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.


  1. The bigger the gap between the source of the money and the spender the more ludicrous things get and the more likely responsibility and proportion go out of the window.

    And if you throw in secrecy what do you get?

    Just look at the MPs' expenses.

    Publicity does, at least, provide some kind of rein.

  2. It's an interesting series, for sure, but didn't you get irritated by the supercilious tone of the whole thing? Everything was cut to the faux jolly music, as if it was all just a hilarious jape by the film maker. And as for the hysterical laughter emitting now and then from him behind the camera, he gave the impression that he was just one of those earnest men in designer glasses too, ie posh git, who could identify with these bumbling overpaid precious twits. Yes, you can select the cringemaking bits, cut them together with drily acerbic voiceover and bingo, entertaining telly. But the Kings Cross one, for instance, got wrong the Culross building as the location for The Ladykillers (it was a set located much farther back, the scene they showed was from Argyle St, south of the station). Minor point maybe, but was it poor research, or more likely, we'll gloss it this way, because it makes our programme funnier, and we can use footage from the film? And that attitude sums it up. In talking about Kings Cross, no real discussion of Argent (no doubt because they realised they would be stitched up if they appeared), no mention of the local residents (one of whom is a distinguished architect and has been running rings around the developers for years, and submitting far better designs), and crucially of the local council's role, as they rolled over for the developers and missed a chance to create a much better environment. Because, hey, we can concentrate on the brackets story, and the bridge, throw in some Ealing comedy, and it is a frightfully funny programme. Know what I mean?

  3. If they were a success Simon Thurley would just be posh and eccentric because of the crash they add silly clown music and make them all look like fools. They got a hard deal.

    The business about the fountain i thought was fair enough. If you're going to spend that amount of cash on a marble hand carved sculpture you're going to mock it up with real models, and the artist was using this as reference.

  4. DH- it's clear from this post and at least one other you've recently posted that you're against the 'heritage' industry and all it stands for. Fair enough, but don't you feel that a similar attitude was probably held in the 60s by the very people you now criticise? Coming from the Glasgow area (one of the cities most brutally scarred by that era) I feel this is a subject I know fairly well. The argument was no doubt that 'these buildings are just slums and beyond saving - let's bulldoze them and start afresh'. This led directly to Billy Connolly's famous line about 'deserts wi' windaes'.

  5. Milton Friedman - Four Ways to Spend Money:

    1. You can spend your own money on yourself.

    2. You can spend your own money on somebody else.

    3. You can spend somebody else’s money on yourself.

    4. You can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else.

    EH seems to cover 3 and 4 pretty well.

  6. I'm not against the heritage industry at all, though I don't think there's any institution that is above a sceptical examination.
    Two projects featured in this series seemed to be flawed by a fatal lack of vision concerning the human element:
    1. Apethorpe Hall is entirely dependent on finding a cooperative billionaire.
    2. Park Hill Estate takes a similarly risky punt on the unlimited supply of well-paid young people wanting to buy cool-looking flats in Sheffield.
    Both cases seem less about heritage than speculation.

  7. Went back to watch the Kennilworth one after reading your post and you weren't exaggerating! The scene where Simon's wif... sorry Director of Presentational Skills...chairs a meeting which cuts to tumbleweed is priceless!

  8. one wonders how many people commenting on a negative side have children and have looked at how they are going to teach them the lessons we have learnt over the last 60-70 years? books? films? so impersonal. you want to teach kids about hate and how to avoid losing millions of lives needlessly you preserve something like Auschwitz and explain how millions of innocents lost their live through hatred/fear. To teach them about a countries past you preserve that past. English Heritage in my book have been doing their job.

    lets look at the BILLIONS squanderd on saving banks that have been reckless (and still are)with ordinary people lives, the millions over the years that MP's have stolen/defruaded lied about on their expenses (my local council was exposed for 15 councillors having £32000.00 a year on expenses EACH!) so what English Heritage do with the little amounts they are given to secure the future of OUR heritage and OUR future is a drop in a very big ocean. We give the EU 40 million a DAY thats a staggering £14,600,000,000 a year!
    on the other hand lets look at the maker of the English Heritage program - one of his other efforts - a hatchet job on the National Trust. In essence english Heritage and the national trust do a great job protecting our past, Simon thurley is trying to make English Heritage less reliant on government funding and put something back into England to make us proud to be English once more (which is something we have long since forgotten as we all embrassed the American way of life, big failings, big bonuses and step on the little man...) take a step back remember: that all you see on tv is what a the director wants you to see, not the truth... but then truth is something no-one wants to embrace....