Elton, flamenco guitar and a harp playing nun – Roundhouse variety in the 70s - Roundhouse - Celebrating 50 Years

ELTON, FLAMENCO GUITAR AND A HARP PLAYING NUN – ROUNDHOUSE VARIETY IN THE 70S

1 January 1977

Colin lived and worked in the Camden area in the 1970s and was the Community Arts Officer for Camden Council. He reflects on experiencing both the Implosion gigs and community festivals in the Roundhouse.

Camden Festival Indian and Spanish Evening Posters 1980.

Scan from original. Property of Colin Bloxham

Camden was a flagship borough for the arts and it was also a bit of a socialist haven.  The legacy of George Bernard Shaw and others was strong.  It was a really happening place artistically, socially and culturally. The railway industry, which was in decline in the 1960s and 1970s, had left a legacy of huge areas of derelict land.  Much of the housing was of poor or slum standards, partly as a result of war damage and being “blighted” by large-scale new developments (both commercial and housing), so lots of “short-life” housing sprang up and property was affordable.   

This attracted many socially and artistically adventurous people – people who wanted to make a difference and live outside of conventions.  This meant that venues like Hampstead Theatre, Shaw Theatre, St. Pancras Library, the Camden Arts Centre and, of course, the Roundhouse could flourish. But it also meant that people were open to arts that didn’t just exist inside the galleries and formal venue halls but lived and breathed on the streets.  Camden supported artistic development in ways that no longer seem possible.  The support included substantial funding for community arts organisations such as Inter-Action, based in Kentish Town, and Action Space, based at The Drill Hall in Chenies Street, just off Tottenham Court Road. It is now RADA Studios.

My colleagues and I worked with the Roundhouse on several festivals – Camden Jazz Festival, the forerunner of the current London Jazz Festival, the Camden Children’s Festival and the Camden Festival itself, but the one that I was most heavily responsible for was the International Festival of Music and Dance in 1980. We programmed the incredible flamenco guitarist Paco Peña, a Latin-American evening headlined by the legendary Daniel Viglietti, who was very active politically resisting neo-fascism, and an Indian evening starring Shobana Jeyasingh.  We also programmed an Irish evening with Stockton’s Wing, but they pulled out at short notice.   Through the family connections of a colleague, we were able to present instead the Irish soprano, harpist and former Benedictine nun Mary O’Hara, who enjoyed considerable international success in the 1970s, although she was not an obvious Roundhouse-style performer.   I’ll never forget that, just before she went on stage, she was locked in her dressing room praying loudly and we realised it was going to be something very different for the audience!

I’ve always been interested in how arts institutions engage with their wider local community.  Despite the best will in the world ‘art for the people’ initiatives can sometimes come across as patronising or not reach their intended audience, but I think we broke through some of the barriers with the programme of community festivals and large-scale open-air events involving people like Action Space.

As a punter, I definitely experienced music for everyone at the Roundhouse’s Implosions Sunday gigs.  I was delighted to have misspent a good part of my youth there.  They were super cheap (they must have been because I managed to go whilst I was struggling financially, seeking decently paid work) and I remember these wonderful long sessions.  They were completely informal and relaxed and the crowd was so supportive.  I was lucky enough to catch one of Elton John’s first performances there as well as the late, great Sandy Denny and her band Fotheringay.

By Colin Bloxham (Memory sharer and Community Arts Professional)

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