Former BBC Moscow bureau chief Kevin Bishop reflects on his return to living in Falmouth
The last time I went to a theatrical performance in Falmouth I won a doll in the raffle. A large floppy clown doll with, if memory serves me correctly, straggly red hair. The year was 1980 and the venue was the Princess Pavilion where friend was performing in a pantomime. Having cheered and jeered our way through the evening – and donated the doll to a very pleased toddler – we went away with the warm, uplifting feeling you get from a local production in a small community.
I’m pleased to see that the tradition is continuing (Cinderalla this year, get your tickets quick), but I have always felt Falmouth needed something more, something edgier to reflect the large younger population who don’t necessarily get scared by who’s behind the principal boy.
Fast-forward 36 years and I find myself in the front row of AMATA, the University Arts Theatre at the Penryn campus. A woman screams for breath as her head is repeatedly held underwater in a bath. Later, a young man is forced to carry eighteen or more dinner plates on his outstretched arms, the sheer physical strain showing in every muscle of his torso as he collapses to the ground.
The Belarus Free Theatre performance of Burning Doors, a representation of the treatment of cultural protest in Russia today, was brutal and stark. The torture scenes push the boundaries of realism to the extent that I feel the audience around me start to tense with concern for the victims.
At two hours, in Russian, with extended repetitive scenes of humiliation, nudity and terror, it may not be an evening out for all the family (in fact it came with an 18+ restriction on the door). But it was a mark of how my hometown has changed, and what exhilarating prospects the University brings to this wonderful corner of England.
Culturally, gastronomically and socially this town has a very different vibe to the place I left in September 1982. I’ve heard that the police used to refer to Falmouth as “The Drain” – where the dregs tended to end up. Now it’s a place that Cornwall can be proud of.
Some conversations I’ve had with friends and relatives since returning point to concerns the it’s changing too fast, that the character of the place is being lost. The housing issue is of course something that needs urgent attention. Some reminisce about the good old days, before all these new people came and crowded the place out.
I would agree, if I thought the new Falmouth was drowning out the essence of this Cornish treasure. But I don’t see that. Spend some time on Customs House Quay, walk around Pendennis Point or along Swanpool Beach on a windy Sunday and you’ll see that old Falmouth still thriving. But there’s a balance here now between what makes Falmouth special and what will help it flourish into the future.
Sure, work is needed to make that happen. I flinch when I hear students refer to “locals” and Falmouth residents blame all problems on “the students”. Having a foot in both camps, I know how both could enrich the other.
I despair of students who tell me they’ve not been to the beach yet and local residents who’ve not visited the university. Much like in the Brexit debate, fear of “the other” has bred mistrust. Bringing people together to see the world through the eyes of someone else makes a world of difference and that’s what both sides in the town need to do.
Getting to know each other is the first, vital, step.
Kevin Bishop is now a Lecturer in Multimedia Journalism at Falmouth University.