You shall go to the bowl

22:33, Nov 12 2012
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A crowd of 15,000 turn out for Cliff Richard in 1998.

The Cinderella miracle that transformed a swampy New Plymouth pond into one of the most rated outdoor performance venues in the world is as dramatic as the shows now staged there.

It is a tale of great success and dramatic failure, triumph over impossible odds, but above all it is a testimonial to the endurance of the human spirit. Like so many of the outstanding features of this blessed city of New Plymouth, the Bowl is a result of wild dreams, seemingly impossible ambition converted into reality by hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer labour and commercial donations .

The heroes in this story are as numerous as its eventual successes - but a handful deserve special mention.

The first and most notable has to be former New Plymouth public relations officer Eric Handbury. This dynamic import from Yorkshire was one of the first to see the potential of the Brooklands area and then led from the front in establishing the Bowl.

While Eric's involvement appears a logical start to this story it is necessary to go back a few years to 1896 when founding Taranaki businessman Newton King developed his country seat, Brooklands, to the south of the fledgling town of New Plymouth. King had a magnificent three- storey, five-bedroom mansion with a library and extensive gardens overlooking a scrubby house, cow pasture and pond in a valley between his estate and the developing racecourse to the east.

On his death, this whole property was gifted to the town amid much debate on what to do with it. King had employed five gardeners to maintain the grounds and there were concerns about costs, and fears that drunkenness and debauchery would occur if the building was used for public functions. The house was sold and demolished for [PndStlg]50 - but the gardens were added to Pukekura Park, although they retained their original name.


Meanwhile, development of the main park continued downstream from the King pond and a highly acclaimed water pageant was held on the main lake in January 1957. This generated interest in further such events, but there were concerns about disrupting the tranquility of the main lake and its gardens with further activities.

Park curator Jack Goodwin, Taranaki Herald editor Brian Scanlon and Eric met at the site of King's pond early in 1957 to examine its potential as a replacement venue for the successful "water carnival". They found an almost perfect natural amphitheatre. Nature had created a horseshoe valley running west with a floor sloping east down to the Pukekura Stream. It had been blocked by an earth dam to form a large island-studded pond, or small lake with a steep bush-clad bank climbing more than 100 metres to its east.

The valley walls were well- defined grassed banks that could be walked down or terraced. It was suggested that to harness the naturally good acoustics, a curved stage and sound shell could be constructed in the pond against the tree-clad eastern bank, where it would be framed by bush. Eric, his imagination afire with what he had seen and heard, set to with a will to convert this natural feature into an internationally acclaimed home for the stars.

Within weeks he had permission to proceed, but little capital to fund his dream. Undeterred by this lack of funds he gathered a large group of loyal volunteers to his aid. Then the dirt literally flew as earthmoving machines, lent by their owners, improved the shape of the curved valley and wheelbarrow teams shifted two islands from the empty pond. As Eric reported in notes at the time, "necessity, and to our everlasting good fortune, the organising committee comprised John Sutherland, architect; Robin Sinclair, architect; Malcolm McAlpine, mill owner; Malcolm Gaze, service manager; Joe Carey, carpenter; Marie Carey and Rona Seager did a wonderful job."

Within an amazingly short time the stage was built, and capped by its elegant parabolic arched soundshell. A truly impressive programme of performances was arranged, which Eric dubbed as the Festival of the Pines. Almost all of this was achieved with hundreds of hours of volunteer labour and begged, borrowed, or bludged equipment and materials.

This first festival was a massive success, making a significant profit and heralding more than 20 years of mainly top entertainment. The liberal sprinkling of international stars over that time reads like a "who's who" of the world of the entertainment business. It included Kiri Te Kanawa, Lulu, The Seekers, Jose Feliciano, Cliff Richard, Roger Whittaker, Patrick O'Hagan, Howard Morrison and New Zealand's Finn brothers.

The festival's crowning ceremony was the successful Miss Brooklands of the Year contest.

Other highlights include a series of outdoor dramas that used the whole bowl and drew large audiences as well as many professional actors and directors. Among the many highlights were shows directed by Alan de Malmanche and Eric Handbury, who produced magnificent versions of Romeo and Juliet (1960), the Adventures of Robin Hood (1961) and The Crucifixion (both years).

These panoramic shows swept through, across, around and over the Bowl, testing the ingenuity of technical staff doing the lighting and communications. Actors thundered in on horseback, sailed ships across the lake, flew across the audience on a high wire and died virtual deaths in a most spectacular and sometimes distressing way.

In the days before radio microphones these movements would have been a technological nightmare for the sound team, and the Bowl was fortunate to have a grand master on the job. Baden Winchcombe not only pre- recorded half these shows, but built two free-standing, nine- metre-high sound and light towers that provided high-quality stereo as well as spotlight platforms.

While there were some hilarious moments when the actors missed their cues and were heard to speak in absentia it was generally difficult to pick when the performers were speaking into microphone or relying on pre- recorded voices to fill the gaps between microphones.

Lighting, too, had its own genius in Caleb Wyatt, who became renowned for achieving the most spectacular effects with limited, sometimes home-built resources. No-one was sadder than Caleb when the move to change to daylight saving in the late 1900s robbed the Bowl of an hour of darkness and so much of its magic that audiences, distracted by rival entertainment on television and other activities, faded away.

The Bowl languished for almost 10 years with only occasional use until a direct descendant of Newton King intervened almost by accident. Roger King was a leading light in starting an arts festival in New Plymouth in late 1980s that included at least one show at the Bowl.

This brought back big-name performers from overseas, lifting the profile and reminding promoters of its potential. The festival also tried to have at least one top-line act each year.

Womad (World of Music Arts and Dance) was the star of the 2003 festival and such was its success the city won the right from the English franchise holders to repeat the venture and now the festival is an annual event drawing thousands of visitors to the region and tens of millions of dollars. The venue that includes the Bowl and Brooklands Gardens is considered one of the most beautiful in the world - while it may be held in the smallest population centre of any Womad, the franchise holders say it generates the best atmosphere.

Womad and a steady stream of international musical performances from superstars has also generated unprecedented interest from promoters. The Bowl now boasts at least three such shows a year and for one mad 12-month period no less than nine such celebrities performed there. True!

Nine was too many for Taranaki to cope with - now more careful planning has limited the fare to three or four big performers and Womad.

Eric's dream has certainly come true, but sadly he did not see it. After his first glorious successes he lost patience with the limits being placed on his ideas as budgets started blowing out. He left for Canada, where he died within 10 years. His place was filled by a succession of equally dedicated leaders who fought to keep his dream alive. Outstanding among them was former mayor D V (Denny) Sutherland who served in various capacities at the Bowl for more than 27 years. He was a longstanding chairman of the trust, hammer hand and promoter working closely with a string of public relations officers, including Pat Connell and Bryce McPherson. Michael Keat, who stepped in to fill the gap when Caleb Wyatt stepped down from lighting, also had a long stint as trust chairman, keeping the Bowl operating during some of its tougher times.

The long-term benefits of this human dedication was proven with the visit of Fleetwood Mac in December 2009 when a two-night gig drew more than 38,000 people, breaking the Seekers' 41-year-old record.

In one of the great tragedies of the Bowl's recent history, a key figure in attracting such super groups, Gary Sharpe-Young, died suddenly on March 12.

Such was his reputation that messages of condolence came from all over the world. Gary worked with many musicians in Britain and built up a massive range of contacts which he used to find performers for the Bowl. Major acts for which he was responsible included Jack Johnson, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows.

Now a book produced by an equally dedicated group of volunteers is being launched to mark these stories and many others. This 220-page volume includes more than 400 pictures donated by many of Taranaki's leading photographers, plus pages of Bowl history from months of research.

THE BOOK A launch ceremony will be held at Puke Ariki on Thursday. Copies of the $65 book will be available from Friday at Benny's Books in New Plymouth. All profits will go to the Taranaki Hospice.

Taranaki Daily News