A Vodka Bottle or a Rocket?
The Menier Chocolate Factory succeeds like the Old Town of Prague.
Hidden away behind thick wooden doors and down winding steps into Medieval cellars, there is life. Step into the Menier Café or Menier Bar and you return to unvandalised Victorian design.
The Globe succeeded despite massive opposition to Sam Wannamaker’s vision.
The Bankside Power Station was opposed by Southwark Council. Now, the conversion realised by Herzog & de Meuron is widely admired, even if its contents are often trashy (read Brian Sewell).
The aim: How to create a new, love at first sight, THEATRE.
ART AND SUBSIDY
‘Great art isn’t about economics.’ So said the chair of the Arts Council, Liz Forgan, in her 2012 ‘State of the Arts’ speech. And, of course, she’s right. The bland end-products of such money-spinning ventures as the TV show X Factor can often hardly be categorised as art, let alone ‘great art.’ In these spectacular, escapist shows artistic quality is replaced by confetti, fireworks and hyperbolic praise. The product, therefore, is not the prefabricated pop star strutting and warbling on stage, but rather access fantasy world of unfeasible luxury and leisure.
We do not need the arts to provide this kind of sequinned smokescreen, this opulent denial of the realities of a period of economic hardship. While the artistic quality of these shows may be questionable, the aspect of competition is worth some attention. Artists have historically thrived as a result of competition. The rivalry between Mozart and Salieri may have been somewhat overplayed, but it is hard to doubt that the genius of Mozart’s composition thrived as a result of the economic pressures of the marketplace.
The state has come to be seen in the eyes of many as a modern updating of the Renaissance patron, a fabulously wealthy, culturally-attuned group whose devotion to the arts is at the heart of their ethos. The recent drastic cuts to Arts Council funding, however, has rapidly turned this relationship sour. Newcastle City Council have recently announced a projected 100% cut to arts funding, laying bare the brutal reality that the state is not some culturally refined, beneficent body with any personal connection or investment in the artistic projects it had previously funded.
Moreover, the state’s tendency in the past to ply theatres, galleries, and other arts centres with a seemingly endless stream of subsidies led to a strong dependence on this funding which, now that the crutch has been removed, has provoked a particularly virulent reaction of aggrieved indignation from many artists and directors. Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s description of the cuts as part of a "cult of austerity" is symptomatic of the attempt to personalise government decisions, to paint ministers as part of an evil sect with the power to destroy the artistic community altogether.
Spluttering outrage is, however, misplaced. A certain amount of responsibility needs to be taken by the organisations that accepted this state funding without seeking a means to establish independent sources of revenue. Arts production company Moti Roti, an early victim of funding cuts, admitted to an over reliance on Arts Council funding, and welcomed the challenge of adapting to the demands of the marketplace, saying that the cuts have reintroduced ‘an urgency and edge to what we do.’ The method of response to the cuts, therefore, is what will determine the future of the arts in Britain, rather than the withdrawal of state funding itself.
A small yet solid group of creative organisations have remained independent of state funding and are weathering the storm remarkably well. Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters, founders of Notting Hill’s intimate theatre The Print Room, are prime examples of those people who saw the cuts coming and decided to strike out alone. A key criticism lodged by directors such as Tom Morris of the Bristol Old Vic, birthplace of the multi-award winning War Horse, is that the cuts will put an end to theatres being able to take a punt on risky productions that don’t fall into mainstream theatrical expectations. Yet independent ventures such as The Print House utterly negate these suspicions; Bailey and Winters focus their attentions on lesser-known plays that tend to be passed over by major companies. While they foresee a time when they may have to apply for government funding, it is vitally important that they ‘earn their laurels’ before that time.
The Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre is an example of a privately-funded theatre that has more than earned its laurels. In December 2012, the Menier’s production of Merrily We Roll Along won the acclaimed Critic’s Circle Theatre Award for Best Musical. Under the artistic direction of David Babani, the theatre has sailed through the turbulent seas of spending cuts with no damage to the quality of its productions, or the revenue stream it generates. Perhaps the new St James Theatre in Westminster seeks to emulate the Menier in incorporating a restaurant and artistic ‘studio’ space into its construction in order to assist in its running-costs and give its patrons a one-stop experience. However, its running costs as reflected by the staff headcount in its programme, may well have its funders seeking a bailout even early in 2013; indeed, the staff count of those employed at the St James or the Hampstead theatres would be enough to run six Menier Theatres under David Babani’s directorship, or three of the proposed 350-seater ‘Menier Two’ to be built at Gagarin Square.
In some other countries, such as Russia, when the state gets involved in the arts circuses may thrive. Such controversial enterprises highlight the possible dangers of state involvement in the arts. The mistreatment of animals and poor working conditions often prevalent in circuses place them on the more contentious end of the spectrum; yet perhaps there should be an equal wariness in all cases of governmental “arts and welfare” funding. Why should the clammy hand of the state inspire “fine art” any more than it clearly does not create “good parenting” or “good social care”.
Individuals and groups of individuals clearly do anything better when they have to earn their keep and must learn from their mistakes. Even Trevor ‘Treasure’ Nunn who failed with ”Gone with Wind” redeemed his reputation through his production of ‘A Little Night Music’ at the Menier.
Yet in 2007, while standing outside the Bramah Tea Museum, I asked ‘National Treasure’ Nunn whether he thought there was a place for small theatres. I was expecting the inevitable ‘Oh yes of course’ of the arts lover. However he also gave the knee-jerk retort, with a bleeding heart artist postscript of ‘but of course they never make any money.’ The Menier’s success, I thought, would beg to differ. So even in 2007, before Gordon’s boom went bust, the attitudes of those cultural figureheads who had relied so heavily on the state - Hytner, Nunn, Serota, or Dench - was as bleak as it is now. With a heavy heart I realised then that these same “spokespeople” would be asked about the unavoidable cuts to the arts when the economy took the downturn in 2008 that we are now experiencing. David Babani’s debate piece in The Guardian (‘Will funding cuts be good for the arts?’ 03.04.11) offers a more optimistic and pragmatic view of the cuts, seeing them as a spur for change in the way arts bodies function in relation to the state.
We live in an imperfect world in which public money is often unfairly and misguidedly distributed and consequently removed, and the cuts to arts funding is an unhappy reality in this society. Yet instead of taking Nicholas Hytner and his Canute-like attempts to protest against the tidal wave of cuts as a model of good practice, it is those who bravely swim into the deeper waters of independent, self-funded artistic ventures that should become the pin-ups of this time of development and change in the arts.
GAGARIN SQUARE RETURNS “THE WEST END” to North Southwark.
(FOR PEOPLE WHO USED TO ENJOY IT AT THE ELEPHANT AND CASTLE)
‘What [people] are likely to remember is an experience of the building, not the film…’
(David Trevor-Jones, Chairman of the Cinema Theatre Association)
If you were to walk down the stretch of road from Elephant and Castle to New Cross Road in the mid-1930s, you could be forgiven for thinking yourself to be in the West End. No fewer than seven ‘picture palaces’ once lined the streets of this area of Bermondsey, providing the local residents with cheap entertainment, from variety shows to Hollywood blockbusters. But as the chairman of the Cinema Theatre Association highlights, the purpose of these buildings was defined by much more than their projection rooms; rather, they provided a place in which the humdrum of everyday life could be escaped through laughter and spectacle. The opulence and magnificent size of these buildings brought glamour and splendour to one of the least affluent areas of London throughout times of depression and war.
Below, the fate of four of these ‘picture palaces,’ once located along the New and Old Kent Roads, is traced. Today, there is barely a mark of their existence, with warehouses and shops standing in their stead.
To see more photos and hear memories of these magnificent buildings, go to:
The Trocadero: 1-17 New Kent Road
The Trocadero could be described as the jewel in the lost crown of Bermondsey’s cinema history. With a capacity of 3,500 and a sumptuous Renaissance-inspired décor comprised of rich gilt, turquoise, and rose hues, it is still described by historians of London’s cinemas as ‘one of the finest movie palaces ever built in the United Kingdom.’ At 28 feet deep, the stage was the largest outside the West End, and the Wurlitzer organ installed within the premises was the largest ever to be imported to Europe. The Trocadero was a truly magnificent spectacle, and the three Hyams brothers who established the cinema have been dubbed ‘the last of the great showmen.
The cinema’s opening night was one that remained in the collective memory of the area for years to come. A few days before Christmas 1933, London was experiencing one of its notorious spells of ‘pea-souper’ fog, thick mists of yellowish-black smog that frequently descended on the city due to pollution. The Trocadero still filled to capacity despite the fact that the smog crept into the auditorium itself, obstructing the view of the screen. Later, the presenter Dennis Norden, who used to work as an assistant manager at the cinema, recalled a night when the cinema hosted a full circus, complete with an elephant and a trio of lions. From its very start the cinema established itself as a beating heart of Bermondsey life, and the damage it received from German bombs during WWII must have damaged more than the area’s bricks and mortar.
The cinema was closedon 19th October 1963 and demolished soon afterwards. A string of harsh structures were developed on the site, including a office-turned-residential block designed by Erno Goldfinger. Today, the site is a bleak amalgam of office blocks, peeling shopping centre facades, and roaring traffic. All that remains of the opulent Trocadero is a small commemorative plaque, marking the site where 3,500 people used to queue for a night’s entertainment.
The Globe: 59-61 Old Kent Road
Opened in 1910, The Globe Theatre was from the very start a building with significant aspirations. Contemporary advertisements proclaimed that the audience could ‘See the World at the Globe,’ and watch ‘Pictures from around the Globe.’ With a capacity of 930, it certainly provided ample space for Bermondsey locals to gather and experience the latest on-screen entertainment.
Always independently operated it was renamed Globe Cinema in around 1946, and affectionately called ‘the bug hut’ in its later years due to its increasingly dilapidated state of repair. The Globe Cinema was closed on 6th February 1960 with Jock Mahoney in "The Land Unknown" and Eric Fleming in "Curse of the Undead". It was later demolished and the site redeveloped.
Today, the site at the top of the Old Kent Road bears no trace of its glamorous past. Perched on the edge of a teeming roundabout, traffic sweeps past without a second glance.
The Astoria: 593-597 Old Kent Road
The Astoria Theatre, the second of four Astoria cinemas built by the distinguished cinema architect Edward Albert Stone, opened on 10th February 1930 with a Maurice Chevalier film, "Innocents in Paris", a Laurel & Hardy short "Two Tars" and a variety show on stage. The Astoria was notable for having its own resident orchestra and a lavish Art Deco interior with large landscapes painted on each side of the proscenium. The cinema’s capacity was 2,899, and also had a 150 seat café on a balcony level inside.
The Astoria was closed by the Rank Organisation on 29th June 1968, with another Laurel & Hardy film appropriately being one of its last projections. It was left dilapidated for a decade, before being converted first into ‘The Mad Dog Bowl’, Europe’s first indoor skate park, and then an unsuccessful sports centre.
It was demolished in October-November of 1984, the only one of the four Astorias to be flattened, and today a furniture store stands in its stead. A sign on its walls proudly proclaims its ability to provide ‘frustration free’ furniture, but it cannot hope to offer its customers a fraction of the delight and satisfaction supplied by its illustrious predecessor.
The Regal ABC: 810 Old Kent Road
On 18th January, 1937, a 2,474-seat cinema opened at the end of the Old Kent Road. The Regal Cinema was the largest of the Associated British Cinema’s (ABC) London suburban cinemas but still had 400 fewer seats than the nearby Astoria, and over 1,000 fewer than the Trocadero. Such impressive figures clearly demonstrate that there existed an overwhelming demand for cheap, local entertainment especially in a time of severe economic depression.
As with other Bermondsey cinemas, The Regal was decked out in fine Art Deco style, and was equipped with an organ and a stage, allowing for variety performances to be included on the programme. Thus, despite its imposing size it was evidently designed with the local community at its core. In 1959, teen rock and roll idol and local boy Tommy Steele came in person to a charity premiere of ‘Tommy the Toreador’ in which he starred.
In February 1974 the cinema, renamed The ABC in 1963, was closed and converted into a bingo hall for a few years. It finally met its fate in November 1981, and by the end of the year it was demolished.
A car dealership, blocks of flats, betting shops, and empty cafés now line this stretch of road where The Regal ABC used to stand. Once the last of the glittering string of cinemas found on the Old Kent Road, today the site is an unremarkable one. These cinemas not only offered escapist entertainment during one of Britain’s bleakest times, but also created a sense of architectural and social coherence, the buildings acting as monuments to both light culture and community.
Will Bermondsey residents ever again experience the thrill of seeing a structure like the Alhambra, or a Southwark Playhouse or even a Bollywood theatre in the area? It’s unlikely if the Southwark Planners remain as obstinate, negative and out of tune with popular culture as they are now. Not one of these planners, nor either of the local Cathedral Ward Councillors, had seen a Menier Chocolate Factory Show.
The track record of Southwark Planners has, of course, been far from exemplary. The neighbouring Globe and Tate Modern both faced a stony-faced reception in their attempts to obtain planning. ‘What has Shakespeare ever done for Southwark?’ the leader of the 1983-4 Southwark Council asked. The same scepticism was shown to the Gagarin Square plans when they were first laid before the Council. With such illustrious precedents, perhaps the scorn of Southwark planners is in fact the Midas touch.
The cultured leader of Southwark Council, Peter John easily got the historic connection between the former Picture Palaces and the West End when he first saw the Gagarin Square presentation back in 2010. “Fantastic” was his reply, suggesting a more enlightened age of leadership than that of 1983. The same reaction came from Tom Conti and his naughty ventriloquist daughter, who were playing at the Menier . “Let it rise”, she said, “like the St Petersburg bridge.
Damien Hirst, Tate Modern - Brian Sewell's review
Sewell's searing review on Damien Hirst's retrospective is a compelling and convincing critique of a culture in which art bears no relation to market laws.
"To own a Hirst is to tell the world that your bathroom taps are gilded and your Rolls-Royce is pink"
05 April 2012
Damien Hirst was born in 1965. At 18 he took the year-long Foundation Course at what was then known as The Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds. After a two-year gap labouring on London building sites he started the BA course at Goldsmiths College. There compulsory drawing and every other discipline that might lead to his becoming a professional artist in the traditional sense had been abandoned; instead, wild theory, wilder ideas, and art history of the most erratic, shallow and misleading kind had absolute supremacy over all the ancestral skills of art in its ancestral forms. In 1988, two years into the course, he was the presiding genius of Freeze, the now famous three-part exhibition in a disused Docklands warehouse that proved to be the crucible in which the group known as the YBAs (Young British Artists) was formed. In 1991 the Institute of Contemporary Arts gave him, at 26, his first solo exhibition in a publicly funded art gallery; the following year he was nominated for the Turner Prize; and in 1995, at 30, he won it, trouncing the feeble opposition of Mona Hatoum, Callum Innes and Mark Wallinger.
He had by then been the subject, in whole or part, of some forty exhibitions (many more if we count all the venues to which some of them travelled) in Britain, Germany (the consequence of a year’s fellowship residency in Berlin), Italy, America and elsewhere. He had also had the support of the Arts Council, the Tate, Hayward, Serpentine and Whitechapel Galleries as well as the ICA, of several leading London dealers in contemporary art, and, most important of all because of the publicity attached to the relationship, of Charles Saatchi at his most flamboyant. Saatchi not only owned the notorious shark in formaldehyde, dubbed The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, of 1991, but was rumoured to have had a hand in its conception and the organisation and costs involved in its making. To supply the work for so many exhibitions, patrons and collectors, Hirst must have had substantial financial support from the very beginning, even while still a student — how else could he have afforded the technical assistance required to construct the 76 leak-proof cases of formaldehyde for the fish of his Isolated Elements swimming in the same Direction for the Purposes of Understanding, of 1991, let alone the tank big enough to hold the shark?
Rapidly he became dependent largely on ideas first developed as a student and their industrial repetition. The ubiquitous Spot Paintings, for example — of which there are some 1,500, with the production line still working at full pelt — were first produced in 1986, more than a quarter of a century ago. Hirst himself now has no hand in them — they are the product of assistants given only the simple instruction to keep the colours of the spots entirely random with no perceptible sequence. To justify this workshop practice he raises the ghost of Rubens — but not even the most wretched apprentice in 17th-century Antwerp was still producing in 1635 precisely what Rubens had painted in 1610; nor would Rubens have charged so much for a painting not even touched by his hand - he charged according to a tariff that recognised the difference in value between work executed entirely by himself, by himself and assistants, by assistants with an improving touch or two by the great man, and entirely by assistants of varying levels of competence. Hirst charges as though everything is entirely by himself; this is only justified if we are fools enough to accept that the concept is the quintessential work of art and it is of no consequence who gives it physical embodiment; but from this it is possible to argue that in our postmodern art world we have every right to paint our spots ourselves — with a little practice they will be neither better nor worse than those marketed by Hirst, neither more nor less his autograph work.
The pharmaceutical cupboards and vitrines too reach back to Hirst’s student years — the first, Sinner and Enemy, were produced in 1988 and ten more were made within a year, four of them exhibited in his graduate show of 1989. Assigned such none pharmaceutical titles as god, Pretty Vacant and Anarchy (perversely, the early spots were dubbed Acetic Anhydride, Aprotinin, Calciferol et al), they are essentially everyone’s bathroom cabinet enlarged and every single one of us has from time to time done what he did — that is, lend order to disorderly arrangement. A decade later he was still stocking vitrines, but with skulls, bones, brains and surgical instruments, and some developments were homages to the 17th-century Cabinet of Curiosities and to the medical models and specimens accumulated in the pan-European schools of surgery and medicine in the Enlightenment. Even so the basic concept of the cupboard or vitrine remained unchanged. In 2008, however, Hirst reverted to his earliest pattern and repeated, for his now notorious auction sale at Sotheby’s, pretty well exactly what he had made twenty years before.
In the bottom left-hand corner of Sinner is a small medical model of a female torso with the belly skin and ribs removed. It is not the same as the gigantic Hymn of 1999-2005 that once stood in the forecourt of the Royal Academy, subject to accusations of plagiarism, but, apart from the overwhelming scale, is very like and again demonstrates that once Hirst has lit on an idea he keeps it on the boil for years, even decades, until he has exploited its every possible variant and purpose. Add to Hymn and Sinner the organs in specimen jars of 1991, the fish, the shark, the butterflies and the farm animals in tanks of formaldehyde, and it must seem to the enquirer that, with the exception of the Spots (though even for these he claimed a “scientific approach”), all his ideas were borrowed from things seen as a boy on frequent prowlings in the university’s anatomy museum before, at 19, he left Leeds for London.
If we compare the major works executed for the Sotheby’s sale of 2008 (his last significant exposure in Britain) and the later works in the new but meagre retrospective at Tate Modern (only 73 exhibits), with the earlier examples, we see gestation and production periods of more or less a quarter of a century. Did any great artist’s workshop of the Renaissance or the Baroque ever develop so little over so long? It helps to look at Hirst less as an artist than as a craftsman, a maker, even a manufacturer, of extravagant goods desirable to footballers’ wives and cupiditous collectors governed by envy and social inferiority rather than connoisseurship. Why should Hirst, as a businessman (of which indisputable proof lies on his website, even at the market-trader level with trinkets and souvenirs), embark on serious development or fundamental change when he has identified half a dozen formulae that need only to be “refreshed” if they are to sustain their appeal to his hedge-fund, filthy rich, pop-star, monkey-see monkey-do, done-thing clientele? To own a Hirst is to tell the world that your bathroom taps are gilded and your Rolls-Royce is pink.
In the exhibition at Tate Modern spin paintings revolve, a beach ball balances on an intolerably noisy jet of air, we wander from John Bell and Croydon into branches of Boots, John Lewis, Divertimenti and David Mellor. Though tedious, this is bearable. The butterfly room, however, is unbearable. I saw its first incarnation in the Woodstock Gallery in 1991 and was sickened by it then, for it knowingly involves the death of butterflies, probably tens of thousands of them by the time this wretched exhibition ends on September 9. Even before the exhibition opened these creatures were fluttering exhausted on the gallery floor, denied anything that resembles their natural habitat. How is it that they are “only” butterflies? How is that the RSPCA does not protest? How can any decent man or woman walk through this room — the In and out of Love — without the rise of anger at such cruelty? What an artist does at 26 one may perhaps attribute to the waywardness of his intelligence, but at 47 how could Hirst bear to repeat such vain cold-blooded inhumanity?
All who care for living things should boycott this exhibition. Disgust must be the response of the sane, not only to the use, abuse and deaths of butterflies, but to the exploitation of farm animals mercilessly slaughtered in the knacker’s yard and, at an aesthetic level, to Hirst’s taste for the ghastly glitz and glamour found in Miami’s holiday hotels. I can sum it up as shiny shit. Bob Geldof, on the other hand, might repeat his estimation of Hirst’s Sotheby’s sale when, awestruck as he was by its garish glister he bellowed “f***ing marvellous” for all to hear.
Hirst himself will, no doubt, describe this show of his work too as “epic”. It is nothing of the kind; a meagre third of the number of exhibits in the Sotheby’s sale, it is a little more didactic. A handful of things tell us how Hirst began, another handful the state of his imaginings in 2006-9 — bigger, much bigger and much shinier, but essentially the same — and between them lie the sterile old familiars that, once seen, have nothing more to give. Put bluntly, this man’s imagination is quite as dead as all the dead creatures here suspended in formaldehyde.