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The beginning of a new era as the Roundhouse re-opens

‘It was a dirty hole... but what a great place!”

TORQUIL Norman, the man behind the Roundhouse, allowed himself a smile of triumph on Tuesday as he saw his personal ten year dream project finally come to fruitition.
The £30m 1800-seat Chalk Farm venue is set to open on June 1 with a performance from Argentine company De La Guarda’s Fuerzabruta in the main theatre and a new piece of drama entitled The Foolish Man performed by young stars nurtured by the Roundhouse’s youth project in its new wing.
Mr Norman bought the Grade-II listed Victorian railway shed in 1996 for £6 million after reading about plans to make it in to an architects museum in the New Journal. The philanthropist, who made his money through manufacturing toys, set up a trust to turn the derelict building into a performance venue and provide a creative arts centre for young people.
Events will include dance, classical, jazz, rock and pop music, installations, lectures, screenings, theatre and contemporary circus. A full schedule will be announced later in the spring.
The Roundhouse – closed completely for the refit since 2002 – was originally built as a railway engine shed in 1846. But in 1856 longer locomotives made the building redundant. The building has a new roof and its central glass lantern has been restored allowing natural light into the space for the first time.
Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, The Doors and Pink Floyd all played to packed crowds in the venue’s late-1960s heyday. Mr Norman, who lives in Camden Town ,said: “Today marks the culmination of ten years hard work. We now have an opening date, a fabulous show and a host of young people ready to occupy our unique Roundhouse Studios.”
A new wing has been added to the original building with a café and a bar. It includes a separate 150-seated space Studio 42 – the name paying homage to Arnold Wesker’s pioneering Centre 42 that aimed to bring the world of theatre closer to the people.
Mr Norman added: “People did not think we would reach this stage – and now I am looking forward to seeing the first show.”


THE re-opening of the Roundhouse as an arts venue has prompted performers and promoters from its past to recall the venue’s glory days.
For Trust chairman Torquil Norman the announcement of an opening date for the first show in the new Roundhouse has brought back treasured memories of visits to the Roundhouse with his five children.
Mr Norman said: “I used to visit it regularly in the 1970s and 1980s.”
The venue played host to the leading names of the British rock scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and even when after closing in 1984, secret warehpouse style raves made sure the venue was still linked with entertainment for a generation of local people.
Mr Norman said he hoped the new training areas, which will give young people the chance to practise their skills, would produce the Roundhouse’s “headliners of the future.”
But he added the Roundhouse had a much bigger and more important role.
He said; “We just want to give young people a chance to be creative, to take them away from doing nothing and keep them off the streets.”
And he said the Roundhouse would live up to its previous incarnation as a cutting edge venue. He said: “It was known for being quite wild – and it has a reputation for superb work. That’s what we aim to continue doing.”

Ex-Dr Who actor Sylvester McCoy, who lives in Parliament Hill, recalls rubbing shoulders with Hollywood greats at the Roundhouse – and describes how he put stellar Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s noses out of joint.
He recalls: “I managed to make Burton and Taylor flee from the stage. They used to have short films and lectures there. It was really interesting but when Burton and Taylor were at the height of their fame people would get up and say things like: ‘Ms Taylor you have lovely long eyelashes’.
“Burton then got up and said: ‘I believe in the censorship of the body and not of the word’. I asked why, and he said ‘because that’s what I believe’. I asked but, why and Taylor replied: ‘well who would want to see a picture of your ass ducky?’. Then they got up and left the stage.”
He had got a job in the box office in 1967 after enduring a miserable time working in the city.
He said: “The Roundhouse was a lifesaver for me. The company I was working for went bust so I decided to become a hippy.
“The Roundhouse had a hippy who could cook and she told me they needed a hippy who could count for the box office so I joined up.”

• DJ and promoter Jeff Dexter went to the Roundhouse for a flower power ‘happening’ in 1966 and ended up running shows and nights there for the next couple of decades.
He said: “It was a dirty hole but a great place.”
Mr Dexter, who lives in Fortune Green, staged nights called Middle Earth, UFO and Implosion at the venue, and booked the biggest names in rock.
He continued: “You name them, I booked them. The music business in London was different then – there were few big venues and the Roundhouse could hold a lot of people.”
And he revealed how every band got the same fee – except for three of them.
He said: “The going rate was £20, except for The Who and Pink Floyd, who got £43 each because of the cost of hiring a van for them, and the Rolling Stones, who took every thing and then gave me 10 per cent back.”
But perhaps his favourite memory was standing on stage with Jimi Hendrix: “I met him when he moved to London in 1966, and I was thrilled when he agreed to play at the Roundhouse – and I am thrilled tosee it reopening again.”
Pictured right: A letter confirming the Rolling Stones’ appearance at the Roundhouse in 1971.

Playwright and broadcaster Ned Sherrin would regularly produce shows at the Roundhouse – and remembers how the rock and roll vibe of the place disrupted some of his rehearsals.
He recalls: “We did a production of Leiber and Stoller’s Only in America in 1979 or 1980.
“We had a terrible time getting the set built because the people working there had just discovered cocaine so we had to stay up all night to make
sure the building carried on.”

Children’s theatre guru Anna Scher used to take her students from her successful Islington-based children’s drama company to rehearse at the Roundhouse in the 1970s.
She said: “It was useful to get a feeling of what it meant to be on a big stage.
“There was always a feeling of excitement about working there, because of the big names who we knew had appeared there before.
“It was a wonderful place to work. It is a place that holds so many special memories, I am just pleased to find out it’s going to be opened to create some more.”

How Wesker’s shed came alive


Playwright Sir Arnold Wesker originally bought the derelict old engine shed, then known as the Roundhouse in 1962 after the TUC passed Resolution 42 calling on the trade union movement to back the arts. Hence the creation of Centre 42 with Wesker at the helm.
But raising funds was always dire, as Wesker (pictured), then living in Bishops Road, Highgate, records in his autobiography As Much As I Dare, published in 1994, in which he tells how writers’ block halted the creation of his play The Old Ones.
“I was failing to raise the money required to establish, at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, Centre 42, the arts project to which I had given, on and off, the previous nine years of my life,” Wesker recalls.
“The unions – whose Resolution 42 on the 1960 TUC agenda had inspired the organisation – had abandoned us; the Arts Council expressed fear of us; Robert Maxwell was our not very diligent treasurer; Jennie Lee, who had been on our board, was now Britain’s first Minister of the Arts and seemed to be sabotaging our efforts. Not the most tranquil years of my life.”
He also tells the saga of how he tried to persuade the novelist and playwright JB Priestley and his wife, Jacquetta Hawkes, to back the Centre 42 appeal, a fever preventing him from having lunch with them at their flat in the Albany, Piccadilly.
“I was flat on my back, too ill to keep the date,” he reports. “Instead we invited them to Bishops Road, promising that Dusty (Wesker’s wife) would bring lunch up into my bedroom. They graciously agreed.
“There they sat, poor dears, in front of the window, food on their laps, eating and conversing with this wild-eyed young colleague rendered prone with pain caused by he knew not what, confusing their sympathies between this hurt and his dream to convert the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm into a pulsating centre for art aimed at a popular audience.
“None of us could know I was delirious from toxic poisoning, though JB might have guessed when I asked him: ‘Tell me, JB I’ve calculated that if there are 75,000 English-speaking amateur companies around the world paying £10 per performance, and if only a third of them perform just one of my five plays in the course of five years, I’d earn £250,000 a year for amateur rights alone, which would do nicely, but am I right?
“‘I mean – what are your earnings from amateur royalties?’ I think he smiled a canny Yorkshireman’s smile and gave a canny Yorkshireman’s reply.
‘Not bad, not bad, aye, lad, not bad.’”
Wesker adds: “I never made anything resembling that amount of money from my amateur royalties, not even up to this day 30 years and 28 days later, though I’ve no doubt JB did, for he was an intelligent man with a popular touch which seems to have eluded me. He signed the appeal.”


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