Dick Penny

Doctor of Laws Dick Penny

Friday 16 July  2010 - Orator: Sir James Tidmarsh, KCVO, MBE, Pro Chancellor

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

One of the jewels in Bristol’ s crown is the Watershed. Started in 1982 as a film and photographic centre in the V and W transit sheds on the quayside of Bristol’ s waterfront, the venture was initially financed by high optimism and has over time suffered many trials and vicissitudes. It was to be nine years after its initial birth that the Watershed enjoyed a new life when Richard William Penny became its director.

Dick Penny was born 56 years ago in Ross-on-Wye. He grew up in Herefordshire, and went to Monmouth School. In 1974 his then girlfriend was a student at the University of Bristol and it was this relationship that drew him to the city. He started his commercial life as production controller of a furniture company in Avonmouth making flat packed, chip-board furniture. Two years later he moved to a commercial vehicle builder making fire engines and buses, and after this he ran a company manufacturing textiles. All this wonderful experience in manufacturing, quality and production control was to form the bedrock of his confidence in the next vital stage of his career.

Feeling his life lacked purpose and value, Dick became administrator of the Little Theatre Company in Bristol. The theatre had been set up as a professional venue in the municipally owned Colston Hall by a group of Old Vic actors. His duties were wide-ranging and included everything from set building to front of house activities. Sadly the City Council failed to appreciate its value and it was subsequently closed down. Dick says the three years at the Little Theatre were his university.

It was perfectly in keeping with the pattern of his life that the next step in Dick’ s career was to become a builder, contractor and developer. Eventually, however, the arts called again and he moved on in 1986 to become Associate Director at the Bristol Old Vic. During the next two years, whilst involved with the Old Vic he became a freelance consultant with the Ashton Court Festival and Circomedia.

What a wealth of varied experience Dick had now acquired. He had learnt how to raise funding from a variety of sources and how to survive when finances were limited; how to manufacture and produce products; how to make things happen and how to be resilient in the face of failure. All this experience was of course preparing him to become responsible for one of Bristol’ s most significant organisations.

What is the Watershed? It is the United Kingdom’ s first dedicated media centre. It houses three cinemas, a café/bar, a series of event and conference spaces, and an office space for administrative and creative staff. But the building is a centre for so much more. There is a remarkable range of online activity; its dShed website provides a showcase for creative work, displaying digital art from international artists, alongside work by local community groups, and it hosts the annual online short-film festival. Another online site selects microfilms of no more than ninety seconds’ length from around the world showing some of the most enthralling short films you could ever wish to see. Its Electric Pavilion website produced for the Creative Bristol cultural event in 2005 still has its creative content on view showing us that Bristol is brimming with talent, ideas and energy. Electric December is an annual online advent calendar, and Bristol Stories a series of creative digital stories made in Bristol.

So Watershed is at once a cultural centre, a business broker, a social networker, a research and innovation facility, a café/bar, a significant information technology facility and cultural tourist attraction.

But it did not become all of those things overnight and Dick Penny makes the point emphatically that there was help from many others in its creation. Nevertheless, he took Watershed out of near receivership, when the bailiffs had already entered the building, and he transformed the centre into the thriving organisation it is today, employing seventy full-time staff and with an annual turnover of nearly four million pounds.

In parallel with the development Dick was undertaking at the Watershed, much more was going on in his own life. For a year he had run the national celebration of the centenary of cinema. At his instigation in 1996 with the help of Pete Postlethwaite, a friend from his days at the Little Theatre, and Jeremy Irons, every seat in every cinema in this country was, on one specific day, to be had at a cost of just one pound. This was done principally to attract young people to the cinema. At about the same time Dick produced Macbeth at the Old Vic in Bristol, with Pete Postlethwaite taking the lead. It had an emphasis on youth interest, and Dick toured the country with the production. Dick is passionate that where ever possible young people should be involved - seeing them as the vanguard for change, improvement and development.

So successful was Macbeth that it was proposed it should be made into a film in Hollywood and Dick would have gone there with Pete Postlethwaite, had the Watershed not been in deep financial trouble at the time. In his own words, he could not bear to see it go. So he committed himself to its recovery - he is still there today and the film has never been made.

In 2008 Dick was drawn back to the Bristol Old Vic. For a considerable time the revenue at the Old Vic had been diminishing. This combined with the fact that the building required substantial repairs, caused the Board of the Old Vic to close down the operation. At this stage the Arts Council proposed the withdrawal of their funding.

A firm and positive leadership was called for and Dick was offered the position of Chairman of the Old Vic. His response was characteristic. He said “ I am daunted by the offer, it is an amazing challenge. I have faith in the will of Bristol to regenerate its unique performing arts hub and I am up for the journey provided I can be useful” . Of course, he received very wide support including that of the Arts Council. The Old Vic is now on the road to recovery -without Dick’s intervention and support the outcome of this story may have been very different.

In all his many endeavours Dick’ s wife Helen, an arts teacher and careers guide at Colston’ s Girls’ Academy, has been a significant support, and there must have been times when she wondered what would be happening next. The same might be true for his 15 year old son Luke, who is a talented musician with a predeliction for downhill mountain biking, and we welcome them both, together with Dick’s parents, here today.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, if anyone ever lived for the moment it is Dick Penny. Asked if he has ever had regrets on leaving much that he has created in this remarkable mosaic of his life, he replies that he was never good with yesterdays. Asked what he plans to do next he tells you that he does not want to be bored, he wants to see things improve and he wants to see youth have more responsibilities. For him, film is a medium to break down barriers - his ambition for the future is to continue to have the vision and opportunity to give encouragement and help to the next generation, and he sees the opportunity to do this is by continuing to develop the Watershed. 

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Richard William Penny, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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