Quite a turnaround
As The Roundhouse celebrates a 20th anniversary Dan Carrier talks to its chief executive Marcus Davey about its past... and its future
14 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
The Roundhouse. Photo: John Williams
THE 1960s heyday of the Roundhouse has become counterculture folklore.
Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 was to be a beacon for the era’s heady mixture of art and politics –and its curved brick walls enjoyed further notoriety for a new generation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when youngsters would break in, set up a sound system and hold a rave.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the latest Roundhouse project: it was 1999 when toy-maker and philanthropist Torquil Norman bought the Chalk Farm site with a vision of creating a new arts and education centre.
His idea became reality through the hard work of many – led by chief executive, Marcus Davey.
Marcus also celebrated his 20th year at the helm this year – and last week his dedication and leadership was recognised when he collected a CBE.
When he took on the job, the former railway engine turning shed – which was also used by the Gilbey Gin company as a warehouse – had fallen into disrepair and looked condemned to being one of those marvels of Victorian architecture that struggled to find a new role.
Its triumphs have been many – global names have strutted across its curving stage – but the real success story is what takes place every day.
Instead of the gigs by Prince or James Brown, it’s the training of 6,000 young people annually that shows its long-lasting effects.
“We are here to champion and to work with some of the most vulnerable and excluded young people,” says Marcus.
Marcus was working as artistic director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival when he saw an advert in the Guardian. He was interviewed by Torquil Norman and Tony Elliot, founder of Time Out.
“I thought it was the most fascinating project I had come across, a place with a huge heart at its centre,” he recalls.
He says the programmes in music, technology and drama suit the location.
“The Roundhouse is important as a building partly because of where it is – it is an independent island floating in this bit of Chalk Farm,” he adds.
“It doesn’t matter if you live in Primrose Hill or Queen’s Crescent. It is about people meeting and making something together, exploring their creativity. It is a people’s place, it is open, it is for the imagination, for diversity, for allowing young people to share their experiences of life.”
Marcus Davey. Photo: Jonathan Birch
And the Roundhouse’s role has only become more important since the 2010 election and the introduction of the Tory Party’s vicious austerity programme.
“There were great improvements of opportunity 20 years ago for schools to embrace creativity,” he adds.
“[The Labour government’s] Building Schools for the Future scheme created new performance spaces and invested in teachers but in the last decade we have seen a government policy that directly affected young people the arts.
“The creative subjects have been significantly reduced, with 45,000 fewer arts GCSEs being taken last year.”
This is partly because of the drive for schools to concentrate on the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.
“If only the arts were included in this,” he says.
“Look at civilisations over the millennia. Look at what is the British Museum today – we remember past times from what they created, what they made – how they championed their art.”
Marcus says unless we consider our priorities in education, we face the bleak prospect that a sector for which the UK is globally renowned, and which projects a positive image of Britain, is under threat.
“I am really worried about the future and the lack of opportunities to take part in creativity,” he says.
“The creative industries are growing faster than any other sector. Today, two million people are employed.” He adds that another one million talented people will be needed by 2030.
“It is about our place in the world. Why is the UK number one in the soft power league? It is because our creativity is amazing. The world sits up and listens to us. Our directors, our actors, our musicians, our designers, our painters – none of them come by accident.
“If we want to keep that position after Brexit, we need to invest and the best way to do so is invest in creativity, not by slashing opportunities in schools.”
The Roundhouse has a high success rate – and is now in the midst of further development, to add a new set of classroom studios on space used for storage.
“The vast majority of young people who come here go on to work in the creative industries. I would say one of the greatest highlights is meeting people who make me see the world in a different way. Their voices are heard through the Roundhouse.”
Marcus started work on August 3 1999 and spent the next seven years combining fundraising – they needed to find £30million – with future planning, all while overseeing the major building project needed to turn the semi-derelict space into a globally renowned venue and arts training centre.
“It was falling down,” he recalls. “I remember walking in for the first time. There was all kinds of unpleasant detritus littering the floors. I thought: this is going to be different.”
He and a small team got to work and completed on time and on budget.
He recalls being given a key on the day the builders packed up and was told there was a problem with the front door: “I wriggled it in the lock,” he recalls.
“The door swung open easily – and they turned to me and said: congratulations, you have just re-opened the Roundhouse.”