Monday, 16 August 2010

London Open City

O Lucky Man! Travis joins the establishment in the Reform Club
The programme is now out for this year’s London Open House weekend, which takes place on the 18th and 19th September. This always offers a great opportunity to have a look around buildings not generally open to the public, and enjoy free tours of those that are which often incorporate hidden and inaccessible corners. There are many locations which have associations with film and literature, considerations which tend to influence my choice of where to go. Last year we went to the Reform Club, which is also in the programme this year, although I suspect it’s pre-book only tours are full up by now. It is most famously the point from which Phileas Fogg sets out on his travels in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and is also used in the 1956 film of the novel with David Niven giving the archetypal unruffleable Englishman performance which he settled into later in his career. It represents a solid establishment backdrop in Quantum of Solace and the recent Sherlock Holmes film, and rather more surprisingly crops up in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man, Malcolm McDowell briefly gaining access to its privileged halls in the course of his picaresque rise and fall. The Reform Club is considered one of the more progressive of its breed (it used to be aligned with the Liberal Party) and proudly declares that it was the first such club to admit women on equal terms with men – in 1981!

Lucifer over London - Pete and Dud atop the PO Tower
The BT tower is also open, operating tours through a very sensible booking lottery draw, open from 16th August. I still like to think of it as the Post Office Tower, the pre-privatised name under which it became a symbol of the modernist aspirations of the mid-60s. As such, it became a popular location for films trying to capture (or cash in on) the swinging tenor of the times. In the George Melly scripted Smashing Time, Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave cause chaos by setting the revolving restaurant at the top spinning out of control. Peter Cook’s devil takes Dudley Moore out onto the balcony in Bedazzled, from where he sends pigeons off to do their business on a businessman’s head, and points out the Garden of Eden, a ‘boggy swamp just south of Croydon’. In the 1966 Doctor Who serial The War Machines, the Post Office Tower is the headquarters from which a supercomputer known with sinister acronymity as WOTAN develops a mind to take over the world, and releases crap robots into the back streets of Fitzrovia in order to achieve this ambition. It’s thwarted by William Hartnell with the aid of a couple of new companions he picks up along the way; dolly bird Polly and with it geezer Ben, a couple of mildly groovy types who hang out at the Inferno night club and give the series a bit of swinging sixties sheen. On the other side of the bisecting torrent of Oxford Street, you can climb up the tower of St Anne’s in Soho and look down on the warren of streets and alleyways surrounding St Anne’s Court, perhaps imagining them deluged by some catastrophic flood and turned into a grubbier cousin of the canals of Venice, as Chris Petit does at the end of his novel Robinson.

The Gothic screen - The Granada Cinema, Tooting
There are some fine old 20s and 30s cinemas to see, most of which have been saved from the post war wrecking ball through being converted to other uses. Many others were casually demolished, dream palaces razed to make way for the banal functionality of characterless rows of shops or the arid spaces of car parks. Those that remain are now listed to save them from a similar fate. The Muswell Hill Odeon is happily still in use as a cinema, and tours are limited in order to fit in around their programme. It retains the streamlined art deco interior so redolent of its time. The Forest Hill Cinema was part of the ABC chain and also put on variety shows on its stage. It’s now one of the Wetherspoon pubs which make use of historical buildings, and is known as the Capitol. The former Gaumont Palace in Wood Green has become, like several other grand old cinema auditoria, a place for evangelical gatherings. God has re-entered the house (apparently) for perhaps the first time since Charlton Heston fetched his widescreen tablets in The Ten Commandments. But perhaps the finest of them all (and the first cinema building to receive a grade 1 listing) is the Granada Cinema at Tooting Broadway, now a Gala Bingo Hall. And in case we’re tempted to sniff at such an appropriation, there is every likelihood that the building would not be here at all today had its usage not been continued through such humble entertainments. The entrance lobby is suitably palatial, with balconies from which the occasional visiting star (Sinatra played here) could wave down at the gathered masses in regal fashion. Indeed such a scene is depicted in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, in which Geoffrey Rush, playing Sellers, rains down caustic comments about his latest Pink Panther movie and its director Blake Edwards. The auditorium is approached via a corridor of mirrors, colonnaded with painted wooden columns. It’s a walk whose endlessly multiplied images invites glamorous self-regard, and which acts as a prelude to the entry into the realm of the unreal. If memory serves, it was used to such ends in The Golden Compass, the adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. The auditorium itself is a mock gothic fantasia, with fake windows on the side walls which make you feel like you are in a cathedral or fairy tale castle if you’re willing to suspend your sense of disbelief a little (and if you’re not, why would you be going to the cinema in the first place?). It would be a fantastic place to see some of the classic gothic horror films, the Karloff Frankensteins or Hammer Draculas. The tour I went on some years ago included a look inside the projection room, and the sheer distance to the screen below was amazing, and caused some logistical difficulties. The old organ lies somewhere beneath the bingo tables, and has recently undergone restoration (although sadly was damaged once more in recent floods). It is still poised on its elevator, and you can imagine it erupting amongst the startled players intent on their bingo sheets, bursting forth with a triumphant blast. Perhaps some of the more elderly amongst the bingo regulars remember the cinema in its heyday and still perceive the dying echoes of pictures seen in its (and their) golden age. Where once people packed these palaces to share fantastic communal dreams, they now offer booze, gambling and god. Ah well.

The Sands Film Studios, which have adapted an old Thameside warehouse at Rotherhithe, are opening their doors. They’ve lent their production facilities to Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, amongst other films. Their cinema club also looks excellent, offering a selection of classic art movies such as The Gospel According to St Matthew, La Grande Illusion, Intolerance and a selection of Humphrey Jennings films. Alexandra Palace is also well worth a visit, although the main interior, which once hosted the countercultural summer of love showpiece the 24 Hour Technicolor Dream, is now rather shabby. But it does house the studios from which the BBC first broadcast, and where The Quatermass Experiment was filmed (live, of course). There’s also a hidden and rather ghostly theatre, disused since the 30s, the walls of its expansive hall covered with the flaking gilt and dark red paint of bygone days. The Palace and its transmitting tower were used in the Doctor Who episode The Idiot’s Lantern, effectively writer Mark Gatiss’ tribute to the early days of television broadcasting. A variety of theatres are open, with tours including glimpses into the backstage world. These range across the temporal spectrum, from the music hall galleries of Hoxton Hall through the gilded variety palace of the Hackney Empire to the brutalist functionality of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre on the South Bank. No Wilton’s Music Hall this year, although you can easily go and visit now that it’s a working venue once more. The rather more forgiving South Bank modernism of the recently renovated Royal Festival Hall is also offering an architectural tour of one of the few permanent remnants of the 1951 Festival of Britain (excellent footage of which can be found on the BFI’s COI Design For Today dvd).

Son et lumiere over Derry and Toms roof garden
Buildings with literary and artistic pedigree are also included in the programme. You can ascend to the shady oasis, the roof gardens and Babylon Restaurant atop what used to be Derry and Toms department store, which is cloistered from the surrounding noise and bustle of Kensington High Street. This features as Jerry Cornelius’ retreat at the start of the second of Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Quartet, A Cure for Cancer, where the gentile tranquillity of tea time is soon disrupted by a strafing chopper. Moorcock’s 1971 novel describes the atmosphere of the place, pre-helicopter attack, thus: ‘The time might be July 31st 1970. London, England. Cool traffic circulates. A quiet, hot day: somewhere in the distance – a bass tone.
In High Street Kensington, where the trees of Hyde Park creep out among the buildings, stands the age-old structure of the Derry and Toms department store. Tier upon impressive tier, it is proud among its peers.
On the roof of the store, in a lot of rich earth, grow shrubs and trees and flowers, and there are little streams and ponds with goldfish and ducks.’ He goes on to use a 1966 guidebook to describe the Old English garden, Tudor courts and flower beds and the Spanish garden with Moorish pergolas and the court of fountains. They’ve all been recently refurbished, but Jerry would still feel at home.

Victorian decadence - Lord Leighton's house
Just over the road, Victorian artist Frederick Lord Leighton’s house is a fabulously gaudy fantasy palace, a monument to his ideal of art as a recreation of classical dream worlds. It’s certainly a very opulent setting within which to entertain such lefty friends as William Morris and Walter Crane, and the Arabic hall, with its arts and crafts tiling and indoor fountain and pool immediately sweeps you away from its Holland Park surroundings to a storybook version of orientalist fantasy. Morris’ own Hammersmith riverside home at Kelmscott House is also open (or at least the coach house owned by the Morris society). George MacDonald was resident before him, and wrote At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin whilst he was living there. If you want to pursue the radical artist connection, then you can go to St Pancras Old Church, whose grounds house the grave of the pioneer of women’s rights Mary Wollstonecraft. She was also the mother of Mary Shelley. Mary’s father William Godwin, for all of his espousal of radical ideas, disapproved of her relationship with the impecunious poet Shelley. With a sense of atmosphere appropriate for someone who would go on to re-invent the gothic novel for the Romantic era (and provide a template for its modern revival) she made secret assignations with him over her mother’s grave. Also buried in the graveyard is Sir John Soane, whose remarkable house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is also open for the Open House weekend (although it always is anyway), and which includes his gothic ‘theme’ basement, with its fictional ‘mad monk’ in the style of Matthew Lewis’ unhinged 18th century character from his novel, titled with admirable simplicity The Monk. You can go and see children’s writer and illustrator Kate Greenaway’s arts and crafts house in Frognal, Hampstead.

Hampstead modernism - Maxwell Fry's Sun House
Frognal, a road too posh to have the word Street appended, is a fascinating conglomeration of architectural styles, with many a controversial incursion of modernism into its leafy surrounds. A modernist house now provides a discreet neighbour for Greenaway’s, and you can see number 66 as you pass, a house built along le Corbusier lines which caused a bit of a to do when it was built in 1938. A short sidetrack up Frognal Way will reveal more modernist houses, none of them taking part in the Open House programme alas, but you might as well have a nose whilst you’re there. These include architect Maxwell Fry’s Sun House of 1936, the first modernist concrete house to be built in London. There’s a triumvirate of post war modernist buildings designed by Erno Goldfinger, the only architect to lend his name to a James Bond supervillain. This dubious privilege came about due to Ian Fleming’s displeasure at the plans for what became Goldfinger’s own home at Willow Road in the writer’s Hampstead backyard. The Willow Road flats now have the official National Trust seal of approval, but you can get in free over the Open House weekend, and as an incidental pleasure, get to see some of Goldfinger’s in situ art collection (modern, of course). Goldfinger’s two signature London buildings are both included in the programme, the Trellick Tower in the West, and the Balfron Tower, its smaller twin (Baby Godzilla to the Trellick’s full monster). The Trellick is unsurprisingly already fully booked (you have to get in pretty quick for a lot of these pre-booked tours) but the Balfron is open on a first come basis. There are also tours Alton West Estate, including the grey parkside blocks of the le Corbusier inspired Highcliffe flats. These provided a suitably cold dystopian backdrop for the opening of Francois Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451.

Learning pod - Peckham Library
As a counter to that film’s book burning premise, there are several libraries included in the programme. The London Library in St James Square transferred there in 1845 and remains the country’s largest private library, a Victorian treasury of knowledge cradled in wrought iron and available to the gentleman scholar for a modest subscription. The Herbarium library at Kew amasses and catalogues knowledge in a different form, with plant specimens instead of books, but still with Victorian wrought iron, and spiral staircases too. The Marx Memorial Library on the edge of the radical hotspot of Clerkenwell Green offers the rebellious autodidact food for thought. The socialist Twentieth Century Press was located here from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, having been guaranteed by William Morris, and Lenin worked on his journal Iskra (or The Spark) here from April 1902 to May 1903. The fifteenth century tunnels which run underneath, and which were only rediscovered in 1986, sound irresistibly mysterious, and hopefully we’ll be allowed a glimpse. The Bishopsgate Institute, situated on the faultline of the City and the East End (the former metastasizing ever further outwards, as 201 Bishopsgate and the Broadgate Tower in the programme testify) is another leftward leaning library and cultural centre which has been included in previous years, but not this. It is open to the public anyway. It featured in the recent updating of Sherlock Holmes by Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, the latter of whom clearly has a good sense for an atmospheric London location. Peckham Library represents new ideas for open city learning, and its bright, inviting and imaginative building won the RIBA Stirling prize for the best British building of the year in 2000, a real sign of hope for the future. This year’s shortlist for the prize has one building in the Open House programme: 22 & 23 Bateman’s Row, which married architects Patrick Theis and Soraya Khan built for themselves in Shoreditch to both live and work in, mixing office and residential space. The queues are bound to be long for this one, so get there early.

Mona Lisa - Bob Hoskins tries to get some service at the Park Lane Hotel
For my part, we shall enjoy being ushered around the art deco splendour of the Park Lane Hotel (actually in Picadilly), undoubtedly the only way I’ll ever get to see its plush interiors. Its bar is apparently particularly fine, and is used in films such as Mona Lisa (where Bob Hoskins orders a cup of tea – not Earl Gray, not Darjeeling, just tea) and The Golden Compass (again – for all its faults, this is a film rich in English locations). It also stands in for the interior of a transatlantic liner in Brideshead Revisited (the 2008 film). So, it’s time to dust off the old A-Z and plan a tactical route, plotting intersections of the coloured veins of the tube map and tracing a path across the centuries of London’s architectural strata of wood, stone, brick, concrete, steel, glass, grass and straw.

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