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Fun Palaces showcase: How Joan Littlewood was inspired to bring pleasure to the people

Joan Littlewood pictured in the 1970s outside Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: TRSE Archive Joan Littlewood pictured in the 1970s outside Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: TRSE Archive

As well as directing work for the stage, the theatremaker was passionate about spaces for everyday recreation. Now the Fun Palace concept is being celebrated at the British Academy, writes Nick Smurthwaite

As well as being a pioneering director and theatremaker, Joan Littlewood had some radical ideas about how to make ordinary lives more fun – or as she described it, “the right to delight”.

In the early 1960s, Littlewood and her friend, the architect Cedric Price, developed an ambitious scheme for something they called the Fun Palace, inspired by the Thames-side pleasure gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The idea was to repurpose an unused and unloved six-acre riverside area on the Isle of Dogs, east London, where people could go in search of fun and enlightenment. Their aim was to provide a whole raft of arts and crafts, music, entertainment and learning opportunities, so visitors could play an instrument or listen to music, read or recite poetry, learn how to create an artwork, watch an edifying documentary, or simply have a few drinks and watch football on a big screen.

In an article she wrote at the time, Littlewood said: “The essence of the place will be informality – anything goes. There will be no permanent structures, nothing is to last more than 10 years, some things not even 10 days, no legacy of noble contemporary architecture.”

This was a dig at the National Theatre, which started to have grandiose architectural aspirations in the 1960s, even though the great concrete edifice on the South Bank didn’t open for another decade.

Brian Murphy, Barbara Windsor and Victor Spinetti promoting Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace in the 1960s
Brian Murphy, Barbara Windsor and Victor Spinetti promoting Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace in the 1960s

Littlewood’s utopian vision was never realised – London County Council, as it then was, refused permission due to “certain legal and planning difficulties” – but its spirit lives on in a promotional film she made with cinematographer Walter Lassally called Pleasure, extracts from which will be screened at the British Academy Summer Showcase on June 22 and 23.

Every year, the British Academy, which funds experimental research into the social sciences, holds a showcase event at its headquarters in Carlton Terrace, London, next door to the Royal Society.

Lecturer in urban culture Luke Dickens persuaded the academy to fund a three-year research project into Littlewood’s Fun Palace idea, as well as a similar concept developed by the progressive architect and artist Keith Albarn, a friend of Littlewood’s, at Girvan on the west coast of Scotland. He called it the Fifth Dimension, or the Girvan Fun Palace: a collection of bulbous, multicoloured pods offering “a multimedia sensory experience”.

The Shetland Times described the Fifth Dimension as being “like Dark Side of the Moon made out of Lego, with soft furnishings by Timothy Leary”.

Littlewood was greatly taken with Albarn’s alternative structures and, according to Dickens, tried to persuade him to remodel the Theatre Royal Stratford East, the dilapidated Victorian playhouse where she produced some of the most exciting and innovative theatre of the time. That never came to fruition either.

For his British Academy showcase, Dickens has commissioned the Stratford Theatre Royal Youth Theatre to do a pop-up performance inspired by Joan Littlewood’s script for Pleasure.

Luke Dickens
Luke Dickens

He says: “The aim is to bring the whole Fun Palace concept back to life. Joan was a much overlooked urbanist of the 20th century, with very particular visions around theatre for social purpose. Her script included a lot of things people did for fun in 1963, such as dancing in clubs, drag acts, kids eating burgers in Soho, stock car racing. She had a bit of a thing about clowns, so there is some surviving footage of Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti and Barbara Windsor [all unofficial members of Littlewood’s rep] fooling around, dressed as clowns.”

The film also managed to bring Littlewood’s passion for the River Thames into play. Dickens says: “Joan sought to draw parallels between the flow of the river and the ways pleasure and play are free-flowing. There was an exhilarating synergy in the way she perceived the two things.”

The launch party for Pleasure in 1965 reflected Littlewood’s standing at the time. Guests included the Labour MP Ian Mikardo, the Beatles, the Kray Twins, the artist Francis Bacon and the novelist EM Forster. The event also included Price’s architectural drawings for the Fun Palace, which have been recreated specially for the British Academy showcase.

What sparked Dickens’ interest in the first place was a pop-up Fun Palace at the end of his street in Walthamstow five years ago, one of many such events that came out of the revival of the Fun Palace concept – by the team of Stella Duffy, Sarah-Jane Rawlings and Kirsty Lothian – to mark Littlewood’s centenary in 2014. This nationwide campaign is still going strong, with thousands of people contributing. The next Fun Palaces annual weekend of action will take place on October 5 and 6.

British Academy Summer Showcase: thebritishacademy.ac.uk/summershowcase Fun Palaces website: funpalaces.co.uk

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

Joan Littlewood sculpture unveiled outside Theatre Royal Stratford East

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