Tuesday 7 December 2010

Assembly Rooms under threat: why the council must reconsider

It has emerged that Edinburgh council want to "refurbish" James Henderson's magnificent Assembly Rooms on George Street to incorporate some shops and a restaurant. William Burdett-Coutts's Assembly Theatre, the council's key tenant during the summer, are petitioning hard against the plans. It is a worthy campaign.

As a student, I spent four summers working for Assembly on the promotional staff. It's the ultimate student job at the festival: fully involved at one of the most buzzing venues in town, mingling with actors and comedians, chatting and drinking (heavily) with a vast range of fun people, and seeing a whole host of different shows. For a nineteen year old, it was a dream come true; I bust a gut for Assembly, as I was so desperate for things to go well - it was an attitude typical amongst staff there for whom Assembly was, and still is, a way of life. As a venue, it's at the heart of the festival both geographically and metaphorically, with important productions (many of which transfer to national tours following their Edinburgh run), world-class comedy and more contracts and agent signings than you can shake a stick at.

That's not to say the venue is perfect. I was appalled at one or two of the managerial decisions that were made in my final year there (to the extent that it took a while to get over my bitterness), and the backstabbing atmosphere in the main admin office was oppressive to the extent that in my final year, when I was mainly office based, I was desperate to escape to the relative relief of handing out flyers. The programming is desperately dull, with Burdett-Coutts and co wheeling out the usual suspects year after year: Guy Masterson, Bob Kingdom, Adam Hills, Soweto Gospel Choir, Antonio Forcione, and various mainstream dance acts all add up to a painfully risk-averse and predictable programme each year. (That's not mentioning those atrocious Otar Imerlishvili artworks which appear year after year). Not that there's anything wrong with those acts listed; there's just a certain inevitability about opening the glossy brochure for the first time and seeing the same names yet again. There are only so many times one can sit through tango fusion dancing. Like once. The lack of courage on the programming front has resulted in venues like the Underbelly becoming the place to hunt for the really off-beat stuff.

Yet the size of the venue means that a heavy leaning towards the mainstream, the tried and tested, is understandable. The quality of those "old favourites" tends to be pretty strong. From Caroline O'Connor's Bombshells to Jerry Springer the Opera to Lee Mack to John Clancy's explosive Fatboy to Masterson acting in an outstanding Oleanna, there are always likely to be hits worth seeing (if you can afford the ticket prices). They make up for the critically panned moneyspinners (hello Nancy Cartwright).

To lump all Assembly productions in as pre-West End warmup runs would be unfair, too. I have seen some outstanding shows from relative unknowns, and some real offbeat, alternative productions that have been breathtaking. In my first year working at Assembly, Demitri Martin won the Perrier with his particular brand of poetry, gentle one-liners and...palindromes. In the same year I was wowed by Michael Raynor's autobiographical one-man play Who's Floyd Stearn? A fellow colleague of mine (whose own show I saw this year at the Underbelly) was in floods of tears after watching Teatro Sunil's kooky, almost autistically optimistic view of freedom in Icaro in 2003. More recently, mime artist Julien Cottereau (2010) and Northern Firebrand's Scarborough (written by Fiona Evans, herself formerly on the Assembly payroll), in 2008, were highlights. Best of all, though, was back in 1995. Slava Polunin's extraordinary Snowshow was, and still is, the best show I have ever seen, of any kind, in my life. I saw it aged twelve, and saw it again ten years later, and my opinion didn't change. (I believe it was a nightmare for the staff, who had to crawl on their hands and knees to pick up thousands of little pieces of paper from between the seats after every performance).

The Assembly Rooms may not have quite the same cutting edge as the Pleasance, Aurora Nova or the Traverse (although the latter is falling into the trap of putting on productions by the same people, year after year) but it still a creative hub bursting with talented people, ideas, inspiring conversations. It remains a place where deals of nationwide artistic significance are struck in the Club Bar.

Ah, the Club Bar. An elegant place for the creatively exalted to relax over a coffee? Yes. But also a place for top actors and comedians to get utterly smashed by night. I could tell you some stories. But I won't.

Actually, I will. Which married London stand-up had a drug-fuelled affair with a member of street team staff? Which comedian made a home-made porn film with another street teamer the same year? Which actor drank so much each night that he eventually got alcohol poisoning? Which Hollwood A-lister was thrown out of the Club Bar on his own birthday after going behind the bar and pouring drinks uninvited? (That was Christian Slater). Which fifty-something performer was finally shown the door after a string of complaints from attractive seventeen-year-old staff who he'd been repeatedly pestering for dates? That doesn't even scratch the surface, either.

Those were good times. Not all the stories were booze-and-drugs related, either. There's Gerry, the genial retired American teacher, who practically lives at Assembly for the entire festival, blags his way into everything with his long-suffering wife and two friends in tow, then stands outside loudly giving his opinions on the performance to anyone who'll listen (his opinions are usually limited to a drawling "that was a goooood showwwwwww" or alternatively "pooooooor"; I have noticed his positive and negative reviews seem to be equally good at putting people off buying tickets). In all seriousness, though, Gerry is a solid gold legend, and someone for whom the festival means a huge deal, and Assembly in particular. Edinburgh would be a poorer place without him. Talking of Gerries, there was the famous day when Jerry Spring's lawyer heard about the Opera bearing his name, called up and demanded tickets for him and his twenty-strong entourage. The entire run was completely sold out. The lawyer played hardball. The box office somehow found twenty tickets. The story goes that Springer and co flew in from LA by private jet, went from the airport to George Street in a fleet of limos, went to see the show, hopped back in the limos, and back on the plane having loved the show.

As usual, I digress. The point is that despite having many shortcomings (what about the despicable decision to use their financial and marketing muscle to try and split from the Fringe along with other mainstream venues, leaving the beating heart of the festival - the small, independent venues - fibrillating weakly) Assembly remains a true hub of festival activity, a creative zenith, a theatrical and comedic centre round which punters, critics, performers and tourists alike naturally gravitate. A festival institution in contrast to so many transient ventures in the city. Part of the festival furniture.

Yet longevity alone is not a reason to keep the Assembly Rooms going as a festival venue. They are perfectly suited to performances. The unique layout of the Wildman Room and cabaret vibe of the Supper Room, combined with the opulence and airy space of the Ballroom and Music Hall, with plenty of space for bars and admin all around. Apparently the Supper Room and Wildman Room will be gone forever following the proposed "upgrade", along with the Edinburgh Suite and Drawing Room; not to mention the "Scott Room" which I believe is the tiny space used to such great effect by the production of Scarborough in 2008. The great festival venues range from university function rooms, through tents, churches and inflatable cows, to Masonic lodges; the wedding-cake surroundings of  the Assembly Rooms are part of that wonderful mix.

The focus of this campaign has been on the festival, understandably, since it's Assembly Theatre who are behind it. Yet it is a disgrace that such a magnificent building can be so criminally under-utilised during the remaining months of the year. There is a mish-mash of tired craft fairs, ceilidhs, record fairs, and the occasional wedding. It's all too easy, when the building is covered with hoarding, posters and stage scaffolding for the festival, to forget just how spectacular the building is: the Assembly Rooms are a stunning set of ornate chambers.

So what are the council proposing? With an imagination only seen in the public sector, it's a shops'n'restaurants package which will "transform" the building and "guarantee the building's future as one of the most sensational events venues in the city".

I have several problems with this. Shops'n'restaurants is default thinking. George Street does not lack either. The sterile Multrees Walk, which feels like the afterthought to a business district that it is, can hardly be a model to aspire to. But more worrying for me is the thought that the Assembly Rooms needs a refurbishment. It desperately needs something to be done. But change the physical layout? The Assembly Rooms are a simple set of function rooms, with unlimited possibilities for their use. The problem is not the venue itself - only a numbing lack of imagination. Whilst Burdett-Coutts and Assembly's artistic programming may leave a lot to be desired, they have managed to make brilliant use of the space, utilising some of the unsexy spaces as well as the first floor blockbusters, with areas like the famous Lane Bar a real hub. The council, meanwhile, can only muster a few craft fairs. Why have we not seen art exhibitions? What about musical performances? Awards ceremonies? Entertaining foreign dignitaries? Club nights (Vegas used to put nights on)? Talks? Conferences? One of the most spectacular buildings in the country has had its potential ignored, and now the council are planning to shove in some shops.

When refurbishments of this sort are done well, they can be brilliant. The transformation of an old RBS building (a Grade A listed James Craig construction) by Caledonian Heritable into what is now The Dome, a few doors along from the Assembly Rooms, was a classic example. Such tasteful refurbishment, combined with commercial success, is rare. It's not something you would expect Edinburgh council to emulate. Certainly not if the best they can come up with is bunging a few shops in the front.

Assembly Theatre have tried to convince the council to let them take over the running of the venue year-round. This seems to have failed. Personally I'm not sure I would want the venue to be run solely by the theatre company - its transformation in August is one of the unique selling points of the Rooms and I'm not convinced that the year-round programme would be of much interest. I can, however, see the sense in improving the catering potential of the building. It's all very well for people like me to idly mutter about conferences and events, but unless there's the possibility for world-class catering and facilities to go alongside the world-class architecture, then outside companies won't want to invest. The Assembly Rooms website talks of its proud history "...as a venue that, whilst still catering for both public and private balls, was now equipped to accommodate public meetings, concerts, recitals, music festivals, dinners, banquets, Royal occasions and public readings by celebrated authors such as Dickens and Thackeray." So why does the council think that their "ambitious" plans to shove in a few shops, whilst sacrificing the potential for one of their key clients to operate freely, will suddenly transform the ailing venue to the way things were in the glory days?

The petition/campaign website has been set up by Assembly Theatre Ltd, whose focus, somewhat understandably, is on their own contribution during the summer, which remains the principal operation of the building these days and has, by all accounts, transformed the venue which was in an even worse state in the 70s. The comments on the site reveal some of the depth of feeling for the venue, much of it unconnected the the festival (although understandable as I mentioned, it's a shame that so much of the focus of the campaign is on the venue's use as a theatre rather than is initial and ongoing purpose as a civic function suite). A few examples of comments which I agree with 100%:

The Assembly Rooms as they stand are a priceless reminder of the glory of Edinburgh...

Dare to put a paint brush near your own listed building they come down with a vengance on you...

Please help to keep Edinburgh a beacon of culture and preserve the Assembly Rooms! They are an integral part of Edinburgh's unique and extremely rich heritage, which will only be diluted by more shops and restaurants catering only to mindless consumersim, and will probably end up a Gap, a Banana republic and a TGI Fridays like every other souless urban block in the world! 

To transform the ground floor of such a beautiful historic building into shops and a restaurant is quite frankly vandalism. I have to ask what is motivating the decision for this change? Is it down to money? If so, I am sure refreshing the sales and marketing strategy for the venue would make a significant improvement financially.

Can you imagine Bath turning their Assembly Rooms into shops?? The Assembly Rooms should be used even more for their original purpose.

It is one of the basic foundation stones of Edinburgh at Festival time, and so it should remain.

This decision will impact on the attractiveness of Edinburgh as destination festival to International tourists and companies. (Aurora Nova hero Wolfgang Hoffman)

There certainly have been occasions when a Glory of a City is badly messed up, but such attacks have usually involved enemy bombing. (Jack Klaff)

I feel deeply sad that this melting pot for culture, this down and dirty artistic mash up sited in a beautiful old council building - a PEOPLE's building - is set to be turned into some nasty little franchise bitch. What a terrible shame. (Jackie Clune, another Assembly performer during my time)

Edinburgh council have form for white elephants: the underground "Princes Street Galleries" shopping mall, or the tram, anyone? (It's not just a modern thing; what about the National Monument on Calton Hill?!). Realising the potential of the Assembly Rooms and reclaiming former glories should be a priority for the council, and some sort of action plan is desperately overdue; but turning such an iconic venue into a retail outlet is clearly not the answer. They must rethink.


  1. I agree with Jackie Clune that the Assembly Rooms is a beautiful building: it is in fact where she has performed some of her fabulous one woman shows, and is a wonderful central Fringe venue.

    I suppose that the Edinburgh Council is hoping to make money out of it.

    Perhaps the proposed facilities could enhance the festival experience without destroying the essential ethos of this solid heritage edifice through sensitive artistic and financial planning.

    At what stage is the planning process, please?

  2. The planning process is very far down the line. It has effectively been aproved. The final vote is on Thursday when the full COuncil meeting will decide whether to go ahead. It seems that their is real opposition to the plans within the COuncil but that the administration is determined.

    If the vote is passed on Thursday the fight goes to Scottish Heritage who have to approve these plans for a listed building.

    There is a petition and full documents relating to the p0lans and campaign at www.savetheassemblyrooms.com