There was a change of programme to the People's Company workshops on Tuesday 1st August as we gave centre stage to Unearthing Elephant, a poignant film made by Eva Sajovic, Sarah Butler and Rebecca Davies. This is one outcome of their Arts Council funded project about the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. The movie salutes the faded glory of the centre which is scheduled for closure and demolition over the coming years. Montage sequences are underscored with a poetic voice-over that both questions and contextualises the past, present and uncertain-future. Stall owners, residents and architects provide a fascinating account of how the space has evolved over the decades and celebrate its uniquely "cheap and cheerful" facilities. Tesco Metro and WHSmith sit cheek by jowl with Latin American, Caribbean and Polish shops and stalls. You can still play bingo or go bowling in a way that you might have when the centre first opened in 1965. It was one of the first covered malls, but built on an intimate scale and had no large department shops. It polarises opinion in the same way as Marmite.
The original concrete structure of the shopping centre is now wrapped under a plastic cladding that has seen better days. This echoes its neighbour, our very own Coronet (and the subject of our own Arts Council funded project) which suffers a similar fate of cladding, apparent unlovability and eventual deconstruction.
Small businesses have taken advantage of very reasonable rents. But with business now drying up and the world outside undergoing rapid social change and gentrification, many are concerned about how they will fit into any new development, if at all. In a world of international property dealing, when corporate image and status means everything and often nothing, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre is decidedly low key and low tech. With councils in thrall to developers, the primary beneficiary of any redevelopment is often not the pre-existing community but the new home-owners or businesses that the new space is being made for. The experience of the Heygate Estate haunts the critical imagination of the Elephant and Castle.
After the screening of the film, the audience talked with Rebecca about their own experiences of the shopping centre. Shelagh recalled how it had gone through previous periods of decline, frequented by just one dog and his man, yet kind of bounced back somehow. Beatrice talked about the necessary, painful, process of change. Charlotte was once a student in the area and had fond memories of lunch breaks in the centre.
We also discussed the dilemma that artists face when they work on art projects that overlap with activism and politics. Artists who occupy a middle ground between residents and authorities, perhaps swaying back and forth, as they struggle to balance the needs of funding and self-expression. How could the community utilise the visionary skills of artists and offer their own development plans to compliment or counter the ones being imposed from top-down? How can artists organise and network to provide mutual support? We mapped out this territory, but didn't have any answers. The screening and discussion was the start of a serious conversation.
At a previous session, the People's Company read some archive documents about the Newington area in the 1860s when it was also undergoing another period of development. Shops and department stores were forming around one of the busiest transport hubs in London. The area became known as the Piccadilly of the South.
As we move back to this time, let's home in on the spaces underneath the Elephant and Castle train station. I'm curious to know if anyone has researched how these railway arches have been used since the 19th century? This is the best I could find on google about their contemporary use. One can imagine they have not changed much in function from their historical counterparts. Industrial services are long gone, but the Latino cottage industry still prevails in the Elephant and Castle.
In 1868 a penny gaff theatre opened in a railway arch near Newington Causeway. The authorities were none too happy about this venue and the type of entertainment it offered to the working class, invariably children, at a mere penny for entry. The wider business community and moral do-gooders put pressure to have it closed down. We have some fascinating newspaper accounts of the type of play put on at the penny gaffs and the fate of those who managed and acted here.
The South London Press of 28th March 1868 described how "an amateur performance took place here on Tuesday. The whole affair was very badly managed - beer cans in the boxes, and curious specimens of composition on the programme - 'A grand Shakespearian Tableaux.' A burlesque called 'Mary Rosebud' was the concluding absurdity. The heroine was played by a stout gentleman, who appeared in short petticoats, and a pair of natural brown whiskers, which with a Turkish bath sheet as toga, and a wreath of emerald-green leaves round a by-no-means Roman head, had previously given the audience an extraordinary idea of Cassius."
An editorial in the same newspaper on the 9th October 1869 commented that: "The illustration of the English art of 'how not to do it' is afforded in the matter of Milton Hall - the penny gaff under the archway near the Elephant and Castle Station. The police know it is night after night filled by gangs of thieves and the lowest characters. The magistrates call it a 'nest for the lowest vagabonds' and a 'centre for all sorts of crime.' And yet it is open and flourishing. One person in the area has had three burglary attempts and the virtue of girls and the honesty of lads suffers. Yet no one can root out this crime, pollution and misery!"
One of the final accounts of Milton Hall comes from the Gloucester Journal, 6th November 1869. "A Metropolitan 'dramatic company' appeared in an unrehearsed part at the Lambeth police court on Saturday. Matilda Holah, lessee of the Milton Hall 'penny gaff', Bertha Hicks, money taker, and eight 'actors' and 'actresses' were charged with being connected with an unlicensed theatre, the real offence being that said 'theatre' had become a nuisance, intolerable and not to be longer endured in the area. A body of fifteen policemen invaded the premises at the climax of the performance. One of the defendants enacting the part of a doctor, had a knife in his hand, and was about to dissect a couple of corpses, represented by two other of the defendants. The audience consisted of about fifty boys and girls of the lowest class. The "lessee" was fined forty shillings, or twenty days' imprisonment, and the rest ten shillings each, or seven days. Only four were able to pay the fine, and their six comrades were locked up in default."
It appears the final performance underneath the railway arch was an exciting bastardised form of melodrama based on the penny dreadfuls that recycled graphic accounts of sensational real life murders like that of Maria Marten. In that description of a doctor with a knife in his hand about to do a Burke and Hare, we can see how this strain of theatre has a resonance with the cinematic horror genre. A violinist was among those arrested and was perhaps providing the emotional charge that underscored the acting. But was the music and acting being played for laughs or chills or a combination of the two?
The legitimate theatre at the Elephant and Castle would later provide another link between melodrama and horror. Tod Slaughter was perhaps one of the last theatrical stars in melodrama and in 1927 put the E&C Theatre on the London map with a realistic and blood chilling production of Maria Marten. Tod later went on to have a career in film and although still hitting those melodramatic notes, one can glimpse both genres in The Face at the Window of 1939. One cinema advert at the time advertised Tod as Europe's first horror star. Jeffrey Richards essay, Tod Slaughter and the Cinema of Excess, looks at his film career and argues that his villains would be at home in the world of Hammer Horror.
Let me mischievously end this article by splattering the shopping centre and the railway arches at the Elephant and Castle with my own fusion of melodrama and horror. My decapitated head also nods in the direction of the late, great George A. Romero. One of his most chillingly effective films was the Dawn of the Dead (1978). If this was screened at a digital penny gaff would the audience hiss at the human survivors who are barricaded inside a shopping centre and cheer for the flesh-eating zombies prowling the roundabout outside? Who are the heroes and villains in the Elephant and Castle? I wonder if there is space for a zombie or two in the Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle?
From a gothic railway arch to a zombified shopping centre
Oil pastels, 59x20 inches, 2017
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Walworth Street Festival
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital