Samantha Porter, general manager of the Coronet:
I was born in the 1970s in the City of London by the sound of Bow Bells; so I can be a pearly queen if I want to be. I trained to be a manager while I was still at University doing a degree in Leisure Studies and Marketing. Literally did my final year studying on the glass washer at the back of the bar where I worked. Experience wise, I’ve worked in comedy clubs, large night clubs, bar-restaurants.
I’ve been doing this for 20 years and never thought I would end up at the Coronet running a fantastic venue. But unfortunately the Coronet is in its final year now and will finish on New Year’s Eve of this year and on the 5th January, we will exit the building permanently.
We are what you call a private hire venue. Although the events that we do are generally for the public, we hire the venue out to various promoters who put on their own party. That can be anything from famous DJ’s to a particular type of event. We do gay nights, live music, various community events such as the Thai concert coming up.
Rumpus at the Coronet on their 4th Birthday, 2014.
2000 people entertained by over 200 performers across 11 different rooms.
An all night explosion of music, magic and mayhem!
Some people have a lot of production. There are events like Rumpus and A Curious Invitation that takes 3 days to install their production and will use every space including the arches outside. Rumpus are like an indoor festival with all different types of music, cabaret, off the wall theatre, art and light installations.
Our events attract different kinds of people from all walks of life and age groups, from 18 right up to people in their 50’s and 60’s. Yes, people are coming here to dance and meet people, have a drink and whatever. But the focus is about that main stage which is an amazing stage. I think there are not many stages like that in London, probably across the whole of the UK. We’ve got that fantastic ceiling height, so we are able to do so much. Things like Rumpus, their main stage might be more live music orientated, but also lots of aerial acts, people who are doing rope work, spinning around on hoops and stuff like that. You see that on TV as part of big shows that are in the Royal Albert Hall and the West End. We are bringing them to the Coronet which is a far smaller capacity in comparison.
The main building holds 2,600 and the arches outside can add on another 200 people, depending upon the production. If there is a huge production, we actually bring the numbers down because of the space. At the end of the day, whilst I think a lot of our clients are of course doing this as a business and to make money, it’s not often for profit. It’s often so that they can do the next party. So they might bring their capacity down to 1500 so that people can move around comfortably and experience every space without feeling like a live music concert where people are less transient.
We did a 5 day rehearsal session with Blur. I think that was last year. They were rehearsing for their tour. and they had a new album, The Whip. It was amazing as they are one of my favourite bands.
There was also a 50th birthday event for a chap that we used to work with called Barry Knight and he runs a foundation where he raises money for local kids in South London. He’s managed to get football pitches for them, roofs on buildings that were collapsing and things like that. It was his 50th and so he had a birthday here to raise money for the Knight Foundation. Ronan Keating, Tom Jones, Peter Gabriel. Mike from Mike the Mechanics, all of them performed. We had about 1200 people in. It was a great fundraiser for him and good for us, profile wise.
One of the biggest comments we get, still to this day, is that people never knew the Coronet existed. Or they had no idea the Coronet was that big. Our front facia is not the most attractive in the land and it’s very misleading because it looks like a tiny building behind it. When you come in, it’s this absolutely amazing and cavernous space. People may have come once where it was the main room open and then come to another event and find there is a balcony and there’s several other rooms or the arches. People’s feedback about this is: Wow! And that’s when people say: Oh my God! I can’t believe this is being knocked down!
The Coronet was converted from a cinema in the early noughties. They did a great job with the building, but for whatever reason it didn’t work for them. The people that I now work for who took it over, they ploughed a lot into it, management wise, operationally, to try and fix the relationships that were quite poor out there. We had a bad reputation which I don’t think the Coronet has 100% recovered from although it’s a lot better now. And we have taken that business away from losing an awful lot of money. It’s a tough job. I’m not going to say this is a multi-million pound business and that everyone’s sitting at home, and driving Porsches. It’s an expensive business to run. On top of your rent and rates that any business has to pay, there is the security, the cost of the lighting and sound. It’s not a cheap hobby.
We are a huge business bringing in somewhere in the region of around 200 -250,000 people a year, footfall, through Elephant and Castle off the back of all the events that we do. I know for a fact that if we are open, places like Nando’s do well. The Elephant and Castle Pub which has now been refurbished and is a really nice pub to go for a drink in, they do well. Even the little coffee shop upstairs in the shopping centre. He often asks me when I’ve got my next concert. He wants to put more staff on because people go out in the queue to get a sandwich and coffee. So I think we do feed the economy in this area, just like Ministry of Sound does. I think we are all bringing a lot to the area helping businesses do well. When we close, will it have a detrimental effect? Not in the long run, but in the short term, I think it will. Once we’re gone and the shopping centre is gone, there is not an awful lot of reason to come into Elephant and Castle unless you live here.
We always knew that the Coronet was in danger of demolition, even before Delancey took over from the previous landlords and we made attempts to try and save the building ourselves. We tried to buy the freehold and put in grand plans for redeveloping the building. I know that the footprint of this size you could put 3 or 4 businesses in it of premiere calibre, like Marks and Spencer, who are going to pay a lot more in rent. So from a commercial point of view, I get it. But I’m working in an industry that is slowly declining. They are taking these venues away and they are not rebuilding them. Anything that is built, is nothing like the sturdy quality that is here now.
Tim Minchin's live performance of Woody Allen Jesus at the Coronet, November 2012.
I think in 30 years time, a lot of the people that currently come here, are going to be in their late 40s, early 50s, 60s. And I think for a lot of people because the industry is changing so much in terms of live music, live music is in danger. We are trying to save live music which is a ridiculous concept in itself. I think the Coronet is very understated as a venue. There’s venues out there that are owned by big corporations and they are made famous by the people that are gracing their stage. So people think about those musicians on that stage. They are not necessarily thinking about the venue. I think where we are lucky is we’ve done some things here, like a Tim Minchin gig a couple of years ago. It was just Tim on stage with a piano doing his comedic songs. There were Radio 1 DJ’s, actors and actresses that came to the gig. He was that popular and it was absolutely awesome. I think he referred to the venue quite a lot within his set because it’s one of last places he ever thought he would play, for whatever reason. So people will remember that gig because it was so good and they will remember it was at the Coronet. I said to Tim, thanks so much for doing your show here, it’s great for us. And he was like, no, thank you for letting me play here. He said this place is awesome. If he could come back, he would. That is definitely one of the key memories for my career, to be honest. So I’m hoping that memories like that stay with people.
There was a concern over the area being hugely residential and the impact of a 2,500 venue capacity that runs club nights. But there’s ways and means of adapting the business. So we invested a lot of time and money trying to change people’s minds. This was our Save The Coronet campaign. We instructed some artists to come in and sketch the building and create a brochure with ideas of how we could restore the Coronet. It was about making it more accessible for everybody like corporate, community, schools. A lot of work went into that and behind that ugly facia outside there is a beautiful art deco building which needs work, but we were prepared to do that. If you are aware of Troxy in East London. They spent several million on that and it is stunning. And that was the kind of vision we had. We could do that here and make it a stunning building and attract different clientele as well. More cinema events. We don’t have screens here, but it can be done and if we were going to be here another 25 years, that’s something we would have invested in - putting permanent cinematic structures in that we could use at any time. So there’s loads of opportunities that we wrote about in our brochure. But it wasn’t enough. We were unsuccessful. You need the backing of your local council. They have their own agenda, their own targets that they have to hit in terms of housing. They obviously want to bring the quality of the area up in terms of how it looks. It is very tired. It needs work. But I don’t think it needs to be done to the detriment of the soul of the place.
On a day to day, my particular role means I’m here to supervise every event. I think I’ve missed one in 5 years. During the week it’s about bookings and generally running the business. Also keeping my team going, keeping them enthusiastic about booking the next event.
Operationally, it’s a big big job because you have to get it right. You have to think of bottle necking and all that boring stuff that I think most people who come the building don’t appreciate which is kind of a good thing. It means we are doing our job right, if they are not questioning it.
One of the big things I’ve got in the last 20 years, is learning about people and I love this. The good and the bad stuff. It helps me as a manager. You have to adapt to people’s personalities. People react differently to alcohol and you have to be able to switch your personality to suit the person you are dealing with. I’ve got a friend who used to be a social worker and she stood on the front door one night with me for an hour. She said this is exhausting. I don’t know how you do it? Your just basically a social worker for a night club.
We have a strict search policy. A lot of people come in and say, thank you for searching us, I feel much better now. That’s really nice. But there’s also people out there that are like...huh! Do I look like a terrorist? What do they think a terrorist looks like? It’s a shame that we are still having these conversations with people. They are not being singled out. It’s something we have to do to protect me, my staff and all the other people in the venue.
I’ve got a team of two operational managers, Kat and Matt. Then I’ve got Marcus who is my head booker. I have Frank who does a lot of the set-up for events. I used to come in at ten o’clock in the morning and work all the way through, but thankfully I was able to recruit Frank and he takes some of that pressure of the operational team. And then I’ve got an accountant. That’s our core team. Then I’ve got supervisors on top of that. Bar staff. I’ve got a cloak room team. It’s a complicated business, cloakrooms. There are events when we need 5 or 6 cloakrooms. On top of that, we’ve got outside contractors like our security team. On New Year’s ever we’ll have 40 or 50 guards because we are on a high street with huge queues that need managing. And of course, we’ve got an internal building which is massive and we need to be able to help people. Simple things like directing them to toilets. There’s a lot of people who make it happen on a nightly basis. Sound crew, light crew, plus your client’s crew
It’s complicated, but we’ve got it absolutely nailed down to a fine art. I’m very confident in what I do. But anyone who said they could do it on their own is lying. It’s about the people you have around you. You need to be open to people if things are not working for them and say what can I do to help make it work. Ultimately that’s my job. I’m very proud of what we’ve built here in my time in nearly 5 years. We’re very much a family run business.
From my staff’s perspective, working at the Coronet is a special place. When they come in, some have been shy, introverted maybe, not knowing what they want to do with their lives and we’ve watched those people change. People who come from a foreign country who can barely speak English, now speak it better than I do. And I’d like to think that working here with me and my team at the Coronet and experiencing all those different people that have come through here, it’s also educated them. It’s opened their minds to other people and there’s not many environments I think you can get that in. Your getting a life education. It’s not just about how you pour a drink, how you hang a coat, or whatever. It’s about life education. You have no choice. If you don’t engage and get involved your not going to last. The customers will eat you alive. That’s been really nice to see. How staff come through here and go on to new careers. Helping them develop as people and going on to bigger and better things. As an employer that’s your goal. We are proud of that.
I’ve got memories from all the venues that I’ve worked. The strange and weird people you met and the scenarios that you get involved with that in a normal day’s life you would never, ever encounter. It’s only because we’re up till all hours of the night, stone cold sober, while everyone else is having a drink. We are seeing it in real time whereas for everyone else, it’s a bit hazy. They’ll go home and have a different memory.
The spirits that inhabit a staircase at the Coronet
Drawing by Constantine Gras
I’ve walked around this building on my own, at night, in pitch black, with just the little fire lights on and not felt uncomfortable at all. Apart from one space and the hairs are going up on my arms just thinking about it. At the top of the balcony is a staircase. It’s a fire escape. And that is where the old lift shaft used to be, many, many years ago. It no longer exists. But there are lift doors that you can still see and they have the old art deco glass in. And there is one point, about half way down the staircase, I’ve got goose pimples now, where I don’t feel comfortable. I feel like someone’s looking at me. At the bottom and top of the stairs its fine. But about half way down, it’s really, really creepy. Apparently there was a fire here, many years ago. I don’t know if it’s a fact or a rumour, but someone died in the lift or somewhere near that lift shaft and this is why it was taken out. I am a believer in ghosts and strange things in life.
I’m unsure what I’m going to do after the Coronet. We’ve got 7 months to go, still a lot of work to do, a lot of programming. We want to make the best of our last 7 months and make sure it’s as jam packed as possible, It’s unlikely, I’ll do something like this again. I meant it when I said I was tired and exhausted. The long hours are starting to take a toll but I’m going to be within the industry in some sort of capacity. Just something that’s a little bit easier than running venues till 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning. Hopefully something as interesting and as exciting as the Coronet has been.
John Whelan, community arts and theatre practitioner:
Memories are the most beautiful gift which we can share with another human being as they are a real window into both the time and soul of the person who you are interviewing. Sam who has been at the Coronet for the last 5 years and is herself someone who was born within the sound of Bow bells! She has had a wonderful journey at the Coronet and what really stood out was the joy that the space and the different characters including staff, guests and some of the local characters have had on Sam. I loved the way she brought some of the interesting local characters to life such as the bloke they would see on the door every weekend. How he would fool around near the queue as the clubbers were coming in and then how one day out of the blue he asked for a cigarette in the most lucid posh public school accent which just floored her and the door team! It is interesting how much she has learned and how she has to be a chameleon and read different people and situations and how she has experienced people from all cultures, sexuality and religions. That I suppose has always been the beauty of the space whether it was a dance club, cinema or theatre. How it brought people and the community together through the shared language of performance and entertainment. Sam has had the wildest nights or got to watch Blur one of her favourite bands rehearsing in the space from the balcony! My favourite interesting story she told in the interview was that of the ghostly presence that you can sense on a certain landing. Could this be the ghost of Marie Henderson walking the corridors of time? Or maybe it was the spirit of the building saying hello to Sam! I am looking forward to how we animate this journey and story as this is ripe material for our upcoming play and art exhibition!
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Walworth Street Festival
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital