Blast from the Past

The following article first appeared in The Guardian, in March 2000 and it focuses on Thamesmead, linking it to A Clockwork Orange which was about to get a fresh release. It is no longer available on the Guardian website so far as I can tell, so I am preserving it here (unless they throw a cease and desist my way for copyright violation).

It makes very interesting reading and I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate. Was Crossness ever known as Crosswell? Did people really claim the children were lacking facilities when the Tavy Bridge fountain was around? Judge for yourselves how well it portrays the truth – it’s certainly an unusual piece.

                 

Welcome to Clockwork Orange country

When Stanley Kubrick wanted a setting for a tale of alienation and
ultraviolence, he knew just where to go. Jonathan Glancey follows him to
Thamesmead, London SE28

Monday March 13, 2000

 

A Clockwork Orange opens with Alex and his Nadsat-speaking droogs sipping
drug-laced pintas in the wonderfully over-the-top interior of the Korova
Milk Bar. It is real “horrowshow”, as Alex would say approvingly. A pop-art,
70s-kitsch S&M dungeon with pools of excessively bright light amid dense
shadows, the Korova was designed by John Barry (not the composer) and was
one of the few sets built for Kubrick’s notorious film, re-released on
Friday after an absence of 26 years.
Apart from two other interior sets, A Clockwork Orange was filmed on
location in and around London. The immediate reason was cost: the film’s
budget was $2m, chicken-feed in Kubrick’s terms, even in 1971. Yet, at the
time, the locations that would best express the dystopian world Alex and his
droogs inhabited had just been built by architects, most of them employed by
local authorities. If the Korova had existed it would have been somewhere in
the Tavy Bridge shopping centre, Thamesmead, London SE28.

The postcode is real, London’s most extreme in numerical terms. This is
where Alex lives in one of the concrete “neighbourhood” blocks linked by
elevated walkways. It was underneath one of these, by the shopping centre,
that Kubrick filmed the droogs attacking an old tramp. Later, when Alex
(played by Malcolm McDowell) becomes the subject of medical research at the
“Ludovico Institute”, he is really in Brunel university, Uxbridge, another
brand-new concrete megastructure.

Kubrick and his designers found the sets by trawling through the latest
architectural magazines. These were mostly in love with Thamesmead.
Naturally the mini-new town, planned from 1961 by the London County Council
and built from 1965 by the architects department of the Greater London
Council, won awards.

Thamesmead, a name chosen by readers of the now defunct London Evening News,
was designed as a brave new home for 60,000 lucky Londoners, who were to
live in a cluster of ostensibly rational, pre-fabricated concrete
“neighbourhoods”. Each neighbourhood would offer between 1,500 and 1,700
“dwelling units” for between 8,000 and 9,000 residents. Neighbourhoods would
be connected, South Bank style, by elevated walkways, and meet in a large
civic piazza with a shopping centre. The site, east of Woolwich and
Plumstead marshes, is on wet ground, squeezed up beside the old Crosswell
sewage treatment plant where the fine Victorian steam compound rotative beam
engine that pumped London’s effluence from its centres of population is now
being lovingly restored.

More than 30 years on, Thamesmead itself would benefit from a little tender
loving. In parts it looks like a film set, so strange is the town-planning
premise on which it is founded. Concrete towers, flanked by two artificial
lakes, rise around a set-piece square facing the Thames. This original core
is then wrapped around with the sort of tweedy, bricky, neo-nothing family
houses many of us fear will swamp the banks of the Thames as John Prescott’s
London overspill housing policy is translated into action. The strangest
views of the area are those you can get from a boat heading towards Southend
and the Channel, or those framed by the ruins of the abbey built from 1191
by Sir Richard de Lucy as a penance for the murder of St Thomas à Beckett.

What is striking about the locations chosen for A Clockwork Orange and other
films documenting alienation is that they were meant to enhance human life.
Today only the herons, swans and geese that haunt the lakes and riverside at
Thamesmead seem serene. These and the carp and tench that idle through the
dark waters of the lakes created by the GLC’s landscape gardeners. And maybe
those families in search of a four-bedroom detached home with 30ft lounge,
double garage and front and back gardens for under £120,000 (there are
plenty of them). The price they pay, if they commute (and most do) is a long
bus ride, or an uncertain journey by train to London Bridge. This and a
catalogue of worries to do with crime, schooling, the usual things. And a
very specific sense of isolation.

One of the criticisms of Thamesmead and towns like it is that they are
fundamentally middle-class constructs imposed on what were, at the time of
their first building, working-class families. Those who first came here had
given up life in inner-city streets. True, these were classified as slums,
yet they were “home” in the sense that Thamesmead has never been.

Well-intentioned GLC architects and planners (several of those who worked on
the design of Thamesmead had previously helped to develop London’s South
Bank) were genuinely surprised when residents said there was nowhere for
children to play. What about the 300 acres of parks the GLC had generously
provided? That wasn’t the point. Previously children had been able to kick
balls around local streets and alleys. The idea was that the middle classes
would come here too, but they never really did. Thamesmead remains solidly
Old Labour, despite being a new town. In the May 1997 election, the turnout
was 66%. Labour held the seat with 62% of the vote. The extreme right-wing
vote was low, with the British National Party wooing just 1.7%.

The working-class nature of Thamesmead was sympathetically depicted in the
1996 film of Jonathan Harvey’s play Beautiful Thing – though it stressed the
lack of privacy so many people felt growing up in the world Alex and the
droogs knew. In that future everything was exposed, up-front and violent. No
secrets. How different, how very different from life lived behind the screen
of privets in middle-class suburbs.

One could not say that Thamesmead was in any way cynical, a form of
middle-class or local-government manipulation of the lives of those way down
the pecking order. It wasn’t. Nor was it cheap. A fortune was spent in the
first five years (1965-70). Local government was a costly business in the
60s because there was a consensus that new housing, schools, hospitals,
parks and other amenities were needed and that these could not, should not,
be left in the hands of the private sector. Certainly the private sector
would never attempt to build a housing development as complex and costly as
Thamesmead. It was true, though, that the concrete flats leaked and were
prone to condensation, and the smell of the sewage works on summer days was
“strong enough to peel paint at 50 paces”, according to one local. By 1974
just 12,000 people lived there. Today the population is 30,000 and the
mini-new town is considered to be no more than half-complete. After the
abolition of the GLC in 1986, it was handed over to Thamesmead Town Limited.
Rents are high, residents say, and services are poor.

But at least Thamesmead was built with some sense of vision – however
misguided. Nowadays, business parks, distribution depots and Prescott
memorial housing threaten the marshlands that give this odd stretch of
far-flung London its strangely haunting character and its glorious birds and
other wildlife. Maybe it’s still a tough and isolated place to live, but it
has its “horrorshow” side.

A Clockword Orange opens on Friday.

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