Many people will be surprised to know that Camden hosts the largest creative centre for young people in the UK. In the last year alone five thousand 11-25 year olds have made use of its state of the art studios, workshops, courses and programmes. Where is this? The Roundhouse.
The distinctive spherical building is better known to many as a music and entertainment venue. It started off in the 19th Century as a steam maintenance shed and spent a hundred years as a bonded warehouse for spirits before falling into disuse.
Arnold Wesker resuscitated the Roundhouse in 1966 and it became a centre for the arts only to see it close again less than 20 years later. In 1996 another visionary stepped in. Sir Torquil Norman was determined to create a new creative centre and cultural icon; and three years later he appointed Marcus Davey with a view to seeing the dream become reality.
Marcus is one of the 24 remarkable people featured in our new book London Lives – one for each hour of the day. Like so many of the characters we feature he combines a strong work ethic with an inspiring passion. “You have to be able to have a dream that will turn everything upside down,” he says, “but you also have to find a way to make it happen.”
It took seven years of hard work to keep the dream alive until the day came on 1 June 2006 when the Roundhouse reopened. Marcus recalls that the week leading up to the opening was “sheer determination, mixed with terror and madness.”The Roundhouse has since gone from strength to strength. Over the years, thousands of young people have benefitted from the resources not just in the music sphere but also in the digital and broadcast area, and in performing arts. Marcus notes: “If you go to the BBC, I could probably introduce you to 30 or 40 of the staff of Radio 1 and Radio 1 Xtra who came through the Roundhouse. I could introduce you to team members in nearly every production company, I could probably name half the spoken word artists out there and my colleagues would probably be able to name the other half – they’ve all been associated with it. The impact has been phenomenal.”
Marcus Davey has two roles: artistic director and chief executive. He jokes: “we often have arguments – ‘you can’t have the money’, ‘yes, I can!’” The venue’s regeneration is a testimony to his determination and passion in both roles. When you meet Marcus, it is easy to see how these roles are symbiotic. You are immediately struck by how he blends calmness with passion, and clear-headedness with energy. He combines an open-mindedness to new ideas with a strong view about the way forward. Business skills in harmony with creative vision.
Meanwhile, there’s no doubting the satisfaction he derives from his work. “I still get caught in the throat when I talk about the day we reopened. It still trips me up to think that I was part of the team that opened it. To be here all those years, 12 years on, and to see a moment when a young person comes in frightened and shy or worried or confused – to see them flourish, I could tell you a thousand stories of that and every one of them would get you in your heart.”
The story of Marcus Davey is reflected throughout our book, which features the people and places that make up this vibrant city. Whether it be the bridge master of Tower Bridge, the head of human remains at the Natural History Museum, the costume supervisor at Madame Tussauds, or the midwife at UCH, they’re following their passion and in so doing enrich our lives – around the clock.
As Andrew Marr puts it so well in the foreword: “A great city isn’t the buildings, though they help, or the parks, boulevards, grand squares, or even the cycle of weather. A great city is first and foremost its people, the characters whose hard work and zest bring those streets to life, and make life worth living in the middle of the thrum, chaos and noise, for the rest of us.
A great city is built up not from stones or glass, but from jokes, smiles, and acts of random helpfulness. It derives its life from the sweat, persistence and professionalism of millions of people who the historians barely bother to notice. Well, this book notices them.”