THE Jailhouse in Arundel is making life really rock for Colin Baxter, who took over the quirky, unique live entertainment venue, based in the town’s Victorian prison, just over two years ago, and now makes sure it plays a major role in Arundel Festival.
Running a business of his own has been fortuitous for this talented actor, who was voted student of the year while he was at drama college and has also written and directed plays and theatre pieces.
His initial involvement with the Jailhouse began in 2006 when he came to work there as an actor, leading visitors on a tour around the decidedly-spooky ancient cells in the Arundel Ghost Experience.
“Acting is sporadic work and it’s difficult to survive only as an actor,” said Colin.
“In the past I’ve had to work in bars, as a pole-holder in Littlehampton advertising a new Sainsbury’s, and once I even dressed as an apple, being taken all round radio stations in London to promote healthy eating.
“The job at the Jailhouse just fell into my lap.
“I was working as a waiter at Brighton racecourse when I got a text from a friend saying someone was urgently looking for a Brighton-based actor.
“I got in touch and received the script, it looked like a one-man show and I thought ‘how amazing is that!’
“Arundel Festival was just about to start. I came over for an interview which seemed very strange, being interviewed by someone in a long black cloak in an old Victorian prison.
“And I was a bit taken aback to discover I wasn’t going to be in a play, but act as a tour guide.”
Colin is glad he took the job, even though it wasn’t what he had expected.
Four years later, owner Kevin William’s seven-year lease was coming to an end and he was moving on to other projects, so he asked Colin if he would like to take over the business.
“It came at a moment when I really wanted to evaluate my life,” explains Colin.
“I wasn’t making it to survive just as an actor and I had got to a point where I knew I wanted more in my life, to give me a bit more fulfilment.
“Taking over the Jailhouse came at just the right time, when I was looking for something else to do – I’d been thinking about whether it would be possible to run my own business.”
Colin’s first step when he took over was to apply for a premises licence.
“I knew I needed that licence to run the events I do here now in the evenings – it wouldn’t survive without that.
“I immediately applied, but a lot of people told me I didn’t have a chance of getting it because of concerns over problems such as noise pollution.
“I took over in April and it was a bit worrying until I heard in June that I had been granted the licence, and then there was no time to waste. I’d invested money in the project and needed revenue coming in.
“My first event was a comedy night and about 40 people came along, so that was encouraging. They’ve gone from strength and we’re now well-known on the comedy circuit and hold one on the last Friday of every month.
“I’d been involved with comedy groups, doing sketches, but I hadn’t done stand-up and I didn’t know any comedians, so I did some research before I took over the business and started going to open mic nights to seek some talent.
“Now we’re well-known, I get people contacting me to ask for gigs, but I’m careful who I bring in – they have to be genuinely funny and be suitable for the Jailhouse.
“The attraction for comedians, and for the audience, is that the venue is different, very intimate and with lots of character.
“And we have music in between the acts. The music starts at 7.30pm to get things going and I always make sure we have a good compere.
“I am in awe of comperes who can do it well – they have to be likeable, current, very fast and able to improvise. I’ve come across some incredible talents who can control the whole night. One of my favourites is Jo Public – magic happens as soon as she is on stage.”
Murder mystery events at the Jailhouse were a little slower to get going. The first one, a fundraiser for Arundel Museum, was attended by only 26 people.
“That was a bit of a struggle which continued for a good year, but now we have a loyal following, most of them from outside Arundel, from the surrounding towns and villages, as well as visitors and tourists staying in the area,” says Colin.
“The murder mysteries are getting more and more popular. We now hold two or three a month and sell out months in advance. A lot of regulars come back time and time again.”
The paranormal experiences are another element of the business which Colin has turned around.
“I’m still surprised at how much interest there is, and how many groups,” he said.
“We have private groups whose members come along to spend the night here, and groups hire the prison for the night and charge other people a fee to come along. They bring a lot of equipment for detecting activity and sound waves, and special cameras to photograph orbs or images.
“Some of them bring mediums with them and take it very seriously. A lot of them come back again and again. One contact which comes up a lot is a boy who was imprisoned here for stealing a horse.
“There are several different hotspots and the strongest is in the solitary confinement cell, known as the condemned man’s cell. People who were due to be executed where kept away from the main area, away from everyone else.
“I’d hate to be by myself in that cell – a DJ did a radio show from there once and while he was in there, the temperature suddenly dropped while he was live on air.”
Colin has been an enthusiastic supporter of Arundel Festival since he took over the Jailhouse and always makes sure to have some special performances booked over that period.
“We are so lucky to have the festival and it seems to be growing every year,” he said.
“Theatre is good here all through the year and we have this marvellous venue, there isn’t anywhere else in the area like this. And theatre at the Jailhouse is known to be a little cutting-edge.
“During the festival, people are actively looking for something like that. We get very good reviews and for the past couple of years, everything has sold out.”
This year’s line-up at the Jailhouse for the festival is exceptionally promising and diverse.
It includes Harold Pinter’s fascinatingly-creepy Ashes to Ashes, Cruising, a wacky musical by Nigel Fairs, and The Vagina Monologues.
Jailhouse Screamers will be a huge attraction on Friday, August 23, featuring six top comedians, David Jordon as the headline act, and Jo Public as the compere.
For more details visit www.arundeljailhouse.co.uk or call 01903 889821.