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Monday, May 18, 2009

When the recession hit the heritage industry in the small of the back

When English Heritage, the four-part series which has recently finished on BBC-2, was commissioned, it was presumably intended as a sceptical look at the heritage industry, enlivened by the eminently lampoon-able figure of EH's boss, Simon Thurley. The arrival of the recession midway through filming proves the great truth of documentary television; what's bad news for the subjects is always good news for the film makers. The series looked at four projects.
1. Apethorpe Hall
A splendid hunting lodge, once used by James I, had been neglected for twenty years and abandoned by its last owner. EH move in and spend £3m getting it ready for sale to a suitable billionaire. The catches? Said billionaire would have to spend another £7m making it habitable and then let the public in 28 days a year. Then the stock market crashes.
2. Park Hill Estate
A huge late-50s council block in Sheffield, which is unfit for human habitation, is deemed of special architectural interest by EH and restored with the services of a trendy developer. EH want to turn it into chi-chi apartments and "business units". People in Sheffield want it knocked down. Halfway through the work the developers can't raise enough money to complete the work because property prices have tanked.
3. The Queen, Her Lover and His Castle
Kenilworth Castle was once the home of Robert Dudley, favourite of Elizabeth I. When she was visiting he spent a fortune building a garden to impress her. No traces of this garden remain. Posterity only knows about it through a description in a contemporary letter. EH embark on rebuilding this garden (including fountain and aviary) on the basis of this description. They are attempting to replicate a temporary structure knocked up in the 16th century to satisfy the demanding safety standards of the 21st. Nobody can decide who's paying for the steel reinforcements on the timbers and so work on the site ceases.
4. Full Steam Ahead
King's Cross station is being restored. For a whole year there is no work on the revised booking hall because EH insist some brackets should be retained from the previous structure. The station is closed so the Victorian pedestrian bridge can be removed. EH want it preserved but they can't find anyone who wants it. Therefore the bridge ends up in a car park in Cambridge.
If any of this sounds remotely interesting I urge you to catch it on the Iplayer. It's brilliant, if slightly bitchy, television. If you're going to watch just one film make it "The Queen, Her Lover and His Castle". Pay particular attention to the scene where, in order to establish the appropriate design for the fountain in the imaginary garden, they hire two male models, wrap them in loincloths, put them on a fork-lift truck and have them holding a bowl aloft. A dozen people stand around, some of them presumably quite well-paid, cooing appreciatively and taking pictures with their digital cameras. This for just one tiny detail of just one of thousands of projects. I think we may well look back at this film in years to come and wonder that public money was ever spent on capricious projects like these and on a scale that would give even Hollywood pause.