields other than our own performance. Although we still enjoy performing and, touch wood, we'll be doing that for a few years more. So this theatre must have come into it.

"For a long while Cleo was on the very lottery board that was awarding money to people like us! She had to go out of the room when our bid was discussed. She knew some of the things that, if she hadn't been there, would have been dismissed out of hand for jazz. She'd pipe up and say, 'You don't know much about this bloke, who's done so many things and helped so many young people.' Half of them didn't know what NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra) was. They'd tend to favour Covent Garden Opera, or maybe the National Youth Orchestra, that side of it. Cleo is President of the National Music Council, I've won a couple of BAFTA things, Ivors (Ivor Novello Awards), and all the rest of it.

"Jazz is a very egalitarian thing. All the first books I read about jazz in the late 'forties were written by paid up members of the Communist party. They all referred to the hardship that the Negroes (as they called them in those days) were subjected to. It's a legacy that's sort of lasted on among certain sectors of jazz people. I think those sorts of people resent it. And the people who think it's merely a reward for dexterity on the instrument that I play also get annoyed, because there are also so many wonderful players about. I don't feel guilty; I feel quite humble about it.

"I go to America and they call us Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth. Both of us were in a 'living legends' picture that they took at the Kennedy Centre, earlier in the year, which included Dave Brubeck, Clark Terry, Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis. The idea was that they were catching people before they left this planet. In order to make it a bit more interesting, and not just a load of old wrinklies, they got people like Chick (b 1941) and Wynton (b 1961), but the listing of all the players on it was Frank Wess, Horace Silver, and Sir John Dankworth. I said to them afterwards, 'I'm sorry I didn't instruct you on that. You, as Americans, probably don't understand the system. I'm not sure that I do, from that point of view, but my feeling is that it's like calling me 'mister' all the time. It's a title, isn't it? So you shouldn't really use 'Sir', except when there is a specific reason.' And THAT is signing charitable letters!" He adds, and laughs. "I'm going to make sure that it's cut out off any future billing I do. Laurence Olivier was a 'Sir', then a Lord, but you never saw it in his billing.

"Another part of the knighthood which has had a profound effect on me is that after I went to the palace, NYJO suggested that they had a picture taken of me with all my regalia, and them playing in full flight. So the Pizza On The Park, just round the corner from the Palace, was booked. I was driven round there from the Palace, got out, and there was the whole of NYJO on the pavement playing a reggae that I was able to join in with. Then downstairs they had the band set up. They said, 'Would it be all right to do a few of your arrangements?' The first one they called was Indiana, at a very fast tempo. I took the first chorus and a half. Honestly, I realised then that my chops... any of the five players behind there, sitting admiring my silk hat, could have got up and played a far more coherent chorus than I did. From then onwards, I've been doing almost daily practice. It's certainly made me a lot more confident about playing. Practice tends to do that, doesn't it?

The eightieth year means a lot of concerts, including a Prom in August, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC Big Band, and Soweto Kinch, Tommy Smith and Guy Barker, and then a big concert with the London Symphony in February 2008.

"Last time I did a Prom I did it with Laurie Holloway. We did a couple of numbers in the park. One of them was my Tomorrow's World, the original theme of the TV programme. We rehearsed it, the evening came on, and the night got cold. I started playing Tomorrow's World when I was introduced - and my G# had stuck! I hadn't checked it before I went on. There were about 15 in the first 16 bars. I felt a real idiot, not being able to play my own tune. Being a slight instrument slob, I'm quite used to releasing the G#, but there was no way I could do it on that thing without missing two or three notes, on live television. After about three I just left them, and hoped that Laurie's notes would fill them in to make people believe they heard them, though they actually didn't. That taught me a lesson. My motto is that I never make the same mistake more than 17 times.

"With my 80th in September 2007, and Cleo's - I'm not allowed to say how old she is, but of similar vintage - six weeks later, we regard the whole year after that as our eightieth."

An edited version of this article appeared in the October 2007 edition of Clarinet and Saxophone magazine. Reproduced by permission.
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