Episode 3 – Megan Clark-Bagnall – Learnings from Little Chef for the New Art World

November 2020 [40.32 min]

In this podcast artist Megan Clark-Bagnall tries to find a working methodology for the new art world based on learnings taken from the demise of Little Chef restaurants in the UK. 

The Bricks Podcast follow Bristol’s contemporary artists, on journeys within the city walls and beyond, along the leylines of the South West, up the A roads north, and through their unique observations on the world.

Transcript: Please see at the end of the page.

Article in Daily Express about Every Little Chef.
Article in Daily Express about Every Little Chef.

Little Chef

Where the A16 meets the A17 near Spalding on the Sutterton Roundabout, there used to be a Little Chef. The old brown diner building has since been turned into three fast food conveniences: one part Subway, one part Burger King & one part Greggs. 

This was the twelfth Little Chef that Owen and I visited, out of the final surviving not thriving 41 Little Chefs, before the chain closed permanently on 31st January 2019. 

When we first approached the Little Chef (which had a variety of haulage trucks parked up outside) we soon noticed a sign on the door that read “Due to an electricity fault, we are running from a limited menu”. Inside, branch manager Adam told us they had been without a working grill for over a fortnight and were struggling to cook food. Head Office by that point had closed and so there was no-one to respond to the staff’s plea for help in getting the grill back up and working, or sorting out the missing food deliveries from their suppliers. Adam informed us that the branch (empty as it was that day, tumbleweed style empty) did have regular elderly clientele that would pop into the branch for their weekly trip out of the house via taxi ride. The only thing on offer was scrambled (microwaved) eggs on toast and tea, and these items were only available because the staff brought in their own toaster and kettle to replace the defunct items in the kitchen. 

Lights on No-One home

The penny sort of dropped for Owen & I at this point. We were doing our photography road trip project of the Little Chefs, exploring the scenery and sites but until this point like many others we’d almost made jokes about the disgrace of Little Chef. About their slow demise and make comments like “how are they even still going?” but we didn’t care enough until this point to actually find out more about the demise. The low morale of staff forced to front slowing diminishing diners up and down the country was evident. Little Chef’s were often under the radar community centres. Time changes and because the cars started to go faster and longer without needing to rest, and McDonalds kick started Drive-Through culture, we changed not just without question, but without thinking. What else went without thought was what the Little Chef’s of the world meant to people. And what certainly went without investigation was how the large corporations that owned Little Chef treated their employees with care-less and thought-less consideration. 

The (Art) World

We’re at a junction now with the pandemic. 

The arts sectors have been forced into stopping and/or changing course…

Without reflecting on what art in the world was like before the pandemic, considering how art should be post the pandemic and exploring the possibilities for creative connection during the pandemic, the arts industry within the world, could continue like Little Chef did.. without thought, question or care.


…. if we continue without thought, consideration or care, the arts industry might end up like the recently defunct Little Chef on the A16/A17. This Little Chef isn’t empty and boarded up, like some others. It wasn’t completely demolished either, like some others. But it’s taken on a new Grab&Go only lease of life, co-hosted by Subway, Burger King & Greggs. This new existence doesn’t provide chairs for the elderly regulars to sit down once a week and be together. I imagine the weekly taxi rides out of the house have stopped.

This old diner now only caters for able bodied grabbers and goers who want to pop in for a vegan sausage roll, foot long sub or double cheese burger, which they will probably multitask alongside their clutch control and steering wheels as they speedily travel onwards to their final destination, leaving little time for digestion or taking in the view via the scenic route.

Find out more about these fantastic people & their projects & ideas here : 

Oliver Hyam, Little Chef Fan currently on a mission to visit all the old Little Chef sites in the UK. 

Rich Cross, Motorway Service Station Enthusiast, the author behind on Twitter: @RichCross98

Matthew Whittle – Co-Director of The Wardrobe Theatre on Twitter: @Matthew_Whittle

Jesse Meadows – The Wardrobe Ensemble on Twitter: @_JesseMeadows_

Simon Alper, Eldest son of Sam Alper OBE (who established Little Chef in 1958)

Dr Tarek Virani, Associate Professor – Creative Industries, UWE Bristol 

Producer of the podcast episode

  • Rowan Bishop

    Podcast Producer (Freelance)


Episode 3 – Megan Clark-Bagnall – Learnings from Little Chef for the New Art World – Verbatim Podcast Transcription

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:00:00] Before you listen to this podcast, I’d like to make a suggestion. This episode ended up being quite a lot about context and seeing as context is the key. I think the best way to listen to this episode would be driving in a car. But perhaps you don’t have a car. So perhaps you could just go for a little walk instead or pop in some headphones. I’d suggest taking a journey, a journey from A to B and moving whilst listening to this. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:00:27] Perhaps you could just be doing your Covid little bit of exercise for the day, but I think you should be moving. Thanks. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:00:38] Welcome to Learnings from Little Chef for the new art world. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:00:49] This is an extract from a letter that I wrote to Heston Blumenthal on the 9th of October 2020. Hi there Heston. You don’t know me. My name is Megan. I’m a visual artist and social maker from Bristol UK. I make silly large scale social change projects with people. A few years ago, my husband Owen Lord and I travelled the UK visiting the final surviving but not thriving 41 Little Chefs as a social history and photography project. We were taken in by the stories from the staff, the reluctancy of the chain to change or adapt, and the huge lack of support from head office. I want to ask you for your opinion on what we can all learn from Little Chef’s demise as we emerge into a new world that requires a new structure. The living with Covid World. Little Chef was too little, too late. Always half arsed, one toe in, never committed to the change, always avoidant of restructure. Little Chef was pining for a time gone by, a nostalgic world that didn’t fit modern reality. As Owen and I travelled, we couldn’t decide if we’d got it wrong or Little Chef had it right. Not the menu. I’m talking about the Sunday drive experience. I’m desperate to find out if I can learn from Little Chef’s demise. If there are crossover learnings and direct dos and don’ts from little chefs demise that could apply to my work and the arts world. How can we protect our most vulnerable? How can we make art, cook food and serve playfulness in the new world? What systems should be put in place? And what can the demise of Little Chef really show us? I know it’s silly, but I am very serious about being silly. I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to get in touch or send me a little email. Best wishes. Megan Clark-Bagnall, Visual Artist and Social Maker, Knowle West, Bristol, UK.

Rowan Bishop [00:02:23] Heston didn’t reply.

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:02:25] Yet! When I started off on this journey of examining the life and demise of Little Chef for the purpose of putting together a methodology for the arts world, I knew straight away that the people I’d need to speak to, first of all, would be Rich Cross and Oliver Hyam. They are two very young motorway service station enthusiasts aged only 21 and 22, and they first met in real life after being online friends for five years at the Beckington branch of Little Chef. So here they are. 

Ollie Hyam [00:03:01] My name is Ollie. I come from Stoke on Trent. I’ve just finished a course in human geography which I graduated with a first class degree. Like Rich himself, I am a massive fan of Little Chef and Motorway Services. My reason for loving Little Chef and motorway services is because I just love travelling myself. I’ve always had a fascination for, you know, once I’m on the road, I just love stopping off these motorway services because they’re not only just the place where fast food and shops. So they’ve got a bit of history to them as well. And I find some to be unique, you know, in the form of, say, footbridges or, you know, the design of the buildings. To me, they’re rather unique. Little Chef, though, I just love because I’ve been there since I was a child. I remember when I was a kid, I went to the Hog’s Batch branch with my family quite a lot. And we used to go up there and the views across the countryside were fab. And it was just it was proper nostalgia going there. And I was devastated when I went there one day to find the branch shut down and abandoned, I was absolutely devastated. But then recently obviously rekindled with some motorway services and little chef enthusiasts over Facebook. And that’s kind of how I met Rich, because I think we start the group back in 2015, I believe. And then when we met in person, I was actually a Little Chef in Beckington. 

Rich Cross [00:04:23] My name is Rich. What I do in my spare time is that I travel up and down the UK visiting motorway service stations and of course, coming with that is Little Chef as well when it had a presence on the motorways and also the roads as well. I am autistic, so I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome. So I think my sort of love for service stations and Little Chef came through that really it was something different. It made me different to other people. And that’s what I liked about it. In my day to day job as a bus driver. As you can tell, I love driving. I enjoy driving, and visiting motorway services is my escape from my day to day job. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:05:06] You’re very driven to familiarity, but the first thing you notice when you get there are the differences. 

Rich Cross [00:05:11] Yes.

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:05:15] I mean, you’re like, I’m driven. I’m going to this place because it’s familiar to me. I’m going to feel at home comfortable. But now I’m going to write down a list in my head and share it on their motorway group of all of the differences. 

Rich Cross  [00:05:24] Absolutely. Straight away. Yes. 

Rich Cross [00:05:27] I haven’t thought of that, to be honest with you. But yes, that is what I do. I travel around and see what’s changed. Obviously, last year I visited every single service station in the U.K. motorway and A road. And then this year I’m going back and doing it all over again to see if anything has changed. So service stations are always constantly changing and constantly developing with the times. And unfortunately, leading you onto another question, I would suspect, Little Chef did not keep up with the times. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:05:57] What changes would you have liked to have seen from Little Chef, or did you just think it was time for them to just to go? 

Rich Cross [00:06:03] I would like to see the Little Chef brand still going today, but it had to keep up the times. And like I was saying, it didn’t. The reasons it didn’t is because, like Ollie was saying earlier, the décor just stayed in the 80s, even up till the last last one closed in 2018. If you don’t update sort of furniture and the way the restaurant looks, you aren’t going to attract people of the 21st century to come in and eat. And now I think that’s what Little Chef’s problem was towards the end, is that they weren’t keeping up with the times. They weren’t offering what people wanted. And as you say, people are grabbing and going now. And that’s not the way that Little Chefs were operating towards the end. 

Ollie Hyam [00:06:42] You saw back in 2009 to 2011, how Heston Blumenthal updated a couple of Little Chefs and they were generally very pleasant ones to dine in, like they were modern. They had a sense of… they were quite warm and they a lovely décor. 

Ollie Hyam [00:06:58] And I think now if a handful of Little Chefs did that, then maybe they would have attracted more people. When I went to Yorkshire in 2014, me and my dad went for a road trip there and we had breakfast in the York Little Chef, which was one of Heston’s three little chefs. The environment was amazing. 

Ollie Hyam [00:07:14] It was nostalgic photos all over the restaurant as well. But then coming home, we went to the Orpington branch, that was a very retro branch. It was very unpleasant the way the chairs are all ripped and it just felt old and dated. And therefore you need an upgrade. It’s just stuck in the past. So there was a real contrast between the two sites I think. 

Rich Cross [00:07:34] There is a sense of community. When you used to go into a Little Chef, there was a and a tight knit team that used to run each branch, as you say. But then they also used to give you the familiar variety across the country with the menu and food and things that they offer as well. 

Rich Cross [00:07:53] And I think that’s what brought me to Little Chef, to be honest, because it’s inclusivity. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:07:59] It’s that’s so true. I hadn’t even thought about that. But all places that have like a set menu and a set feeling, if you’re someone who has kind of needs where you need to feel like an instant connection. Yeah, of course, I totally overlooked that as a as like a as a plus in that respect, actually. 

Rich Cross [00:08:18] And I got that towards the end when I when I used to visit the Beckington branch and the Cirencester branch, I was sort of taken in as one of their own because I used to visit every week and have a meal there every week. And they used to sort of adopt you as part of the family, if you like. 

Rich Cross [00:08:32] There was a great sense of sort of community and togetherness. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:08:37] Do you think that maybe in some ways little chef had it right and the rest of the world’s got a little bit wrong? 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:08:45] You guys and I, we’ve both been Sunday drivers that thought, you know, like the old fashioned Sunday driver, we go for a drive for the purpose of the drive. Do you think that perhaps the world isn’t isn’t isn’t stopping so much anymore? 

Rich Cross [00:08:57] Absolutely. Everyone’s in a rush these days. As you were saying earlier on, no one wants to stop anymore. And this is where Little Chef weren’t keeping up with the times. No one goes for a leisurely drive anymore. They want to get from point A to point B, and that’s their purpose of being in the car, it’s a real sad shame. And this is why independent diners and places like Little Chef are slowly, slowly dwindling out. 

Rich Cross [00:09:23] Just over the past couple of years, we’ve seen some independents go.

Ollie Hyam There’s one on the A64, which Rich went to; there’s one on the A45, which is now gone. They were once busy independents and it’s kind of shocking how they’ve just suddenly closed down. It is sad seeing the A64 one all boarded up and it was horrible. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:09:43] It’s always great having a chat with Rich and Ollie and it was great to find out where they think the Little Chef went right and what went wrong. I’m going to take these starting point suggestions to Jesse Meadows and Matthew Whittle of The Wardrobe theatre world. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:09:56] So I had this conversation with Jesse and Matt inside the Wardrobe Theatre’s changing room, which is surrounded by sort of spotlights, stage lights around the mirrors, and while I was having this chat, I was just staring at a plaster on the floor, which was probably there from the last live performance.

Matthew Whittle I’m Matthew Whittle, co-director of The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol. 

Jesse Meadows [00:10:20] I’m Jessie Meadows and I’m a performer, theatre maker, co-founder of The Wardrobe Theatre and a member of the Wardrobe Ensemble. 

Matthew Whittle [00:10:30] Like everyone else, we haven’t had any shows on really since March when everything hit and we shut down completely and cancelled hundreds of shows. But in the last, uh, last couple of months, we’ve put on about five performances, each one slightly different and slightly different ways of putting them on in terms of how the audience come and go and different audience capacities and like the management of people being inside an enclosed space together. The good thing for the theatre is being a charity and an arts venue. We have been eligible for a lot of funding. So in a strange way, we’ve got more funding in the last sort of eight months than we’ve ever had before because we’ve always existed on no funding, really, like 99 percent of our income is being ticket I for the last ten years. So we would say with 99 percent of your income gone, we have to look elsewhere. And yet, luckily, there have been lots of different support schemes available, I guess, in contrast to the slow demise maybe of Little Chef. 

Jesse Meadows [00:11:32] Everything happened overnight for theatres. So that, in a way, was one of the hardest periods when Boris said, oh, we just recommend people don’t go to the theatre. It was a Monday night and we’d spend all of Monday putting up our set in the Southampton Nuffield Theatre. And we all had our train tickets, the actors, to go on Tuesday morning to do all week of performances. Yeah. So it was it was the very quick domino effect of all of those things getting cancelled, the responsibility on every venue and every company across the country to make calls on their own, like emergency meetings happening everywhere, because suddenly it was a personal responsibility to cancel the show and all of the aftermath that went with that, there’s a lot of fire fighting, essentially. 

Matthew Whittle [00:12:24] I grew up in a little Devon town and when I was like 15, 16, you looking for a job and the only place available was the Little Chef next to the A38. So it was so it was the I think is the Exeter Racecourse northbound Little Chef. 

Rich Cross [00:12:48] Hi, it’s me, Rich again. Just to say that Matt is not right with the branch name of his Little Chef that he used to work at. That branch of Little Chef used to be known as the Canford North Branch. That branch closed in 2012 and was bought by the Route restaurant group who now have turned it into the Route Five Diner. 

Matthew Whittle [00:13:10] It was about a 45 minute cycle up the most intense hill you’ve ever seen in your life, like Holden Hill is so horrible to cycle up. And I’d have to be there at like seven am on a Saturday morning. So like leaving the house at like half five or something, just, oh, that hill. We used to play lots of games and if the restaurant was empty, we’d move the tables out the way and play cricket with the with the pizza slide was the bat. If you smacked the ball into the kitchen that was a six and then you’d sort of see someone driving up to park and you know, “Quick! Match abandoned!” 

Matthew Whittle [00:13:46] Yeah. Pull the tables back. But are you got to fill the hours. You were there from seven a.m.

Jesse Meadows [00:13:48] So was your boss just down with all of it?

Matthew Whittle Yeah, he was like waiting. I know it was sort of looking at each other and it was it was kind of fun. 

Jesse Meadows [00:14:00] I think something really interesting that’s come out of this time, which is it’s like we’ve been forced into adapting, but I think that’s forced lots of conversations around access and different needs and everything that happened with Black Lives Matter over this year. There’s lots of different conversations that have been happening at the same time as Covid and I’m sure very interlinked. But I think lots of organisations and I’ve been involved in these conversations with the theatre and the ensemble and really being forced into conversations about changes that they’re there needing to make. It’s enabled people to step back a little bit and think, oh, actually, what do people need and how can we be better as an industry? 

Jesse Meadows [00:14:49] Something that struck me as so sad about the Little Chef story is just the lack of support that that business and the employees and individuals were stripped of throughout that time. And, yeah, the slow demise of it seemed like it came down a lot to financial support and any sort of emotional support for those employees. 

Jesse Meadows [00:15:13] I actually think there’s been some quite amazing support from very quickly, the Arts Council really quickly putting some things in process so that people could have access to emergency funding, because that was the scary thing, like we’ve said about everything happening overnight. And then suddenly everybody’s like, are we even going to survive this? And even though I know lots of people who have been sort of forced out of the industry, lots of venues have shut and all sorts of things, I think that there has been a huge amount support from the Arts Council and last week that there was more support in terms of a recovery fund. And even though there’s lots of mixed feelings about how maybe freelancers have or haven’t been supported, I think that there has been a real fight from people to have recognition as an industry. That’s the sole thing that’s enabled us to keep working or keep dreaming that we could keep working. 

Matthew Whittle [00:16:14] It’s definitely easier for smaller theatres and smaller companies to adapt and change faster than these big companies that have got, you know, hundreds of people on their staff because that’s that’s you know, that’s a big operation to have to change what they do. 

Jesse Meadows [00:16:31] Fundamentally, that’s always been a huge advantage. I think at the Wardrobe Theatre, having a very small group of staff members means that on the whole, you can quite quickly make decisions and very quickly adapt and you’re not needing the vast amounts of money to because you don’t have a huge organisation to fund. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:16:53] So I think this is the perfect moment in the podcast to have a little bit of a pause and reflect moment. So I’m going to have a little chat now with Jack from Bricks to share some of my findings with him and get some of his thoughts on this. 

Jack Gibbon [00:17:06] I’m Jack, Director of Bricks, the organisation that commissioned this podcast as part of Bricks Artist Programme. The programme responds to Covid-19 and the needs of artists. 

Jack Gibbon [00:17:18] I think maybe there’s a question of who is being resourced to make changes or to fulfil the needs presented by society at the moment. Is that independent artists and freelancers or is it institutions or, you know, like is that kind of the culture recovery fund? Is that going to reach artists and communities and people that are on the ground doing work? 

Jack Gibbon [00:17:39] Because I very much hope so. But not all indicators are saying that it will. I hope that it doesn’t all get stuck in preserving buildings and preserving existing organisations and existing ways of doing things, the crown jewels of the arts. 

Jack Gibbon [00:17:57] The idea that money is going to go to that, I mean, I’ve got no interest in that. Yeah, yeah. I mean, burn it all down. I mean, yeah. 

Jack Gibbon [00:18:04] Burn it all down and reinvest in artists, not art. 

Jack Gibbon [00:18:07] I really believe that should be done with and by communities and that we should devolve decision making and that things shouldn’t be done to people. At the same time, I do believe in the kind of expertise of artists. There’s going to be a balance between being able to use your experience and expertise to think in the long term and use that to show people not just what they want now, but what they could benefit from in the future. And there’s something to hold in that space. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:18:34] Yeah, I’ve always seen that art for me is not about giving people what they expect, but it’s showing them things things they never knew existed. But I do also find at this very moment in time that I’ve kind of made a I wouldn’t say a regression, but I’ve definitely gone a little bit back to basics to be able to, like, feed what I need. So, like, one of my recent projects holidaying at home was just because I needed a break. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:19:05] So if I need this and other people do, too. So I did a holidaying at home project where I took people on Meg’s package holidays and it was just about giving me what I want to be giving other people what I wanted, but perhaps wasn’t something I would have done ordinarily. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:19:18]  I have a thing on my wall that says if it’s not fun, what’s the point? And I always just think, like, if my work is fun and nothing else, there’s validation in that; there’s validation in fun. 

Jack Gibbon [00:19:31] There’s a really good hook. If something’s fun and engaging then it is a really good starting point because so often things don’t make that hook and they don’t bring people into the room and or they don’t or they don’t meet them in their own spaces. But I guess this is the thing about like artists, our community members and citizens. And citizens are creatives. So they kind of think about it as these two separate things, it doesn’t really like go to the heart of it if we don’t put people first, what are we doing? 

Jack Gibbon [00:19:59] I mean, it works for people and it’s certainly by people. So not just artists, but also the communities we work with need to be paramount in our thinking I think it would change the way people model their organisations. So I’d say that, yeah, Little Chef and the art world are both parts of social infrastructure, they’re both parts of the places that people come to meet each other to exchange ideas. Yeah. I mean, is it is I don’t think is hamming it up that much to say that these are important places for people and where communities are built. So, yeah, they talk about these ideas like palaces for the people, you know, whether it’s parks or swimming pools, libraries, art centres, um, park benches, like community cafes. But sometimes that is Little Chef you know, sometimes these are places that people have worked all their lives and sometimes it’s the nearest place they can eat. 

Jack Gibbon [00:20:50] Maybe it’s somewhere that someone goes every weekend for on that drive and they stop in the same place and they build that community of exchanges between people. I want more art and more of that. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:21:00] Yeah, more Sunday drivers. Yeah, that’s what we need.

Jack Gibbon [00:21:05] Yeah, definitely. Yeah. Sometimes I feel like the art world is too much about the motorway and it’s too much about like shooting for the stars and aiming for something big and you know, big name with, with uh with a kind of brandable PR-able opportunity where you know what the outcome is going to be. 

Jack Gibbon [00:21:21] But to take a long drive on the A roads and B roads through community, seeing real life, engaging with people and taking a risk on not knowing where you are going to go. Isn’t that like a more interesting place? And isn’t that something that more people can be part of? 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:21:39] It’s always really good to take stock and have a moment to reflect. So it was great to do that with Jack just now to think about our place in the art world at the moment, but also where where we’re going to go in the future. But I’d like to dip into the past for a moment. So I’m going to now speak with Simon Alper, who is the eldest son of Sam Alper, who established Little Chef in 1958. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:22:04] So, Simon, really, I just wanted to ask you a little bit about your father, about what he was like, I’ve done quite a bit of digging around and Little Chef is what brought me to him. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:22:15] But I started getting really fascinated with his life in sculpture and printmaking and also his philanthropy and care for people

Simon Alper : My abiding childhood memory of father was him standing in front of a piece of stone going clink, clink, clink and trying to get him to play football or cricket or anything else is really completely hopeless because what he actually wanted to do was stand in front of his big piece of stone going clink clink clink. Dad that had an affinity with the the visual arts. He liked music, but I’m not sure if he really loved it. And visual art was much more his thing and ended up being my mother’s thing as well. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:23:00] So what do you know about your father and Little Chef? 

Simon Alper [00:23:03] Well, actually, very little, because by the time I was really aware, it come and gone and I’m not sure how he got really how he got involved with it because, I mean, you can tell me when it started because I don’t know.

Megan Clark-Bagnall : nineteen fifty eight, so nineteen fifty eight alongside Peter Merchant. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:23:25] And at the time your father was designing and selling Sprite Caravans. Yeah. And kind of went on a business trip to the US and, and they kind of got inspired by a little diner that was called Little Chef that looked like an old caravan. And I imagine your father just thought I could do that.

Simon Alper : Yeah, I can build, I can build the caravans.

Megan Clark-Bagnall : I can build the caravans. Peter can join me. He can sort out the food and we’ll just put a few up in the UK because people are travelling a lot more with the A roads now and kind of coming back over there and did it. And it was a roaring success almost straightaway and I get the impression two years in, I get the impression your that’s like right I’m going to sell this, next adventure. I’m going to sell this venture onto Trust House Forte. I do you feel like your your father’s got a very artist approach in his way of kind of sailing through life from looking at where he’s gone, you know, with his projects. It’s like it’s not just about making a business and making lots of money. Yes, it yes, that’s part of it. Actually, his approach seemed very creative and human led. 

Simon Alper [00:24:36] Yeah, I think you’re probably right. Yes. 

Simon Alper [00:24:38] I think my experience of him in business was on the building, the catering and banqueting business then, and him setting up the charity that has become the Curwen Print Study Centre, which he just felt that he was his way of getting people an opportunity to get good art without having to be millionaires or whatever. And I was thinking about making art none elitist. And the first thing really is the problem hinges with. What people are presented with and a lot of the time that stems from the press and the the easy sell of trying to create separation, trying to create issues that the press has in dealing with things that might otherwise give people a lot of pleasure, if only they hadn’t been told so much that it wasn’t for them. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:25:41] My partner and I did a photography project on the final forty one little chef restaurants a couple of years ago. We went around the country to visit the last ones and document them before they closed down. And it was amazing, like the Little Chefs by then. So run down, so sad. But the start of the trip, I was like, well I can totally see why they’re all going, I can totally see why things are changing. But then there was this weird thing at the end for us, like maybe we’ve all got it wrong and Little Chef had it right because the Sunday drive is pretty, pretty great. 

Simon Alper [00:26:11] The thing is that life moves on and the reality is that we are able to move faster, but we have less time. 

Simon Alper [00:26:21] It’s very easy to spend your life focussing on the destination, which is sometimes sad because then, as you’ve pointed out you miss the journey. So the idea of taking one’s time doesn’t feature in a lot of people’s lives anymore because they want to get to where they going.

Simon Alper [00:26:44] The other issue that has moved on is an issue of a volume of traffic. The population and the appeal of the Sunday drive is much greater if you’re not in a queue and in a way that the motorway was the demise of the of the Little Chef, because you can move faster. You can get to where you want to go. You’re not held up by other things. It’s not the same way. There is the illusion that you’re going to get there quicker, even though sometimes you’re not. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:27:21] It would be great to finish on you just kind of maybe just saying what you believe your your father’s legacy is or what he’s taught you and what you think he’s he’s kind of left with you and and with the world. 

Simon Alper [00:27:34] His legacy to me is an open mind. I think he was pretty open to ideas and quite eclectic. There is an artistic theme running through what he did with design elements in caravans and there’s the print side of business, but he and he got involved in all sorts of weird things that were not artistic. The ones I tend to remember, were the artistic ones.

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:28:02] That was really nice, speaking with Sam Alper’s son Simon and finding out about his life as a businessman and how his projects creatively flowed from one thing to the next and about his life as an artist, even if he wouldn’t necessarily call himself that. So now I’m quite excited about speaking to Dr. Tarek Virani from BristoL UWE, who is running a quite academic research project there at the moment on what makes the creative sector resilient in the South West. So I’m really excited to hear about some of his, I imagine, much more formal and academic lines of enquiry into the kinds of things that I’ve been chatting about with regards to Little Chef. 

Tarek Virani [00:28:52] I’m an academic. I’m an associate professor at Bristol UWE in the creative industries. And I’ve been sort of involved with the creative industries for a long time. Like, for instance, I did my I did my Masters on the music scene in Montreal in the early 2000s. From that, I read a lot of work by a man called Howard Becker, who wrote a book called Art Worlds. And that was he’s an American. He was an American sociologist, I believe. And his book, Art World, is really influential in sort of musicology, sociology of music, the sociology of the arts, ethno sociology, you name it. What he says is, you know, that when we think about art and it’s when we think about artists and, you know, artistic people, there is this kind of romantic notion that artists are these lone geniuses that come up and all of a sudden they come up with the sort of artistic product. And it’s because of their own genius, you know, the sort of Mozart complex that they’re able to do that. And what Howard Becker is saying, he was saying this in nineteen eighty two, is that actually it’s not about the individual. It’s about the community. It’s about the group, the art world. It is is what produces that final outcome. So Elvis Presley. Y’know, didn’t become Elvis Presley, wasn’t born as the Elvis that we know, it was a lot of the things that coalesced around him that made him who he was. Right. And it was the stuff that he was influenced by. It was the people that he met. His band was really important to him. The recording Sun Records in the recording studio that he was in was really important. All that stuff coalesces to create this thing called the art world. There’s a lot of tension around this idea of community where art sort of belongs and then this kind of monetisation of that community. So there’s a tension between the kind of commercialisation of art versus the normalisation of art, if that makes any sense, or the sort of community benefits of art. So I guess when you when you say art is for everybody. Absolutely. Or this notion of kind of being inclusive is a really I mean, obviously, that’s that’s a term that’s really loaded right now. 

Tarek Virani [00:30:48] And I think it’s a very, very obviously, in light of the things that have been happening, it’s something that’s really important around what you’re what you’re calling the art world and what the art world is. You know, but historically, we know that the creative industries and the cultural issues have not been inclusive at all. In fact, they’ve been anything but they’ve been very exclusive. Right now, there’s a big shift that’s happening. And this is another tension that’s coming out of all of this, is how do you make art more inclusive? And one way of doing that is through through through the funding mechanism. So Arts Council England would turn around and say, look, I’ll fund you, but you have to make sure that you your work engages with young people. It engages with people with disabilities. It engages with people that are from a minority ethnic background. Now, when you do that and you have a funding structure that reinforces that tension that I was talking about before, because the exclusivity of art comes about through, that capitalist component of that makes any sense. So if you’re running a business, especially if it’s a small business, you can’t afford to think about things that are outside of keeping that business structure or keeping that business successful. So if you go back to Little Chef, right. I think obviously if you’re if you’re an organisation that’s not treating your employees right, that’s not good for your organisation. But there are examples of organisations that do that, you know, that that are multimillion dollar organisations. So so there’s an ethics component that needs to be sort of engaged with.

Tarek Virani [00:32:11] There are two things, right, going back to the Sunday drive analogy that you’re talking about. There is there is the process or the practise of doing something artistic, right, which gives you or gives an individual a certain amount of gratification in certain ways, I guess it infuses you with certain types of feelings about things. Right. But then there’s the artistic product, which is the final product at the end. And I think what we’ve done as a society is that we’ve really valued the end product without really valuing the practise. Right. So the Sunday drive that you’re talking about, which actually can be the same thing as if I was to give you music and musical analogy about it. That’s the same thing as sort of improvising or like if you listen to jazz, like free improv in jazz or whatever it is, it’s when, you know, musicians kind of go off in different directions when they’re playing their instruments and just do all sorts of crazy, noisy things. And I was really into that when I was younger. But it’s a journey, really. It’s a journey. And what you do is when you’re watching these these individuals play, they’re going from one feeling to another, basically. And at some point you kind of get lost in that journey. You don’t know where they’re going. Sometimes they they hit a brick wall. It’s not always a nice journey. Sometimes they’re hitting the wrong notes sometimes, and then sometimes it crescendos and it becomes really great. And all of a sudden you realise that you’re witnessing something quite fantastic. And then when they get to the end, you’re either really happy it’s over or you’re kind of sad that it’s over. Right. And that’s when, you know, you kind of witness something quite amazing. And if you if you’re happy with that, then that whole thing, if it was recorded, then becomes packaged. And that’s that’s the product. So I think music is the best example of where the process or the practise or the drive can become the product itself, the artistic product, which is the song, the performance, whatever it is. 

Tarek Virani [00:33:54] In the art world, what we’re talking about is is something that’s immaterial, it’s not it’s not something that’s tangible. You know, like the feeling that you get from looking at a painting or looking at a photograph is not something that you can use in the sense that it’s not it’s not a utensil. It’s not a pair of scissors. It’s not a fork and knife. Something else. It’s immaterial. It’s weightless. Right. There’s some people to call it the weightless economy because of that idea. And because of that its dependence completely contingent on our cultural trip is our cultural understanding, which again, shifts. So. So if you are making something that is weightless, it has to be of the culture of the day, or at least it has to move with the culture of the day. Right. And the minute it stops moving against the culture of the day or with it and starts to go against it this way, then then sometimes you see you see you see problems and there’s something there around. 

Tarek Virani [00:34:50] The commercial viability of the cultural product and how culture is going and who drives culture, there’s a lot of questions around that. Coming at it from different angles is probably a useful way to understand it as well. 

Tarek Virani [00:35:02] Maybe, maybe a Little Chef didn’t last because it was its time to go. Maybe it just it was culture, culture or at least a cultural canvas had had changed so much that it just couldn’t keep up. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:35:16] So after speaking with all of these different amazing people, both connected to Little Chef, the art world and the world, I’ve kind of come up with three to four points that I’m going to take forward for myself. I’ve called it Meg’s Manifesto, but it’s heavily influenced by everything that has been spoken about in this podcast and all the people that have contributed towards this. And I’ve called it Meg’s Manifesto because I don’t want to enforce it onto anybody else. This is just for me and how I’m going to move forward through this time. So the first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to take a leaf out of Rich and Ollie’s notes on what Little Chef should have done more of to stay alive. And I think it is really important to make work that is appealing, inclusive and welcoming for everybody to keep up with the times and invite people of the 21st century to come in and eat. It’s about doing new things, but needing to have an invite of familiarity to make all people feel welcome and at home. But in order to make a place that feels appealing, inclusive and welcoming for everybody, the art world must end. Because if the art world ends, then we’ve just got the world. So I’m going to start thinking of myself not as an artist that exists in the art world, but as an artist and a citizen that exists in the world. And so if we get rid of the art world, we can all be a little bit more like Sam Alper, a bit more creative, a bit more human, a bit more open minded and eclectic. And perhaps we can all have art that’s accessible to us without us being millionaires. The second thing in my manifesto is space plus time plus mindset equals shit hot art. I’ve always valued play and exploration in my practise, but through having these conversations, especially with Tarek, I was reminded that it’s also about the mindset and having the right mindset to be able to take that Sunday drive in the first place. It’s really important now more than ever to make time to stop and admire the view, to notice things. I’ve always believed that the purpose of artists is to report on what they see, but sometimes it’s hard to report on what you see if you haven’t got the right mindset. And the final point on Meg’s Manifesto is to balance grab and go with the sit down meal. I think it’s OK to just do a bit of art because there needs to be a bit of art. I think right now that needs to just be a little bit of art more than ever. But also we need to value ourselves and value the lengthy process and value the long term and value stability and value engagement with community and our role as artists to connect people together long term for now and for tomorrow. So I think it’s a balance of grab and go with the sit down meal and providing the option for both and without meaning to sound too corny. I think the key to Meg’s Manifesto is kindness, and I think that all of these points need to have kindness running thick and deep throughout all of them. Everything needs to be done with with kindness. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:38:34] I think that it wasn’t a silly idea to investigate Little Chef as a way of teaching the art world some some tricks. 

Megan Clark-Bagnall [00:38:43] After all, a huge thank you to Rich Cross and Oliver Hyam, motorway service station enthusiasts and fellow Little Chef explorers, Matthew Whittle of the Wardrobe Theatre. Jesse Meadows from the Wardrobe Ensemble. Jack Gibbon of Bricks. Simon Alper, eldest son of Sam Alper and Dr Tarek Virani from the University of the West of England, and a huge thank you to Rowan Bishop, who painstakingly put all of this together and his amazing production skills, and Jessica Akerman, who helped contact and establish the connections and did a lot of behind the scenes tying up of this podcast.

Ash Kayser [00:39:32] This podcast was brought to you by BRICKS, BRICKS brings together the people of Bristol through collaborative art projects, public realm producing community led co design and securing the spaces our communities need to thrive, On our site you’ll also find a blog post with links and images related to the subjects covered in this episode and profiles of all our artists and projects so go check it out. As a new independent charity, we rely on the support of people like you so that we can support our communities. If you can, please consider supporting our work through donating the price of the sandwich, buying a tote bag or purchasing an artwork from our online shop. 

Ash Kayser [00:40:17] Big thanks to Arts Council, England and National Lottery Players for funding. This episode as part of the BRICKS Artists programme.