Half a century of the Roundhouse | reviews, news & interviews
Half a century of the Roundhouse
Half a century of the Roundhouse
The director of the charismatic venue celebrates its history and its work transforming young lives
We've got a lot to celebrate in 2016: 50 years since the Roundhouse became an arts centre and 10 years of transforming young lives through creativity. In celebration of this momentous year we embarked on a journey of discovery to uncover the stories from train-enthusiast accounts of our humble beginnings to real-life high-wire love stories, from week-long raves in the 1990s to politically-charged spoken word in the 2000s. So many incredible stories have emerged from the walls of this beautiful building.
In the 1960s freedom of expression and liberation had arrived in London. Skirts were shorter, clothes were brighter, hair was higher and rock‘n’roll sent thrilling vibrations throughout the city. Arnold Wesker saw the huge potential of the Roundhouse and in 1966 it came alive as an arts venue for the people. The opening night launch party was an epic event celebrating not only the introduction of a radical new publication, The International Times, but also the opening of the Roundhouse as a live entertainment venue and the debut of legendary rock band Pink Floyd. The launch proved to be one of those evenings fondly remembered by those present, though details of the recollections tend to differ somewhat.
On to the 1970s and revolutionary theatre played a pivotal role in defining this era of Roundhouse history – and has continued to do so over the decades. From the legendary Oh! Calcutta! – described as "tasteful pornography for the thinking voyeur" – to Andy Warhol’s only play, Pork, and Helen Mirren in The Duchess of Malfi. Directors found that the building encouraged and allowed for experimentation and exploration, and that led to the creation of shocking, spectacular and mind-expanding theatre. (Pictured below: the Roundhouse. Courtesy of Edwin Smith, RIBA Collections)
Some of the most legendary nights took place on Sundays during 1971. DJ Jeff Dexter’s iconic weekly Sunday afternoon gigs, Implosion, attracted some of the biggest and best names in rock. They were the kind of nights where you could watch David Bowie, Elton John and The Who for just 40p. Many have gone down as some of the most legendary artists to grace the stage at the Roundhouse and some of the best gigs London has ever seen.
But the Seventies played host to another form of revolution. The Roundhouse had a fundamental role in the formation of the punk scene. Not only did The Ramones play their first London gig at the Roundhouse on 4 July 1976 – the gig that was said to ignite punk in London – but the venue played host to The Damned, The Clash, Patti Smith and The Stranglers. Then in 1978, it was post-punk with Blondie, Elvis Costello, The Police and Adam and the Ants. And the punk attitude still lives and breathes in the Roundhouse today.
But in 1983, after years of financial difficulty, the Roundhouse closed. The building stood pretty much empty until it was purchased by entrepreneurial toy-maker Torquil Norman in 1996, who saw it as a space that could be used to enhance the lives of young people through creativity. During the mid-'90s, the empty Roundhouse provided a huge, not-too-precious, blank canvas with endless possibilities that inspired artists, filmmakers and ravers to push the boundaries, even though they had to bring their own generators and fight off the odd rodent. From illegal Nineties raves to the extraordinary maverick Argentinian De La Guarda show in 1999.
Following a £30 million refurbishment, on Thursday 1 June 2006, the Roundhouse reopened once again with the magnificent show Fuerzabruta. It quickly established itself as one of London’s leading arts venues. Now the Roundhouse is also home to a creative centre for young people (pictured above: circus summer project, photograph by Peter Schiazza). Stories from the early days of the Roundhouse talk about a place for the community to come and take part in art and that’s exactly what stands here today. Thousands of young people have taken part in music, media and performing arts projects over the last 10 years.
But the Roundhouse still stays true to its artistic roots and plays host to some of the best international circus, incredible spoken word and poetry from the likes of Kate Tempest and world class-music acts with everyone from Radiohead to Christine and the Queens. If the last 50 years are anything to go by, the Roundhouse and all who come here have an exciting 50 years ahead.
- Arena: The Roundhouse – The People’s Palace is on BBC Four on 23 October
- Find out more about the stories from the Roundhouse's last 50 years .
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