London Connections: ‘The Mediated City: A Tour of Media and Mediation in West End London’&‘London: A Renaissance City ?’

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Birkbeck Arts Week on Wednesday featured a double bill of London events. First off a West End walking tour guided by Dr Joel McKim and Scott Rodgers who promised us that we’d be using the city to rethink the way we use media, and using media to rethink the way we see the city. From Fitzroy to Leicester Square (both spaces re-fashioned to reap the rewards of film industry activity, from ‘Georgian’ location to Red Carpet stargazing) we tracked the spores of London’s media creatures. We inspected a protected Banksy under the shadow of the BT (formerly GPO) Tower and submitted ourselves to airport-type security to peer in at the ants nest that is the BBC Newsroom. Whereas George Val Myer’s Broadcasting House (1932) looks like an Art Deco liner bearing down on Oxford Circus, the Apple Store occupies Regent House (1898), built on the site of the former Hanover Chapel in Regent Street, like a cathedral. Scott pointed out the Venetian mosaics over the ubiquitous logo, showing that when it was built the building already had connections with Paris, New York, St Petersburg and Berlin.

Venturing into Soho we passed the artisanal post-production houses, rendering, digitising and generally buffing up the raw material for untold hours of viewing, and in Soho Square found the ducal palaces of film production, the address for the likes of Twentieth Century Fox.  Joel told us how the film and tv industries had benefitted from the fibre-optic digital networks installed by banks for high-speed transfers, and how companies like Sohonet were now enabling post-production on the same film to take place simultaneously in London and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, just round the corner in Dean Street is Rippon Newsagent’s, which has been distributing media from its Georgian storefront  since 1791.

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Dodging the crowds round the Eros Statue, we learned about the history of advertising in Piccadilly Circus, where flashing lights have been selling soft drinks since 1908. Perhaps, suggested Joel, the Piccadilly screens may at some future point be used for purposes other than advertising, as in the innovative Times Square Arts collaboration with contemporary artists, or the transnational project that used public screens to link Seoul and Melbourne. We reached Leicester Square in time for the five o’clock serenade from the Glockenspiel Clock to hear about the plans for the replacement of the Odeon West End  with a 10-storey hotel and cinema complex which Rowan Moore, in the Guardian, describes as being ‘the architectural equivalent of the premium-priced vats of tepid Coke on sale in the foyers of multiplexes’.

The re-development will mean the end of the Hand and Racquet, the pub in Whitcomb Street which is apparently named after a nearby tennis court used by Charles II, a sports facility roughly contemporary with the publication of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) which Dr Stephen Clucas considers to be the final flowering of the English Renaissance.

In the session which asked the question ‘London: A Renaissance City?’ Stephen Clucas spoke up for some of the powerhouses behind discoveries in the Natural Sciences in the mid-to-late Sixteenth Century as coming not from the city, but from the periphery of London. Specifically the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot, who lived in the grounds of his patron Henry Percy’s  Syon House in Isleworth, and the astronomer and astrologer Dr John Dee who lived just downstream at Mortlake. We heard how in 1575 Queen Elizabeth called on Dr Dee in order to have a look at his ‘scrying glass’ but didn’t disturb him because he had just come from his wife’s funeral. Dee had a library of over 2000 printed books in Mortlake, and Henry Percy had one of the largest libraries in Europe, although the ‘Wizard Earl’ had to make do with regular deliveries of books when he did a seventeen-year stretch in the Tower for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

The Earl was lucky to get away with his life. Dr Brodie Waddell told us how in 1590’s London, anyone found guilty of Grand Larceny, which meant the theft of anything of the value of one shilling or more, was sentenced to death. Those found guilty of lesser thefts would be tied to a cart and whipped through the streets. The population of London had doubled in the years from the mid-16th Century, to reach over 140,000 by the year 1600. Refugees from religious persecution in Holland flocked to the city and provided cheap labour. Bad harvests led to a three-fold increase in the price of flour between 1594 and 1597, and following the ruinous attempts to contain the Tyrone rebellion in Ireland, demobbed soldiers added to problems of vagrancy, crime, social disorder and sedition.

The backing track to the extraordinary developments on the Elizabethan stage was more likely to be the sound of apprentices rioting, or the plague bell, than the colloquy of classical scholarship. Dr Gillian Woods made the point in an analysis of Shakespeare’s most brutal play, Titus Andronicus that in the early 1590s, Shakespeare shows his villainous characters, the rapist brothers Chiron and Demetrius and their provocateur Aaron, ransacking classical authors for a guide to depravity and then adding new tortures of their own devising. And in a marked departure from classical convention, Shakespeare presents much 0f the violence on stage ‘thereby forcing the audience to examine a development of what is at the heart of the Renaissance endeavour’.

Dr Susan Wiseman concluded the session by paying tribute to a group of dedicated (or perhaps obsessed) men and women who took it upon themselves in the late 19th Century to record and preserve London’s ancient monuments and buildings. Chief amongst them was Charles Robert Ashbee, editor of the Survey of London. As Sue pointed out, many of the buildings photographed for the Survey are commonly used to illustrate Dickens’s London, whereas they actually provide an extraordinary visual record of London before the Fire. The 1590’s façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house in Bishopsgate has been preserved in the V&A, but The Oxford Arms, a 17th Century coaching inn, was demolished in the late 1870s.

England came late to the Renaissance party, and none of the speakers at the session seemed confident to give a full affirmative to the ‘Was London a Renaissance City?’ question. But one thing was clear, that from Dr Dee plotting the course of Jupiter’s moons from the roof of Northumberland House on the Strand, to today’s digital pioneers developing the future’s equivalent to Dee’s ‘scrying glass’, London has incubated a pursuit of knowledge and artistic endeavour with all the energy and innovation of its classical antecedents.

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