Behind the scenes, a once-thriving workshop in Ashton begins to shed staff

'Every time an email or call comes in, you know what it’s going to be'

Good morning Millers - today’s story is about a company which makes theatre scenery in a cavernous workshop on an industrial estate in Ashton-under-Lyne, and which is currently fighting for its life. Dani and I visited the company and its owner Alec Graham recently to report this piece.

Before we get to that, some exciting news: Our 500th member came through the door yesterday! Welcome, Alex - you have a great membership number - and all our new members this week. Our original target was to sign up our 500th member by Christmas, so we are racing ahead of schedule and can now expand our operations and start to build a news team that will serve this area for years and decades to come. If you missed our post about looking for a staff writer this week, it’s here.

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Behind his desk in his messy office, Alec Graham has a large wall calendar that tells the story of his business and his life in the past six months better than anything a journalist could write or that Graham could say. The first few months of the year are full of scribbles denoting jobs to make scenery for theatre shows around the country - two for the Theatre Royal in Bath, one for the Oldham Coliseum. It’s a jumble of notes and delivery dates and industry jargon.

The row in the calendar for April has a few notes on it. And then May is quite literally blank. Not a single thing is written. So is June. So is July. Splinter Scenery went from having jobs worth £120,000 in March to £5,000 in April to zero pounds in May. “We had three or four months order book, literally bursting at the seams,” Graham says, “We were thinking, 'How are we going to get through this?’” Now he’s having to work out how to get through a very different period - one that threatens to wipe out the company he’s been building for 23 years.

Alec Graham in the meeting room of his company’s workshop. Photograph by Dani Cole.

Graham was born in Oldham, 50 years ago. His dad was a skilled bodywork painter and one of his jobs was painting the buses. His mum was creative too. When he was 16 he left school with no qualifications and started his apprenticeship in theatre carpentry at the Coliseum. He worked under master carpenters there, who taught him the old school ways of building scenery. Proper joinery. Old fashioned tools. Traditional fabrics like flax rather than canvas. Animal glue - which smells disgusting and hardens into a tough resin.

After that, he worked as a freelance - making scenery for shows at the Royal Opera House in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he learned some of the more modern techniques. “Radical” he calls them, with a hint of disdain, although he now borrows from both traditions. Ever since 1997, he’s been building up the company whose warehouse workshop we are standing in. He points to a few green machines near us, one of which is a table saw from the 1950s. “A lot of old machinery is still the best machinery,” he says.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. Or it was working until the end of March. From this warehouse in an industrial estate just a short walk from Ashton Old Baths and Tameside Magistrates’ Court has emerged some of the most complex and beautiful stage scenery seen on a British stage. And the occasional stage in Norway and America too.

Splinter made the ingenious collapsing set for The Play That Goes Wrong when it first went on tour, and for subsequent productions in Australia, the US and Russia as the show has become a global hit. Graham points to a picture of it in the corridor. “The set takes a battering because it collapses in every performance,” he says smiling wickedly. There’s also a picture of a set they made in the Whitworth Gallery for the Manchester International Festival and one they made for a big show in Oslo. Their most recent show was Malory Towers at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake. It was rehearsed for a few days, and then the pandemic hit.

The sets are made by a team of 15 workers, 10 of whom are there when we visit. They range from carpenters to sculptors to painters to specialist prop makers. And then there are people like Tim Wylie, who has been here since the start. “He’s actually a sculptor, but for me, he can do anything,” says Graham, pointing over at Wylie as Dani takes his portrait. In a side-room we meet Paulina, scraping and cleaning moulds that have just come out of a high-tech machine.

Splinter is the only big theatre scenery maker in the North West and made 45 sets for shows last year. Graham went to about 15 of them. “I try to see as much as I can,” he says, particularly for the visually impressive shows. “Theatre should be a feast for the senses - whether that’s your eyes or ears or your heart,” he tells us as we walk past a Citroen 2CV (he races them on the occasional weekend) and some 5-meter-high columns for a performance of Manon Lescaut at The Grange opera house. Do all the workers here need to study eighteenth-century French novels before they start working on a job like that? Graham shakes his head. “They don’t have to know their Puccini from their tortellini.”

The staff are mostly working on a set for The Play That Goes Wrong, which has kept the company afloat through the autumn. There are also a small number of jobs Graham has managed to bring in to keep a roof over their heads like Christmas decorations for Oldham council and some Covid screens for shops. “I am trying to get absolutely anything I can,” he says. London producers he has worked with for many years have tried to help him out by sending him what they can. Recently they did Educating Rita for a tiny outdoor show in Cornwall. Theatre Royal in Bath has been good to him too.

“When you look out there, you see 15 people out there,” he says as we retreat into his meeting room and sit at a long table. “I don’t - I see 15 mortgages and families. You’ve made a commitment to people, and some of those commitments go back 20 years. You can’t just turn the taps off.” He sits opposite me as we chat, wearing a lightweight black fleece, at the table where he has already laid off one member of staff. He expects another will have to go soon, and another about a month after that.

And that’s after dismissing all his trainees and apprenticeships at the start of the lockdown. The furlough scheme has delayed the need to make big layoffs, but that moment can’t be delayed much longer. What will he do if the work doesn’t pick up soon? “I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t sustain this indefinitely. So the answer is obvious.”

The most recent cancellations have been the pantos. That work normally starts in August or September and last year they made sets for six, including the Coliseum and Liverpool’s Everyman. Losing them this year has cost the company more than £350,000. “It’s incredible - all the pantos cancelled in the space of 72 hours,” he says. “Every time an email or call comes in, you know what it’s going to be.”

Even when there was no work and all the staff were furloughed, Graham came into his office a few days a week, to make sure the building was secure and speak to his contacts in the industry. When he got on the phone to his clients, he found that some of them were working for Amazon delivering parcels or working in retail. “One of them was working in a supermarket,” he says. “These are production managers at theatres - senior people in the theatre world. At first, I thought it was a joke.”

The only support the company has received beyond the furlough scheme is a £10,000 grant. Graham’s building costs are over £25,000 a month and the rates he pays to the council total just over £20,000 a year. He assumed when Boris Johnson announced rates relief for businesses in the leisure sector that Splinter would qualify, and did his planning accordingly. Then Tameside Council told him he wouldn’t get the relief.

He feels let down by the council, especially after hearing that a smaller company doing similar work making TV sets in Liverpool got 12 months rates relief. When we spoke again on the phone recently, a few weeks after The Mill’s visit to the warehouse, Graham was still angry about the failure to offer relief. He’s written to his MP Angela Rayner, and even to the chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Graham in front of his calendar. To see all Dani’s photos for this story, go to The Mill’s Flickr page here.

The money is vitally important to Splinter, but the lack of support is also emblematic of the way the supply chain in the arts is being neglected and forgotten. Cultural venues and institutions like the Royal Exchange have received large Arts Council cheques this autumn as part of the government’s cultural bailout package, but until shows start coming back, companies like this will be in grave danger. “People see the stage - but they don’t see the entire tapestry of people that had to be in place for that one person to go on stage,” he says. “A lot of the money has been aimed at the venues, without actually looking at the support industry.”

Most people now think shows won’t return until Easter - 12 months after the work dried up. That means Graham will have to think about laying off more staff this winter. How does that make him feel? “Very sad,” he says, looking me in the eye. “It’s an industry that is hugely skilled. The UK is a great exporter of the arts. We’re a world leader in it, we have all this technological talent. If we lose those skills…” he doesn’t say what will happen.

“I’m an optimistic guy,” he says. “We were going places. And I really hope we will be again.”

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