The last few things I’ve seen at the Roundhouse — Willie Colón on his farewell tour, Bob Dylan on good form, a wonderful performance on authentic instruments of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the reformed Television, and John Cale — seem pretty typical of the musical variety the circular brick building at Chalk Farm has been offering London since Arnold Wesker had the idea of repurposing the old engine shed as a centre for the arts in 1966. Earlier first-hand memories of the place include Nico’s first London concert, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Ramones, a Company week featuring Derek Bailey with assorted friends, Gil Evans’s British band, and a Fairport Convention night with Fotheringay and Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
Tomorrow night an excellent BBC4 Arena documentary titled The Roundhouse: The People’s Palace tells the building’s story, starting in 1847, when it began 10 years of service to the railway before being sold to Gilbey’s for use as a gin warehouse, a function it maintained for 100 years. Anthony Wall, the programme’s director, assembles some marvellous archive film, both performance and interview, including footage of the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967, with a platform featuring Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, Emmett Grogan and a sinister-looking R. D. Laing. Others who flash past through the years include Gyorgy Ligeti, James Brown, Peter Brook and the Clash.
The Roundhouse has struggled to survive at various times during its half-century as a home for arts, but the purchase of the building by the toy manufacturer Sir Torquil Norman began a process that led to the reopening in 2006 and seems to have guaranteed it a future. The film’s climax comes with Vanessa Kisuule reading “Identity Jenga”, the stirring poem with which she won first prize at the Roundhouse’s Poetry Slam competition in 2014. Its impact ensures that the programme does not fade away into nostalgia but properly reflects the role the building plays in the cultural life of contemporary London.