Riverside Studios in Hammersmith has opened to the public. In what is known as a ‘soft launch’ the new building, along the riverside right by Hammersmith Bridge, is currently open just for food and drink from the cafe and bar (Cafe / bakery open weekdays 8.00am – 4.00pm; bar / Restaurant open seven days a week from 12.00 – 11.00pm) and for an exhibition by local artists.
The first theatre production will be in January. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, with Olivier award winner Alice Krige and Nobuhle Ketelo (featuring William Close and his Earth Harp) opens 23 January, and runs until 23 February. Tickets are already on sale for that and the second production: Love, Loss & Chianti by Christopher Reid, with Robert Bathurst and Rebecca Johnson, 25 February – 17 May.
The cinema is still being built, or at least there is no staircase leading down to it, but operations manager Jake Stanley is quietly confident it will be ready to open on 1 February. When I went in to have a look round last week there was a palpable air of excitement, as the staff can’t wait to show of their shiny new building to the hordes expected through the doors.
The foyer is massive. Looking a bit bleak at the moment, aside from a solitary Christmas tree, it will eventually have big interactive screens to entertain the crowds of people queuing for the four studios, cinema and restaurant. Krishnan Guru-Murthy was sitting in the foyer when I went there, with the production team of Channel 4’s election night special, putting the final touches to Thursday night’s live broadcast from Studio 1, the arts centre’s dedicated TV studio.
Photographs above: Riverside Studios massive foyer; Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy
“It’s the most modern, state of the art TV studio there is” Jake told me proudly. “You can come in from Heathrow, come straight here from the motorway and drive straight in to our special loading dock with all your gear.”
The studio is supremely flexible, so TV companies can build bespoke stages for their shows. It’s already been used for Richard Osman’s World Cup of the Decade and the Brit Award nominations. Impossible to tell they were the same venue as Channel 4’s election night broadcast. The studio has capacity for an audience of 550 but the tiered seats are fully retractable. They fold up like a concertina, floor and all. With a black curtain pulled across it’s as if they were never there.
Photograph above: Old Riverside Studios in 1975. Courtesy of Riverside Studios
The Riverside Studios has a fantastic history. Bought by Triumph films in 1933, the former Victorian iron foundry on Crisp Road was converted into a film studios with two stages and a dubbing theatre. It changed owner several times, and in the 1940s films such as We’ll Meet Again (1943) with Vera Lynn and The Seventh Veil (1945) with James Mason were produced there. Some of the great British film actors worked there, including Trevor Howard, Alistair Sim, Margaret Rutherford and Alec Guinness.
In the 1950s and ’60s the studios were used by the BBC to make television programmes. Opened by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1957, during it’s second incarnation some classic TV shows were made at BBC Riverside Television Studios, as it then became: Hancock’s Half Hour, Dixon of Dock Green, Six-Five Special, Z-Cars, Top of the Pops, Blue Peter and some of the first series of Dr Who.
The Riverside Studios that I remember is the arts centre it became in 1974, when the Riverside Trust, formed by Hammersmith & Fulham Council, took it over. David Bowie played there. The Sex Pistols rehearsed there in the early days when they were still called The Strand. Julie Covington starred in a landmark production of The Cherry Orchard; Helen Mirren, who started her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company, performed in Measure for Measure. It was home to Dance Umbrella, had exhibitions of work by Edvard Munch and David Hockney, Antony Gormley and Yoko Ono.
From the late ’90s it renewed its connections with television, hosting audience participation shows such as TFI Friday with Chris Evans (Channel 4), and panel games Never Mind the Buzzcocks (BBC) and Celebrity Juice (ITV). It closed on 14 August 2014, by which time the building was literally falling apart.
Photographs above: Samuel Beckett coming out of rehearsals for Waiting for Godot, 1984. Photo credit: John Minihan/University College Cork. Group picture: from Left to Right: Paul Jones, Peter Bowles, Anna Massey, Alan Bates, Leigh Lawson, Elizabeth Estensen, Hayley Mills, Judy Parfitt, Peter Gill, Brian Cox, Eleanor Bron, Phillip Joseph, Emma Piper, Martin Shaw, Tony Steedman. Courtesy of Riverside Studios.
The new building has not been funded on the old model of local authority and Arts Council funding, but on the new developer-led model, whereby Mount Anvil. working with A2 Dominion, have built an entirely new venue.
165 residential flats, four new studios to be used for television, theatre and as flexible event spaces; another studio for rehearsals, two cinemas, (one with 202 seats, and another smaller 46-seater for private hire) as well as Sam’s Riverside restaurant (as in Sam Harrison of Sam’s Brasserie fame in Chiswick) which opened at the beginning of November (an ‘upmarket, stylish site, serving finely tuned classics’ – Evening Standard).
Hence the £25 million debt Riverside Studios now has to pay off, mainly by renting its TV studio space.
Paintings above: The Market Will Decide by Brian Deighton; Mexican Dance Masks by Romy Rey
The Riverside Artists Group, who used to show their work at the old Riverside Studios and have been homeless for the past five years, are delighted that despite the necessity of making a commercial success of the studios, the Riverside Trust still wants to engage with the local community.
Of the 37 artists in the group, 27 are showing their work, including Clare Belfield and Chloe Freemantle, whose work is known to Chiswick people from Artists At Home open studios. The exhibition also includes work by Romy Rey, a Swiss artist whose work has been displayed in galleries throughout the UK. Her Mexican Dance Masks painting is typical of her work, which she describes as falling into four categories: Ancient and Tribal, Geometrics, Dreamscapes and Landscapes. Brian Deighton’s work, The Market Will Decide, which is the poster image for the exhibition, is a protest at the impact of the big fossil fuel companies on the environment. Prices range from £120 to £10,000.
They’re an interesting lot, the Riverside Artists Group. They were set up in 1986, the same year as the old Riverside Studios and their adventures have included holding exhibitions in both Russia and Spain. The Russian trip, in the last remnant of the Cold War, involved an exchange with Russian artists. They showed their work in Moscow and played host to Russian artists exhibiting here, who all lived on their hotel breakfast and saved up their £5 daily expenses to take home such luxuries as kitchen appliances and in one instance (a sculptor I presume), a chainsaw.
The new Riverside Studios’ brief, says Jake, is to be ‘as adventurous as possible’. Here’s to the next great adventure. Let’s hope it achieves as great a reputation as its predecessor.
Photographs above: Riverside Studios foyer cafe
Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar
See also: Directory of Chiswick artists