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Essay: Domestic Nostalgia

This is a large estate on the edge of a village, built within a small forest, the construction of which required annihilation of most of the foliage. All the roads are named after trees, and the style of houses all 7 conformed to an olde-worlde stereotype of leaded windows, canopies over front doors and fake half timbering. But why do so many people favour the traditional over the modern? It would appear that to many, the past offers reassurance and security. In Traditional Interiors, which is a book from the USA published by the Architectural Review, the notion is suggested that “In a marvellously comforting way, the past is forever there; the rules are established; the mistakes have been eliminated.

A sort of purification has taken place, and the trends of the moment have been eliminated”2 . The idea of the traditional being away from the realm of fashion is an important one when considering architecture, or home fittings and furnishings. Nothing dates as quickly as the ultra contemporary, and as the purchase of a home and/or its furnishings represent a considerable outlay, people tend to be wary about that which will date quickly. Traditional designs are a safe option; while they will never be terribly fashionable, they probably will never be particularly unfashionable either. Another interesting parallel to note is that both the inter war years and the period from the eighties on have both been periods of remarkable growth in domestic consumer technologies. While the earlier period saw the introduction of scheduled radio and limited television broadcasts and increasing ubiquity of the telephone, the later one has so far.

Traditional interiors. Los Angeles : Knapp, 1979. 8 seen mobile phones, powerful computers, the emergence of the internet and a glut of television channels all become a part of everyday life. The unprecedented levels of mass communication achieved in both of these eras served to considerably alter perception of time and space-speeding life up as well as making information ever more accessible. In a world where the unfamiliar constantly becomes the normal, people can feel the need for something tangible and familiar to grasp on to.

The future is not the certainty of an exciting new world that it was in the two decades following the cessation of WW2. Indeed, the problems associated with modern design and architecture of this period are well remembered, and add to a suspicion of the ‘new.’ Even the lack of regional variation in recently built estates can be perceived as offering reassurance. In an age where people’s jobs can easily lead to them relocating to an unfamiliar part of the country, the similarity these developments have to each other almost eliminates the need to get used to the new area, which is something that seems to have been happening over the last couple of decades in terms of global standardisation as well.

The irony is, though, that people who are quite happy to live in a modern ‘traditional’ home, with ‘traditional’ furniture could also be the kind that would turn down living in a genuinely old (but modernised) house or owning antique furniture. This is illustrated in a brilliant quote from a book on the Channel Four series Sign of the Times (broadcast in 1992) which was a show about the nation’s taste in home décor. One of the participants said that “I’m put off real antiques because to me they look old and sort of Barker, Nicholas and Martin Parr. Signs of the Times: A portrait of the nation’s Tastes.

In summary, domestic nostalgia, despite its detractors, offers the consumer a retreat from the high speed world that we live in. The mistakes made post war in relation to ‘the new’ have remained in people’s consciousness for a long time, and even today, the traditional is associated with quality, and a slower, more peaceful world. It is a completely idealised vision of the past, but because of this rose tinted depiction, a home built or decorated in this style provides a symbolically safe environment for its occupiers. Continue reading

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David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust and the construction of an image.

In the summer of 1971, the play Pork, based on the diaries of Andy Warhol had run for 26 nights at the Roundhouse in London. Angie had befriended many of the players, a mixture of New York freaks and Warhol ‘superstars’ such as Cherry Vanilla, Wayne County and Geri Miller.

In Nicholas Pegg’s book The complete David Bowie, Wayne County recalls that: “There was someone else [in a newspaper] who said ‘Pork is nothing but a pigsty. Pork is nothing but nymphomaniacs, whores and prostitutes running around naked on stage’3 ”

Most of the cast ended up with Bowie’s manager Tony Defries’ Mainman business organisation, which carried on where Defries’ associate Laurence Myers’ company, Gem Productions, had started off in looking after and grooming Bowie. Essentially employed to ‘put on a show’ and create a buzz around Bowie outside of the UK, the staff excelled in their role, indeed, they probably did take it too far, particularly in the USA. They generally put the impression across that Bowie was a ‘pinko commie faggot.’

Assistants were paid to make sure that doors were always held open for him, the entire entourage travelled in a fleet of limousines and their mantra was ‘Mr Bowie does not like to be touched.’ They both helped project the image and helped him fulfil DeFries’ belief that ‘To become a star, first one has to act like one.’

Bowie himself was noted in that he refused to fly anywhere; American tours had to be embarked upon using the QE2, which was even then, an essentially obsolete yet very expensive way to travel, adding another layer to the Bowie mystique. 3 P283 8 At the time, Bowie had stated that his intention was to create something that rested somewhere between ‘Nijinsky and Woolworth’s.’ The art was not in the music alone; the art was the whole concept of Ziggy Stardust himself.

As Bowie later stated: “I wasn’t surprised ZS made my career. I packaged a totally credible plastic rock starmuch better than any sort of Monkees fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody’s.” And this was quite true.

Bowie later reflected in Feb 1976 that: “I could have been Hitler in England. Wouldn’t have been hard. Concerts alone got so frightening that even the papers were saying “This ain’t rock music, this is bloody Hitler!” And they were right. It was awesome.” (bihow p30).4 And to see that, one has only to watch the footage of the final concert as Ziggy Stardust, just before the culmination of the Gig, and the final song.

Bowie makes a short speech, telling his audience at the end of it that this was “not only the last show of the tour, but the last show that we’ll ever do,” which led to one of the most anguished outpourings of confusion and bewilderment ever committed to film or tape. One feels after seeing this, that Bowie was not overly exaggerating. Continue reading

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What is a Cult Film?

In his essay on Casablanca, Umberto Eco speaks about attributing the fascination with the work as being due to what it fails to do, rather than what it achieves. Many films designated as cult movies have failed in some way or other; While many failed as commercial entities, there are other factors in evidence that could be considered. For example, the Monkees’ Head failed to get the band taken more seriously. BTVOTD failed to turn Russ Meyer into a mainstream director, and Death Race 2000 was not always recognised as a satirical piece.

Also, a cult movie tends to be caught very much in its own period, rather than transcending it, and this tends to be part of the appeal. A film such as The Wizard of Oz still holds appeal to a similar audience to that which it sold to in 1939. They almost certainly would not care about the apocryphal story of the munchkin that was unintentionally filmed committing suicide on set, or about deleted sequences from the original print. In these days of marketing demographics, the cinema industry produces product intentionally destined to be cult pieces.

Films such as Being John Malkovich, or the work of Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino are marketed to appeal to a ‘select’ audience to whom a light-hearted romcom or a good versus evil action film would be anathema, even though they are mainstream products, and represent a strong box-office draw. Such an instant cult following for a film would rarely have been considered thirty years ago, and certainly not by a major studio.

It is only the eventual phenomenal success of the RHPS that awakened filmmakers to the potential of cult appeal as a selling point. That is not to say, however, that cult cinema cannot be produced today. A prime example of this, and conforming to many stereotypes of the genre, is the 1997 film Velvet Goldmine, directed by Todd Haynes. On release, the film underwhelmed critics, despite the hype and anticipation that heralded it.

On paper, it seemed like a winner; A semi-fictional account of rock decadence (read: David and Angie Bowie and the Mainman entourage) and sexual fluidity in early 70s Britain, produced by an up and coming auteur, starring many hot new actors and with a soundtrack that mixed classic glam rock tunes with remakes and pastiches by several cutting edge rock musicians such as Thom Yorke from Radiohead and the group Placebo.

In practice, however, the film showed itself to have a rather garbled plotline, suggesting that Oscar Wilde was, quite literally, an alien, and the clumsy portrayal of 1984 as a repressive totalitarian state, a la both George Orwell’s novel and Bowie’s aborted musical production of it. Bowie had refused to allow Haynes to use any of his songs, so the film had to resort to numbers by Roxy Music, Brian Eno and Cockney Rebel, and the film proved to be a rather revisionist version of the era-much of the dialogue comes from contemporary quotes by Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (plus a smattering of Wilde-isms), but while characters like, say, Mandy Slade are instantly recognisable to Bowie buffs as being Bowie’s first wife Angie, other key players of the era are distorted into completely different people.

The film is unsatisfying as either a work of fantasy or a factual document as it veers erratically between 8 the two. But despite its disastrous reception (“Ziggy Plop!” said the now-defunct Select magazine), the film has gathered a dedicated cult following-one has just to search the internet to find several fan-pages dedicated to it.

Despite its numerous faults, it has to be said that the film is beautifully shot throughout, the soundtrack remains entertaining despite the conspicuous lack of Bowie material, and although most of the principal players are rather unengaging, there is a feast of entertaining bit-part characters such as Toni Collette’s Mandy Slade, and the performance artist The Divine David’s role as a particularly flamboyant member of the Bijou Records entourage.

The film seems to be particularly popular amongst a select band of young gay men, especially those who feel outside of the mainstream. Cult cinema is difficult to define, as it is pan-genre, and although some films are similar enough to have featured on double bills together, such as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Myra Breckenridge in 1970, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise in 1975, cult films tend to stand very much alone.

A film can be a cult item because it proves to be more effective than its sum of parts or it could be because it falls into the camp double bluff of the “its so bad its good” kind. The style of the film tends to be a more important consideration than the plot, and like with 1960s episodes of the TV show Doctor Who, the more quaint and unconvincing the special effect, the better. But perhaps the main appeal of the cult film is that it was either rejected by, or never intended for, the mainstream. Finding art in that which is perceived as trash by the mainstream can be a lot more satisfying than simply consuming that which is an accepted part of the dominant cultural ideology. Continue reading

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is maverick 1960s porn purveyor Russ Meyer’s finest achievement. Mayer had made many low budget flicks before this, like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a great film depicting the adventures of three psychopathic go-go-dancers (it’s as good as it sounds). But Beyond the Valley was his first for a major studio, and as well as having a higher budget (all the better for filming the crowd scenes and financing an appearance by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, a late 60s rock group that was on the wane).
The script was jointly created by Meyer and Roger Ebert, a film critic, of all people. Although a colourful whirl of Los Angeles life at the turn of the decade, BTVOTD was not based in any fact – the men got their idea for the unhinged ‘Teen Tycoon of Rock’ Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell from Phil Spector. Neither of them actually knew him, or knew much about him, so they wrote the character as they thought he’d be like. It certainly isn’t an accurate source of reference for its period, but it is lots of fun.

Claimed (later) by both men to be a parody, BTVOTD is an odd film – it looks several years older than its release date of 1970. Interestingly, the band that the film is centred round, The Carrie Nations, nee whatever, had no precedent at the time – successful female groups of this time tended to be a puppet of a pop svengali, not the feisty, songwriting, instrument-playing bunch depicted here.

The band, consisting of feisty lead singer Kelly, doe-eyed and melancholy Casey and hip soul sister Petronella were all played by ex-Playboy centrefold girls. Despite their dubious pedigree, all three pull off their parts with great aplomb, even given Dolly Read (who plays singer Kelly), whose accent sometimes veers back into English – she was born in Bristol.

The film charts their rise to fame, and their downfalls along the way. Starting off by playing college gigs, they move to Los Angeles, where one of the band has a long lost aunt, who she is convinced will help them. And this she does, by promptly offering her neice half a million dollars of an inheritance. She then introduces them to a leading music producer at one of his parties, the suave Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell. This bizarre character, who constantly talks in a cod-shakespearean way was indirectly inspired by legendary loony record producer Phil Spector -neither Meyer or Ebert had met him, and so came up with a fantasy of what they imagined him to be like, a technique which helped them create other characters too.

All three of the girls were played by ex-nudie models with no previous acting experience. To their credit, they pull their roles off very well, although Dolly Read, the female lead, does occasionally slip back into a British accent (she was from Bristol, fittingly enough). But the most striking character goes by the name of Ashley St. Ives. Played by Meyer’s then-wife, she is quite terrifying in the pursuit of the band’s original manager, Harris Allsworth. “She went after me like a barracuda”, quips one (clearly gay) gentleman at one point, and you can clearly see what he means. Sadly she isn’t in the film for long, but she sure makes her mark.

The film looks rather older than it is, which makes all the jaunty drug references and sudden nudity all the more jarring. In fact, it is more reminiscent of a highly condensed soap opera than a movie at times, a fact borne out by the use of dramatic organ music at pivotal points, in the way that a show such as Peyton Place would have done.

BTVOTD comes across as a lurid and hysterical piece of exploitation, and a lot happens during the running time. Apparently Meyer and Ebert insisted that the parts were to be taken seriously by the actors, but had intended the whole thing to be a send up, and the lack of knowing smiles or winks just heightens the ridiculousness. Filmed in glorious, saturated Technicolor, and with sets that represent the worst (or best) of late sixties design, BTVOTD is quite a trip in every way possible. Continue reading

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Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Olivia De Havilland is particularly good in her role, especially as she normally played a wholesome character in most of her films. In Charlotte, her character’s about face, from angel to monster, is carried off with great aplomb – it would have been even more shocking to a sixties moviegoer who had only ever seen De Havilland in nice-girl roles, to see her hiss “Damn you! Now will you SHUT your MOUTH!” to a boggle-eyed Bette, after a few good slaps.

Charlotte is in my humble opinion, a better film than its predecessor. The pace is snappier, and the horror more ludicrous. And unlike Baby Jane, the ending could almost be described as a happy one. Continue reading

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Ocean Hotel, Saltdean, Brighton

Along with the Lido to the south, the Ocean Hotel (sometimes known as the Grand Ocean Hotel) is another fine example of thirties seaside architecture in the south coast village of Saltdean.

Indeed, it was constructed by the developers responsible for the Lido and much of the actual village, the saltdean Estate Company, formed by speculator Charles Neville in 1924.

The Ocean Hotel was acquired by Butlins and opened its doors for business in May of 1953 after an extensive refurbishment. Six months of hard work had gone into restoring the near-derelict building to its former glory.

As luck would have it the hotel turned out to be excellent investment for Sir Billy Butlin. With its close proximity to the bright lights and night-life of Brighton, the hotel proved a very popular destination for honeymooners throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies.

It stayed in their ownership until Rank Leisure, the owner of Butlins, put all of the Butlins hotels up for sale in 1998. They went to the Grand Hotel Group.

There is so little demand for accommodation in the hotel now, that plans are being made to house asylum seekers there, which is currently rousing local protest.

Unfortunately, the front view from the hotel (which faces north-east) was blighted in the 1950s when the countryside opposite it was redeveloped for housing.

However, the hotel appears to be in good condition, retaining many original features, including glass-brick columns flanking the main entrance, and the mouldings on the ceiling of the foyer. Due to its slightly off the beaten track location, it is not somewhere you would find without looking for it, but it is a beautiful building. Continue reading

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Embassy Court, Brighton

Embassy Court is one of the most striking buildings on the seafront at Brighton and Hove, although the reasons for this have differed over the years.

When built in 1935, the building contrasted sharply with the more sedate and ornamental architecture of King’s Road; but by the 1990s, the structure drew comment because of its terribly run down nature.

The building made the local press after chunks of render and windows fell from the building onto the street below, and it appeared until recently that it may suffer the same ignominious fate met by the West Pier sat opposite it, which finally succumbed to the elements (and arsonists) in early 2004.

Luckily this proved not to be the case – a consortium formed by residents and owners were able to wrestle the freehold of the building from the previous ineffectual management company, and with the assistance of the Conran group, restoration commenced in 2004.
The decline of Embassy Court was all the more worrying due to its significance in architectural terms. Although there are several blocks of flats in the Art Deco style in Brighton and Hove, none encapsulates the boldness or prominence of Embassy Court. The building was designed by the architect Wells Coates, a Canadian/Japanese designer acknowledged as one of the masters of the machine aesthetic of the 1930s.

One year previous to this, Coates had been responsible for the design of the Isokon flats in Hampstead, London, which were intended to provide affordable housing with a communal slant, and in the year that Embassy Court was completed, one of Coates’ most iconic designs appeared on the market – the striking Ekco AD65 radio set, housed in a perfectly circular bakelite cabinet, and now highly collectable.

Embassy Court was intended to be luxurious, and this was reflected in the well off (and sometimes famous) occupants in the building’s early life.
One of the features of the building was a restaurant in the basement to cater for residents; and even though this meant that kitchens in the flats were rather small, they still featured built-in cupboards with integrated Electrolux refrigerators, a feature practically unheard of in British homes of the period. The building also incorporated the first ever penthouse flats to be built in the UK.

Like the Isokon flats, Embassy Court was uncompromisingly modern; the sole concession made to integrate the building with its neighbours was the way that the windows were designed to line up with those of its neighbour.

However, such was the contrast between the two styles of architecture, such a subtle gesture went largely unnoticed. The failure of the building to blend in with its surroundings was a frequent criticism, but its appearance found favour with one very significant man. That man was Herbert Carden, who had been a town councillor for Brighton since 1895.

Carden was a great believer in what was referred to as Municipal Socialism, and had been responsible for the formation of Greater Brighton in 1928, leading to a knighthood in 1930. So taken was Carden with Embassy Court, that in a booklet commemorating the Royal Jubilee in 1935, plans for the complete reconstruction of the seafront area were revealed, which would have entailed mass demolition of the original Georgian properties to make way for a slew of new and ultra modern blocks.

Thankfully, such destruction did not go ahead, leaving Embassy Court as the only modern building on the seafront until the construction of the Cavendish hotel and the Kingswest Centre in the 1960s.

By the time that these two buildings were constructed, Embassy Court was in physical decline, a situation exacerbated by a cheap and shoddy programme of refurbishment in the 1960s. The fabric of the building was also in poor condition; the steel framed windows were highly vulnerable to the salty sea air, as was the steel reinforcement of the concrete structure of the flats.
Maintenance work on the block was skimped, and by the late 1990s, the block had a reputation that was at best bohemian, and at worst, downright dodgy. The proliferation of absentee landlords did not help matters, and it appeared that the block would face more years of neglect until it was razed to the ground, despite listed status.

The state of the building was so poor that it was impossible to get a mortgage on any of the flats; and it was not until the management company Bluestorm formed by residents were able to gain control of the building at the turn of the 21st Century that work could commence on reviving the block.

This is currently in process, with repairs being carried out both externally and internally, with the intention being to restore the block to something approaching its original state, although with some modernisation such as the replacement of the centralized heating and hot water system with individual units for each flat; but it would appear that once more Embassy Court will become a building that strikes one because of its unique and uncompromising appearance rather than the semi-dereliction that had affected it for such a long time.

The pictures on this page were taken in 2001, long before any work had started, and show how poor the condition of the block was externally. At the time of writing, work is being completed on the restoration of the side of the building that faces the seafront, and the scaffolding that shrouds it is due to come down soon. Continue reading

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De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

The De La Warr Pavilion was erected between 1934 and 1935 in the otherwise sleepy seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea, following a competition held by the mayor, Earl De La Warr. He sought a design for a new leisure complex for the town, and this was to be the winning entry.
The design was by Eric Medelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, both celebrated designers of the modern movement. It was truly a stunning design, with a welded steel frame and cantilevered staircases, and even today it is considered to be one of the most significant modern movement building in the United Kingdom.

Although the building has never been subject to some of the indignities or neglect that many of its contemporaries have, over the decades there had been some unsympathetic ‘modernisation’. Happily, the pavillion has been Grade 1 listed since 1986, and the building is currently undergoing a gradual but sympathetic restoration. Continue reading

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Bishopstone Railway Station, Seaford

Nowadays, Bishopstone railway station is almost forgotten, an unstaffed halt and the last stop on the Lewes – Seaford railway line. The whole site has an air of neglection about it; it is easy to forget that it was part of a plan to bring the railway network of south east England firmly into the 20th century.
Before 1923, the railway lines of Great Britain were owned by numerous different companies, a situation that was to change that year with the grouping of the companies. Four new companies were formed, the one responsible for lines in the south of England being the Southern Railway. This company differed from the rest in that much of their network centred around commuter traffic into London, using some of the most intensively worked lines in the UK. Due to the high volume of traffic carried, the Southern proved to be the company that carried out the most expansion before World War Two. New railway lines were built; existing ones were electrified; and new stations were constructed to handle commuters from new and intended suburban housing estates.

Following the electrification of the London-Brighton railway, completed in 1933, the lines to Eastbourne and Seaford followed in the summer of 1935. Three years later, a station at Bishopstone on the latter line opened in 1938. The village of Bishopstone itself had a tiny population, and was situated almost a mile from the railway, but the new station, located about a mile from the terminus of the line, was built speculatively – in the hopes that its construction would encourage the erection of new homes nearby, giving commuters easy access to the frequent electric trains and increasing the income of the Southern Railway.

These intentions were however thwarted by the outbreak of war in 1939. Home building ground to a halt throughout the country, and the area never was developed to the extent that was hoped. This situation also occurred
elsewhere on the Southern Railway, including the stillborn seaside resort of Allhallows-on-Sea on the Thames estuary, and the station at Lullingstone near Swanley, which, although apparently architecturally very similar to the one at Bishopstone, was never opened to passengers and was later demolished.

Bishopstone was a modest station, constructed with only passenger traffic in mind. The frontage of the station was largely constructed in a typical art deco style, with corners incorporating windows that smoothly curved round the sides of the building. The roof of the booking hall towered above the frontage of the building, and it was a rather unusual structure in octagonal shape, foreshadowing the pillbox defence structures of the Second World War. Although flat roofed, the ceiling of the booking hall was built from glass bricks rather than a more conventional method, which had the advantage of making the booking hall feel light and airy.

Today, Bishopstone station is still open to the public, although it is now rather forlorn, having never reached its potential. It is unstaffed (although a newsagents still operates in part of the frontage), and one of the two railway tracks running through the station has been removed, leaving a derelict and crumbling concrete platform opposite the operational one. As late as 2004, the station still had a rather isolated feel to it, located at the end of a road with large private houses running down one side, and nothing but fields and a campsite on the other, but by the middle of that year, work had begun on a new housing development to the immediate west of the station – construction that the Southern railway had planned for nearly 70 years ago. Continue reading

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Granada Cinema in Hove, East Sussex. Photos.

Welcome to the page dedicated to the now disused former Granada cinema in Hove, East Sussex, to the west of Brighton. This art deco Cinema was opened in the 1930s as a Granada Theatre, and showed films up until 1974, when it was acquired by Ladbrokes and re-opened as a bingo hall.

The old cinema was thus granted a new lease of life, and stayed open as a bingo club, latterly run by the Gala Group, until it was closed in the summer of 2003. This website includes both a history of the building, located at 193 Portland Road, and a large number of photographs taken around the time of closure. Parts of the cinema had by then changed out of all recognition, while other areas, namely the circle seems to almost have been trapped in a thirties time warp.

The History of the Granada in Hove stretches out over seventy years, and while researching it, some surprising information was thrown my way! Perhaps most interestingly of all, the cinema was never actually part of the Granada chain – indeed, it was not until 1985 that the Granada group actually had anything to do with the place. But the two were connected.

To understand this odd state of affairs, we have to go back to January 1930, and the opening of the Granada Cinema in Dover, Kent. Continue reading

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