As Matt entered the Bouverie for our interview, he was greeted warmly by regular customers around the bar, with one proclaiming him as a “f***ing legend..” saying that he “changed his life” and telling the tale of how they set up the Garden Lane Peace garden and organised the first ever Christmas light switch on.. We met him a few days after the sold out run of Blacon school themed musical ” Best Days of our lives” which his company Theatre in the Quarter produced. We found out all about Matt’s good work in the city, the borough and beyond:
Matt Baker you’re an important cog in the Chester cultural scene, how did it all begin for you ?
“I have spent most of my life in Chester, was born and bred here, though I have worked for quite a few years as a composer and professional actor. I realised after several years of touring the UK and beyond that the best use of my skills and networks was to set up a company in Chester which works with people from all works of life and professional artists and brings them all together…
“I worked with Action Transport in Ellesmere Port originally, and then I had an agent I then I landed the role of the baddy in the Liverpool Everyman rock and roll panto. Then I became an actor musician…I was on the UK tour of Rasputin, The Threepenny Opera, The Twits amongst other shows. I had a few small television roles; I was on “Cutting it” as a compere and Emmerdale as an estate agent, but mainly theatre. I was sitting in dressing rooms up and down the country, thinking.. “there’s a theatre coming in 2008… (as I thought then) and I travel home every Sunday and Monday to continue all the things I was already leading, like Jigsaw, keeping A Handbag of Harmonies going which was set up in 2000..I would like to set up a theatre company.”
Handbag of Harmonies
“I was working with Claire Smith from Cheshire Rural touring arts, and she had some friends that lived in Handbridge that wanted to form a different type of choir and she asked if I was interested, I said yes. We became the top women’s choir on the BBC’s Last Choir Standing eight years later.
“I was composing for several theatres around the country and I thought “all these skills and all these networks.. it’s time to set up a company, which would be a strong sister company to the new theatre, and would blend people, young people, people in the community with actors and artists.
“You don’t ever think you’re going to change the world, it’s all about starting small projects and seeing how they grow..with Handbags we didn’t think “lets create a choir that will go on for 15 years” .. you think let’s start a project that starts in May and ends in July with a performance in my Mum and Dad’s back garden.. that’s how it starts. With Theatre in the Quarter, we received funding from Home Front Recall (National Lottery) to collect stories from this neighbourhood, to collect people’s memories of what it was like in the Second World War on Garden Lane. We created a play with some young teenagers.. one of whom, Tom Hughes, became the film actor he is now, and Joe Mann who’s now a professional actor. “Some Sunny day ” was the piece, and that’s how Theatre in the Quarter began.
The Garden quarter
“I’ve been linked to this neighbourhood since I was a child. I went to school here, I went to cubs, scouts and Church whereI was in the choir. When I came back from university I moved here. My family has been in this area since the houses were first built. I was first involved in the Cambrian Community events as far back as 1999 with the first street parties, and also the Latin Quarter Festival at the Bouverie. The Garden Quarter was about bringing all these things together. Whenever you read the newspapers, as you did then, it was letters about Garden lane, it all seemed to be bad news. I just thought … “actually this is a brilliant area, its unique, its got brilliant community spirit, they have wonderful festivals and street events.” Lets create an association which will hopefully redefine this area and give it a really good name and a profile. It didn’t even have a name, we named it “The Garden Quarter”. The Garden Quarter association was set up in 2005 and it became officially recognised, now the ward is called the Garden Quarter , with Bob Rudd being the first Cllr. The next step will be to get it recognised on the road signs.
” We called it Theatre in the Quarter because our first piece was based around collecting stories of residents. Its spiritual home is the GQ but it transcends all that now. Everything is a bit bigger now, we do big projects that people all over the county are aware of. This year we’ve had success with lots of awards and things. We did Over by Christmas which was Cheshire west and Cheshire’s Arts awards, best performance award. A couple of weeks ago it won a National Rail award. We had over 20000 people coming to the railways in Cheshire, we involved over a 1000 school children.
The Mystery plays
“When I was 23 I played Caiaphas in one of the plays and in 2003 I was asked to be composer for the first large-scale Chester Mystery Plays which took place out on the Cathedral Green. The Mystery Plays is one of the biggest projects I’ve done.. writing and directing the whole score. Because of the success of that and how it was reviewed nationally, I did 2008, and because of how that was reviewed I did 2013. That had great reviews.. The Observer quoted “Matt Baker’s music unites heaven and earth” and I’ve been asked to do 2018..
Looking back at the failed city of culture bid. Do you feel there has been big leaps taken culturally in the last two years?
“I was happy to support it. We hadn’t arrived, but that was part of how we would win an award, if we showed we had real strong plans for development, that would be how we would win.. I think people moan, and asked how would we expect to win if we didn’t have a theatre.. Actually it doesn’t matter, if we are showing all the plans and we have all these different companies working together and a theatre in development… I think it was our first attempt and we weren’t ready. I’m not one of those people who knocks the fact that we haven’t got a theatre .. Chester has an incredible desire to create culture, there’s work to be done to establish a cohesion between these organisations.
“I applaud Chester Performs. They have, with the local authority got to a place where we have one of the most ambitious theatre projects ever in the UK .. The plans for the new cultural centre are ambitious and international and that is what Chester is doing well. I think what is also a great strength in Chester is the amount of participation. You only have to look at the Midsummer and Midwinter Watch parades, all the very strong amateur groups, schools that create really good work, colleges, The Hammond, the Kings School, Theatre in the Quarter, Chester Mystery Plays and all other theatre and dance organisations. For the size of the city there is a really strong base of participation which needs to be harnessed.
“The new cultural centre will act like a mothership… the sun which all the planets move around, and not as a vacuum cleaner. I think Alex Clifton is doing some excellent development work in aiming to understand many of the organisations in the city and beyond, from the professional to the amateur like Tip Top, Chester Operatic Society. If that comes to fruition, then the cultural centre will allow organisations to thrive and new organisations to evolve, and making other venues more visible, significantly the St Marys Creative Space, the Cathedral, Little Theatre, Vanburgh,Hammond, Ellesmere Port Civic Hall, Whitby Hall and many more besides. In a city where there is often negativity, there is a huge amount of promise with Alex Clifton. He’s a Chester boy with a passion for Chester..
What is the highlight of your career?
“I’ve got so many different highlights. If it was a TV acting highlight it was that I was the face before the 6 o clock news for a whole week with Cutting it. I was the compere for the hairdressing championships and my face came up every night . I got extra mushrooms for a week in the garden lane cafe because of it!
“I had a highlight this week, 250 kids were performing alongside 3 actors ( Best Days of our lives) When they all came up and sang “when I grow up” at the end, I actually welled up and cried. This is powerful theatre, this is them all feeling totally proud. Standing ovation, you can’t get better theatre which creates such an impact and moves people. Its life changing. Having the opportunity to work internationally. I work for an International School theatres association getting kids off the street in Burma. The kids were singing a song at the end and they all stopped because they were sobbing…
Who is your biggest inspiration?
“Musically.. I was a closet Abba fan, I still am. I have 3 brothers I shared a bedroom with a heavy metal fan..theres a real mix of influence there. I was brought up in a church choir, I think my Nan’s side of the family, my great-uncle played the piano. If you put all that together I have a good ear for melody and harmony. I was well into pop music of the 80s, I love Queen. But I was bought up with classical music. I also love dance music of the 90s as I started to go out
What would your Superpower be ?
“I’d like to be a Time Lord.. where do we start, I’d like to go back to the biblical days, I’d like to go back to this neighbourhood in the 1920s, we’ve done so much work in creating these films around here, Nez Kendall has done an amazing thing with it. Id like to go back to the Live Aid concert in 1984.
Colin Baker, Tom Baker, Ginger Baker, Greggs the Baker, Matt Baker from Blue Peter, the fabulous Baker Boys..or any other Baker.. who’s your favourite Baker?
“Coming in at number 2, definitely Tom Baker, and at number 1, all the Bakers in my family. I love Matt Baker from the One Show, but I have a bit of a problem that I’m the equity Matt Baker, he didn’t change his name when he became famous .. I often go into schools and they say, “we’ve got Matt Baker here, but I’m really sorry everyone he’s not Matt Baker off the One Show” I’ve had people turn up to events because they think I’m ‘that’ Matt Baker.. I think he’s aware of my existence. He’s a great dancer and very charming…
What are your ambitions?
“I don’t want to be famous but Id like to be known for the music I create and for the work that I generate through my theatre company, choirs and everything else…”
Garden quarter light switch on 2014 with the late Jane Wolfe
Nov 27- Garden lane light switch on ” We may have secured the University of Chester belly dancing society” says Matt who is tight lipped on whether or not the light switch on tentacle will return. Always a popular event that ” oozes community spirit.”
12 Dec Garden lane Christmas fair at St Thomas’ Church . Also the traditional Cambrian nativity, where the youngest child in the community plays Jesus.
St Marys Christmas festival: running from the end Nov until 2nd week of Jan with choirs, dance, film.. “all sorts, treasure trove of Christmas happenings” .
Thank you Matt Baker. Interview conducted by Kate Northcott @campaignkate
Follow Matt on twitter @Mattbakermd