Culture is ‘alive and well and thriving in Chiswick despite Covid’, says Torin Douglas

Image above: Torin Douglas at the Chiswick Book Festival; photograph Roger Green

Guest blog by Torin Douglas

Culture is alive and well and thriving in Chiswick, despite Covid – but it’s not been an easy two years.

As director of the Chiswick Book Festival, I’d normally be speaking this week at the New Year ‘arts and business’ drinks we hold with ArtsEd, the school for performing arts in Bath Road. It’s a great occasion which brings together Chiswick’s cultural organisations, the firms that sponsor arts events and the media that highlight them – and it has spawned exciting new partnerships and productions.

Last January’s get-together was cancelled, so we were really looking forward to this year’s. We’ve now postponed it till April but the New Year is still a good moment to highlight Chiswick’s achievements over the past two years and point up some cultural events to look forward to in 2022.

Image above: Chiswick Cinema

New additions to Chiswick’s cultural life

We now have a beautiful Chiswick Cinema plus the Weston Studio at Hogarth’s House and three Sunday markets, all opened during lockdown. And Chiswick’s arts groups and venues have really risen to the COVID challenge over the past two years.

When the rules allowed, and under strict protocols, ArtsEd carried on teaching. Last autumn’s productions of Bandstand and SpongeBob SquarePants showed they have lost none of their professional flare and we look forward to Lysistrata Jones and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the next few weeks.

Image above: The Borgias – the most infamous family in history – Arts Society Chiswick May talk

Surviving the pandemic

The Arts Society Chiswick moved its monthly lectures online, and its speakers adapted brilliantly to the new medium – but it’s great to have them back in person again. The Bedford Park Society held its annual lectures online, and continues to do so, scheduling an extra Zoom lecture this month because of the popularity of the last one. And Chiswick House and  Hogarth’s House hosted Zoom lectures with other historic houses in the popular Thames Luminaries series, with more this month.

Chiswick Playhouse – which had a full programme planned for 2020 – instead put on productions in the Tabard pub courtyard and, when allowed back, cut capacity in the theatre till restrictions were lifted. Like Chiswick House and other venues, it launched a public appeal to help it survive the crisis – and executive director Mark Perry started a series of fund-raising interviews with Phyllis Logan and others. They have an exciting programme for 2022 and have just announced a concert celebrating Stephen Sondheim.

In 2020, Chiswick House had to cancel its weddings, Giffords Circus, Pub In The Park and outdoor cinema, but it launched a regular outdoor market and an outdoor festival of concerts and comedy in the walled garden, where people could be well-distanced on rugs and chairs.

Image above: Kingdom Choir performing at Pub in the Park 2021

Cultural recovery

Its new director Xanthe Arvanitakis arrived at the start of lockdown, and has been in survival mode since then, securing the Cultural Recovery Fund grants that have kept it going. In 2021, it opened its doors again and started a new programme of exhibitions and talks, plus the circus and Pub In The Park – and we look forward to more in 2022.

The Bedford Park Festival went online in June 2020 – including a virtual Green Days, Craft Fair and Bandstand, as well as streamed concerts, talks and plays, online photography competition and art exhibition and 14 ‘virtual’ Open Gardens. But it was back in person last summer with music events and talks in St Michael & All Angels Church and the Chiswick Playhouse – and a fete in the church grounds instead of Green Days weekend. I really hope Green Days, a highlight of the Chiswick calendar for over 50 years, will be back in full this year.

Image above: Gyles Brandreth at the 2021 Chiswick Book Festival; photograph Roger Green

Chiswick Book Festival

The Chiswick Book Festival also went online in 2020 – streaming interviews from the church with Lady Antonia Fraser, Michael Billington, Lloyd Grossman and others. A panel discussion at Chiswick House on Hogarth, Soane and A Rake’s Progress was inspired by the set of eight Hogarth paintings which returned to Pitzhanger Manor for the first time in 200 years – unfortunately, just as lockdown began, ruining its plans for a major, lucrative exhibition. The Festival videos can still be enjoyed online – but they were no substitute for the real thing.

Early in 2021, we committed to going ahead with a live in-person Book Festival, when no one knew whether the Government would allow that in September – or whether people would want to come.It turned out that audiences were delighted – we had a terrific response. We restricted numbers to half-capacity, and could have sold many more tickets for Gyles Brandreth, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson and others: we hope to be back to full capacity this year.

To spread audiences out, we used some new venues, including a great weekend at the George IV, hosted by Bridget Osborne of The Chiswick Calendar – and children’s events at Orchard House School and Chiswick & Bedford Park Preparatory School.

Image above: Painting by Francis Bowyer from the 2020 Summer Exhibition

Live music

Elsewhere, the local studios event, Artists at Home, went online successfully in June 2020 and then live again in September 2021 – and held a successful online auction in aid of the Upper Room charity. The Bedford Park Summer Exhibition returned to St Michael All Angels Church in June 2021, after going online in 2020 – and 24 of the artists have just created pictures for St Michael’s Advent Calendar Christmas Charity Auction, in aid of the Upper Room, Water Harvest and West London Welcome.

In music, several local choirs, singers and musicians produced wonderfully creative performances on Zoom, and Trio Manouche created The Lockdown Sessions with The Chiswick Calendar, which has now resumed its live weekly jazz concerts in the Boston Room at the George IV.

Soprano Milly Forrest, violinist David Juritz and pianist Mark Viner gave Covid-restricted concerts in St Michael & All Angels Church and St Peter’s Acton Green – and it was great to see them and other choirs and orchestras returning in 2021 to live performances in Chiswick’s churches. I was sad that Chiswick Choir changed its name to West London Chorus after so many years but am pleased it is still performing here in 2022.

Image above: Composer Celia McDowell

Exploring Chiswick’s culture

2021 was a spectacular year for Chiswick composer Cecilia McDowall: her 70th birthday year was marked by special concerts and interviews all over the world, culminating in her commission by King’s College Cambridge to compose a new carol for last month’s Nine Lessons and Carols service on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Two.

Chiswick’s great cultural heritage was highlighted in lockdown by the Exploring Chiswick project, encouraging people to download the local arts trails to their mobile or computer. It was launched in January 2021, when the Government was urging people to ‘stay local’, by the Chiswick Book Festival, St Michael & All Angels Church, Chiswick House & Gardens Trust, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society and Abundance London, which created the Chiswick Timeline mural and the 4th Plinth art project at Turnham Green tube station.

Other organisations soon added their support, including the William Hogarth Trust, St Nicholas Church, Ealing & West London Tour Guides and The Chiswick Calendar.

Image above: CGI of new Yeats sculpture due to be installed in June 2022

See it anew in ’22

And so to 2022. Exploring Chiswick ’22, to be launched this week, will urge people who think they know Chiswick to “see it anew in ‘22”. New names will be added to the Writers Trail of poets, playwrights and novelists who lived in Chiswick, including Dylan Thomas, John Donne, William Morris, Somerset Maugham and James Berry. The project to celebrate one of Chiswick’s two Nobel Prize winners, WB Yeats in Bedford Park, will come to fruition in June 2022.

And more names will be added to the Chiswick Timeline of Writers and Books, including new authors Richard Osman, Dame Eileen Atkins and Sophie Ellis-Bextor – whose Friday kitchen discos in Chiswick were one of the undoubted cultural highlights of lockdown.

Torin Douglas is the Director of the Chiswick Book Festival, former BBC Media correspondent and a long term resident of Chiswick.

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