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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Letting the streets in

By Norman Lebrecht / February 1, 2006

Bob Geldof's latest mission is not another Live Aid to relieve famine, nor a Live8 to erase third world debt. His focus is closer to home, on a supercool corner of North London where, only last weekend, police hijacked a double-decker bus to grab 25 gang suspects in the murder of an alleged drugs peddler.

Geldof has been part of the Camden Town scene since the Boomtown Rats played the Music Machine in 1977 and while the frock-and-schlock market is now listed as London's number one tourist attraction it sits dangerously between the wealth and intellect of Hampstead and the grim estates of Gospel Oak and Kentish Town.

Sir Bob, long before he was saint or knight, has been singing about urban ennui I Don't Like Mondays, The Great Song of Indifference. Now, he is fr0onting up a meeting place of high art and street art, privilege and exclusion under one domed roof. As ambassador for the newly rebuilt Roundhouse, together with Suggs (of Madness) and Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, Geldof is chief spokesman for a project of cultural utopia.

Downstairs at the Roundhouse, which yesterday announcied its opening date and programme after a £30 million restoration, kids off the block are already making videos and music tracks in 11 state-of-art studios and practice rooms. And not just a handful. Some 12,000 teenagers, in school or excluded, are involved in 650 projects and the running of their own centre.

Upstairs, with 1,800 seats or 3,300 standees, there will be world-class theatre and music, kicking off high in June with the Argentine dance spectacle, FuerzaBruta and followed, if all goes to plan, by Merce Cunningham's massive Ocean piece for 150 performers. Top-ticket upstairs, do-it-yourself below. this is one of the most radical experiments we have seen in cultural interaction, a venture that aims to set a model for a multicultural society - and could, it goes without saying, go horribly wrong.

The idea belongs to a happy toymaker, Torquil Norman, who, retiring ten years ago on the crest of Polly Pocket (the world's second most desirable object for small girls), looked around and saw the Roundhouse gaping derelict and disused, apart from a lucrative carpark concession held by, of all unchallengeable organisations, the Greater London Courts Authority. Like so many limelight sites in this neglectful city like Battersea Power Station, like the Millennum Dome, like Stoke Newington Town Hall - the Roundhouse had had its day and was being left to moulder in full public view.

But the Roundhouse was more than just a railway shed, built for locomotive repairs in the mid-19th century and run plain out of steam. In the Sixties, when London swung, much of the energy surged from this brick outhouse where Arnold Wesker founded Studio 42 for working-class theatre and Peter Brook laid the foundations for his future Theatre des Bouffes du Nord.

Pierre Boulez gave carpet concerts of contemporary music, young audiences sitting on stone floors and arguing the merits of serialism and electronics with conductor and musicians deep into the night. Pink Floyd, Cream and The Who played all-nighters. Jimi Hendrix made his name here. Tony Richardson staged Hamlet with Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia. O Calcutta! dropped its clothes. There was a sense of cultures coming together and evolving something altogether unprecedented. Torquil Norman, a sometime fighter pilot with no background in the arts, imagined it could be done again.

Buying the building for £3 million was the easy part: no-one else seemed to want it or know what to do with it. Getting the magistrates to give up their carpark was more complicated and raising ten times as much money to fulfil the vision verged on the quixotic. But the hard part has now been done, and done without much fuss, forty percent of the money coming from the Lottery and local authorities and the rest from private donors who mostly live in the leafier streets up the road. Norman himself has pumped £5 million into an endowment that will enable the Roundhouse to be daring beyond the constraints of other arts centres.

'We're not in competition with the Barbican and South Bank,' stipulates chief executive Marcus Davey. 'What we represent is a unique point of contact between the deprived and the privileged, a new model of how things could be.' Tall, bald and twinkle-eyed, Davey, 38, has been running the embryonic project for six and a half years with a gravitas that defies his relative youth and appears unthreatening to street kids and fat cats alike.

There is a dreamy unreality about the idealism that has remade the Roundhouse but there is also a grounding in cold-cast statistics. Camden is home to the highest number of ticket-buyers in London and attracts more visitors at weekends than any other borough. If the Roundhouse is only half-successful it will still put every arts centre not only in this city but the world over on its mettle to reassess its purpose and ask whether it has the potential for interaction between presenters and users, haves and have-nots. Whether it is aware of the streets around and eager to engage. Whether it can reinvent the tired old prospectus of public art centres, where middleclass graduates present safety-first programmes to middle-aged audiences. Whatever else it does, the Roundhouse will add a frisson of difference to the cultural landscape. Its glass-fronted entrance will open onto the Camden market, inviting droppers-in to sample its coffee shops before partaking, or participating, in art.

Both Brook and Boulez have come back from Paris to seek a stake in its future. Wesker has seen the smaller performing space named Studio 42 after his visionary enterprise. Geldof dropped by the other day with 92 year-old Dad and teenaged daughter Pixie, attracting a swarm of pararazzi to his secular sanctity.

There is a buzz about the Roundhouse that is reminiscent, to those of us who were kids at the time, of Camden Town in the Sixties and Seventies: a place where our world was remade in a purple haze of invention. The risk is high when you let the streets in, but what other way is there to understand what's going on?

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001