Riverside Studios’ redevelopment has taken five years to complete, at a cost of £50m, but its new look is finally on show to the public. Artistic director William Burdett-Coutts talks to Theo Bosanquet about his vision for the venue
At the turn of the century, a team of surveyors pronounced that Hammersmith’s historic Riverside Studios had just a decade of life left in it. Water leaked through the roof and the building was, in the words of its long-standing artistic director William Burdett-Coutts, “close to collapse”.
But the prospect of a major redevelopment was far from straightforward, not least because the building was split across two sites, one leased from the council, the other a derelict block of flats, Queen’s Wharf, that had been sold to a developer.
Burdett-Coutts says: “I spent years negotiating with the owners [of the other site], which changed hands several times, until eventually a developer, A2 Dominion, came to an agreement with our developer, Mount Anvil.” It was, he says with characteristic understatement, “a complicated process”.
The budget was stretched further because the council lease had to be bought out. Then there was the small matter of razing two historic buildings to the ground and building a vast multi-purpose arts complex from scratch. He estimates the overall cost of the project, which has taken five years to complete, has reached £50 million, nearly half of which had to be loaned from Triodos, the Dutch group that describes itself as an ethical bank.
So what do you get for such a sum? For starters, a state-of-the-art TV studio – Studio 1 – which opened before Christmas when it hosted Channel 4’s election coverage. The two main performance spaces, Studios 2 and 3, are due to open in the coming weeks.
Then there is the waterfront cafe with views of Hammersmith Bridge, and a smart new restaurant run by Sam Harrison of Sam’s Brasserie in Chiswick and Harrison’s in Balham. Add to that a dedicated rehearsal and events space – Studio 5 – two cinemas, 19 dressing rooms, fully equipped TV galleries, sound booths, office spaces and a large central exhibition hall, and you have a multidisciplinary venue of more than 8,000 sq metres.
Guy Hornsby has been executive director of Riverside Studios for 14 years, overseeing the operational side. Sitting in the light-flooded cafe looking over the Thames, he admits the financial scale of the refurbishment is “scary”, with more than £1 million currently leaving the coffers annually in debt repayments. But he believes the business plan is sound, with the TV, hospitality and office spaces funding the artistic programme.
“It was clear we were not going to be funded by Arts Council England, who already fund two other theatres in the area,” says Hornsby, referring to the Bush Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith.
“ACE made it plain that we have to earn our own bread and butter.” So they came up with a business model that he believes will soon become widespread among arts organisations: that commercial ventures such as TV and hospitality are used to fund non-commercial artistic ones. As he puts it: “The money isn’t coming from central and local government, so we have to be more creative in the way we support ourselves.”
Reinvention is far from a new concept at this address. Riverside started life as an iron foundry in the Victorian era before being converted into film studios in the 1930s, initially by Triumph Films. In 1954, it was acquired by the BBC for its light entertainment work, including the early series of Doctor Who – the Daleks famously invaded the world via Hammersmith Bridge.
‘Arts Council England made it plain that we have to earn our own bread and butter’
Twenty years later, Hammersmith and Fulham Council took over the building and installed Peter Gill as artistic director, who put the venue firmly on the theatrical map with acclaimed productions of Chekhov and Shakespeare among others.
When he took over in 1993, Burdett-Coutts, who cut his teeth founding the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh – a venue he continues to manage during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – brought much-needed funds by bringing in major TV shows including Chris Evans’ TFI Friday and the BBC’s Top of the Pops.
But before long the pressures of both public funding shortages and an ageing building were becoming all too clear. Burdett-Coutts recalls having to source buckets for leaks during performances. Another issue was the lack of soundproofing between spaces – sound from one studio would invariably bleed into the other.
He remembers Simon McBurney “wanting to kill me” during the interval of a particularly intimate Complicité show, which was suffering just such a fate. Such confrontations should now be a thing of the past seeing as the new spaces have been soundproofed to over 100 decibels, which is roughly the level of noise generated by a helicopter.
For the new Riverside Studios to thrive, its leaders recognise that the local community’s buy-in is crucial. It is partly for this reason that the cafe space has been one of the first to open to the public; it’s dog-friendly, and the hope is that it will also become a favourite haunt of local parents and freelances.
Baby groups have already been held, alongside fitness classes and community events. “Most theatres are evening spaces, but we are very much an all-day venue,” Burdett-Coutts says. “There will be events going on here every single day. It’s just the nature of the building.” Many of these will be commercial, with conferences being an important contributor to the bottom line.
As for the programming, he is keen for the new Riverside to be a broad church. “The Lyric and the Bush are both very good at drama, so there’s no point in us trying to compete with them. We are a much broader-spectrum building; we can do dance, circus, music, all sorts.”
Studio 3, which Burdett-Coutts is programming himself, opens later this month with Persona, adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name and directed by Paul Schoolman. Starring Alice Krige and Nobuhle Mngcwengi, it will be accompanied by US musician William Close playing his signature ‘earth harp’, which attaches to architectural structures.
The Lyric and the Bush are both very good at drama, but Riverside Studios is a much broader-spectrum building
Next up in the same space is Love, Loss and Chianti, based on two works by novelist Christopher Reid and featuring Robert Bathurst and Rebecca Johnson.
The larger Studio 2, which opens in the spring, is being overseen by producer Emily Dobbs, who used to work behind the bar at the old Riverside Studios and went on to form her own company, whose credits include the Found 111 season in the West End and Killer Joe starring Orlando Bloom. Her inaugural programme will be announced in the coming weeks.
Whatever the productions to come, Burdett-Coutts has a firm eye on the potential of theatre on screen, citing the advantage of having a building that is already fully equipped for broadcast. Riverside is also in the process of digitising its impressive archive, thanks to a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which has financed an archive room.
Much time was spent during the venue’s rebuilding looking at the possibilities of new technologies, Burdett-Coutts says. “We want to position ourselves at the centre of the digital development of the arts world. While the venue was closed we spent a lot of time exploring how technology is interacting with the live experience. We now have the ability to put that into practice.”
And he is eager for these 21st-century ambitions to continue to honour the building’s past. “The old Riverside Studios was a factory, and we have tried to honour that through the design by keeping much of it exposed. Its purpose may have changed, but we want to emphasise that this is still very much a working building.”
Persona runs at London’s Riverside Studios from January 21 to February 23. Details: riversidestudios.co.uk