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Mike Leigh's Lament for London's Lost Gems
On London's famous Piccadilly street the Royal Academy has been receiving some very mixed notices for its latest block-busting exhibition Modern British Sculpture, filling the Main Galleries (until 7 April 2011). But this palace of the arts in the heart of London houses a number of historic institutions within its wings, and in the premises of the Geological Society a new Architecture Programme has just been launched with ten panels and lectures running until 21st May 2011.Critic's Choice brings together a varied assortment of writers and artists to discuss their selections of London's most important buildings.On a chilly rainy Monday night(24th January,2011) the season was memorably launched with not only a sold-out auditorium and hopefuls queuing for returns, but its top-billed guest, film director Mike Leigh, made a marvellousl speech by way of introduction, even if,as he admitted it would be personal, subjective,and a touch autobiographical, spoke most eloquently of his memories and affections for the buildings that he first had seen when coming down from his native Salford to London, to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, a short walk from what was then the imposing Euston Station. "I am going to ramble, digress, and waffle as is my inalienable prerogative," he joked,"about the unhinhibited,operatic scale of Euston railway station, with its Doric arch constructed in 1836, and its vast hall of 1849.The building hymned the ambitions of the railway entrepreneurs of the North- brash, cheeky, yet somehow succulent, and when I arrived on my RADA Scholarship in 1960 it was a welcome retreat...to take a cupo of tea there, or go into the marbled bathrooms under Platform 6 where you could luxuriate for a shilling- a lot of money in those days- and enjoy endless hot water."There was even a rather ferocious barbershop in the bowels of the station, where Leigh was almost scalped by a heavily-tattooed hairdresser of the old school
.But the Arch was dismantled and the station rebuilt, with the support of Prime Minister MacMillan,who as a Balliol classicist should have defended it. Euston was replaced with a soulless modern box, and its entrance is now obscured by even more hideous office blocks.Mike Leigh's enduring joy, however, is the British Museum, built around the same time as the original Euston, and through which Leigh would make short cuts to his home,before the place itself was later revamped and became a busier rendez-vous for tourists and coffee-drinkers.The sharp eye of the film director is clearly no less appreciative of fine architectural detail and Leigh urged his spellbound audience to look up along Oxford Street- one of the capital's most famous thoroughfares-and note what fine but neglected buildings today float over such desultory shops and catch-penny language schools beneath.
"Oxford Street has become a kind of dumping ground, ignored, a decaying mess." His panellists, architectural critics and broadcasters Jonathen Glancey and Ptolemy Dean echoed this threnody against the urban anti-planners of our time, and consultant Liza Fior brought some pertinent statistics to bear on a lively discussion, capably moderated by jovial host and event-curator Jeremy Melvin.A parallel was made between budgets and artistic aims in the worlds of film-making and of architecture.Leigh admitted, "I've been able to stick to my principles as a director without compromising by sticking to very low-budget film-making." Yet the grands projets of such otherwise gifted architects as Renzo Piano and Jean Nouvel seem to be bringing to London very large and expensive buildings that are blights on the London landscape.In the adjacent, exquisite library, discussion continued over drinks.
Future Critic's Choice evenings bring mega-sculptor Antony Gormley on Tuesday 15th February and,novelists Will Self on Monday 14th March and Monica Ali on Monday 16th May.Media Partner is apparently the equally historic weekly magazine The Spectator, which during the last century employed at different times a couple of other Balliol men to writie about film, namely Graham Greene and your humble servant.
Ticket prices for the 6.30pm events include a glass of wine. Full details of all the programmes can be found on www.royalacademy.org.uk An attractive illustrated brochure accompanies the season.It would be wise to book for any of the evenings to come.
Phillip Bergson M.A.,+,B.A.,(Hons) Oxon.
The Bulletin Board
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