Riviera People – Colin Matthews

Posted by: on Apr 14, 2016 | No Comments

Riviera People – Colin Matthews, 30 Years at Babbacombe Theatre

Colin Matthews is celebrating 30 years at Babbacombe Theatre where he has perfected a crowd-pleasing menu of in-house variety performances plus touring shows that keep the 600-seater theatre a truly vibrant and thriving part of the community. Anita Newcombe meets up with Colin to find out more.

Colin Matthews

am meeting Colin in his office at Babbacombe Theatre to chat about his 30-year winning formula and his plans for the future. “More of the same,” he says. “Our own productions are very much our ‘bread and butter’ and these are complemented by popular touring shows.” 

When Colin says, “our own shows” he really means it. He devises the ideas, writes the scripts, selects the music and personally directs and manages rehearsals for each show. This year’s special is ‘Starstruck’ with great vocals, side-splitting comedy and gorgeous costumes all overflowing with irresistible feel-good factor. It’s about the 120th show that Colin has produced but even at the age of 70 he is still constantly seeking new creative ideas and fine-tuning the performances so they are the very best they can be. Of course, he does have a talented team to help him but the tremendous driving force that ensures the theatre’s long-standing popularity is quite clearly down to Colin.

It wasn’t always easy however. Colin took over the theatre in 1986 and had a few bad years especially after TOADS moved into the Little Theatre in 1991 and were no longer renting Babbacombe Theatre each winter. The theatre was in danger of closing and new ideas were needed. Colin also had the challenge of a change in holiday habits at this time – people were going abroad more and local hotels were trying hard to extend their season into the winter months. Colin decided that an updated version of the traditional variety show would help the theatre tap into the important holiday market. He said, “We had Dana in our first season and some other names but it was very costly and too much money was going straight out of the stage door.”

So in the early 90s Colin started putting more money into his own productions, investing more in costumes, lighting and staging, rather than in paying for big names. The idea was a modern variety blend with much more pzazz, glamour and humour. In order to fill 600 seats daily throughout the year, he needed to give people what they wanted and provide a fun and thoroughly enjoyable evening out. Colin says, “It may not be cutting edge but it is very entertaining and people do love it.” Now Babbacombe Theatre is thriving and extraordinarily, is the only unsubsidised theatre in the West Country. This is a big achievement for a seaside town where as Colin says’ “half the catchment area is just sea.”

Many of the theatregoers are over 50 and the theatre does rely extensively on the holiday trade to sustain their long season, closing only briefly in January for repairs. However his more recent shows with a more contemporary content are now attracting a younger audience including local families and Colin says, “In addition we are also now enticing more touring shows and getting people like Lulu and TV names who seem to like the intimacy of our theatre. We’ve always had a warm and intimate feel to the place.”

Babbacombe Theatre has grown from small beginnings. In the 20s a bandstand was built on the site where bands had already been performing for some time. Then, in 1938 a permanent theatre, the Babbacombe Downs Concert Hall was built. Soon afterwards with the advent of World War II, the theatre was commandeered for the war effort and became a lecture theatre for the RAF who were stationed at The Palace Hotel.

After the war ended, shows started up again and the theatre hosted emerging talents such as Bruce Forsyth. Brucie did a couple of seasons here before being talent spotted and securing Sunday Night at the Palladium. Colin remembers, “I was taken as a child to see Bruce by my grandfather who told me, ‘I think he will be a star’.” Bruce paid an unannounced visit to the Babbacombe Theatre in the early 2000s and did a routine on the stage to the delight of the unsuspecting audience. Bruce remembered the place fondly. “The atmosphere in this place, you can’t beat! Stay kind to it and treasure it all you can …”

Colin Matthews has lived in Torquay since he was 5 years old; his father was a teacher at Audley Park (now Torquay Academy). In his early working years, he joined forces with his elder brother, leasing Shiphay Manor Hotel  (now part of Torquay Boys’ Grammar School) and turning it into a nightclub where live groups performed including Empty Vessels, later known as Wishbone Ash. He went on to own other clubs and pubs with his brother and learned the business quickly. In the 60s and 70s people went out a lot and expected a good evening out. Live bands gradually gave way to records and DJs started to become entertainers in their own right. Doodles was one of the nightclubs and a 17 year old Lenny Henry appeared here as well as acts like Jethro.

Later, Colin got into promoting at the Festival Theatre, Paignton and The Princess, Torquay and around 1984 booked a relatively unknown Jaspar Carrott. He toured a show called Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Great British Musicals and went as far as Bristol, Manchester and Eastbourne. He put the show into the Babbacombe Theatre where he was already involved and things grew from there. He was the first in the area to try ‘Songs from the Shows’ as a concept and worked with performers from Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. This gradually evolved into a new kind of variety format, which is still bringing in the audiences today. Undeterred by the very challenging times throughout the late 80s, Colin took on a new lease for Babbacombe Theatre in 1990 and subsequently turned it into one of the most successful theatres in the country.

Of course a good team is essential and among these are:  Musical Director Pete Leonard, Choreographers Georgia Lee and Sadie Oliver, Front of House Manager Marie Chapman, Stage Manager Mike Gornavs, Katie Skeggs who manages the office and of course Sharon Waring the theatre’s indefatigable General Manager. Apart from managing the place, Sharon is something of an expert in costumes and adept at working with the costumiers. The theatre has a big wardrobe; at Christmas, costumes are generally used from stock and new ones are ordered for the main shows. Colin says, “I’ve now got people I can really rely on but will continue being hands-on because I love it.”

Over the years Colin has discovered lots of outstanding local acts and likes to bring ‘new blood’ in regularly. Some performers are spotted when in the area for seasonal shows and then decide to move to the area. Others apply direct and some come through the Trevor George agency in Torquay. Many young performers who have appeared in Colin’s shows have gone on to enjoy success nationally and appeared in the West End.

Colin is also a great believer in the Babbacombe community as a whole. He says, “We are very much part of the local community and bring a buzz to the area, particularly with our touring shows. Babbacombe has its very own, very special cachet as a resort.”  Colin tells me that he has been going to the Cary Arms since he was “too young to go there” and loves what they have done there recently. He also believes that Martyn Strange’s new restaurant on Oddicombe Beach is really good for the area. He highlights Hanbury’s who are always in the press for winning awards and Bygones, the Cliff Railway and the Model Village, which are some of the best Babbacombe  & St Marychurch attractions. He works very closely with local hotels to complement their own entertainment programmes and bring visitors to the theatre.

In spite of being very hands-on at the theatre, Colin has a big family with grandchildren and makes sure that he has enough time available for them. He has 4 children:  Lee, Fay, Ben and Eve plus 6 grandchildren.  Colin’s wife is Margaret who was well known for founding Maggie at Park Lane, a successful restaurant in Torquay and although she sold it 15 years ago, she is still in business doing outside catering and cookery workshops for all age groups. 

No-one in the family has yet expressed any interest in joining the business or taking it over but this doesn’t worry Colin. He says, “I have no plans to sell. It’s a profitable business and I’m proud that I’m still here after 30 years. Laughter is the best medicine – a cliché but true – and as long as I can continue, I will.”

Colin Matthews 2