Today (March 3) in London History – the Barbican

Today, March 3rd, is the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Barbican Arts Complex. It’s the stuff of today’s Today in London History podcast.


Here’s a Today in London hors d’oeuvre for you: read Antony Sher’s Year of the King. It was Cape Town and Stratford and London many years ago but it’s your today if you’re reading it today or tomorrow or next week. And even if you’re not here, you will be when you read it. And when you listen to what follows.

Ok, Today in London History. 

Forty years ago today. March 3, 1982. The Queen opens the City of London’s Barbican arts complex.

The largest arts complex to come London’s way, it’s the London equivalent of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lincoln Center in New York. 

It was a long time coming. The area – it had been the centre of the rag trade – was badly bombed in World War II. The rag trade moved out – to Fitzrovia, the area just north of Oxford Street. What to do with the Barbican area? Ideas, plans for its redevelopment were batted about as long ago as 1956. Ground was broken – construction started – in 1971. So it was 15 years in the building, 25 years in the proposing and drawing up plans and modifying them and acting on them.

Bit of background, then the hard facts – the nuts and bolts – and finally a little bit of personal reminiscing. 

As so often in the case with London, you hardly ever go wrong if you start with the name. Barbican. The word means: An outer fortification or defence to a city or castle, esp. a double tower erected over a gate or bridge; often made strong and lofty, and serving as a watchtower. The derivation of the word is not cut and dried. Best guess by the etymologists is that the taproot of the word barbican is an old Persian formation – barbar khanar – barbican meaning house on the wall.

But the name is certainly apt. The modern barbican – concrete brutalism, serrated edges, labyrinthine passages – does resemble a fortress. And indeed it stands where the Roman wall met the Roman fort, there in the northwestern corner of the City of London.

Another generating factor in the Barbican story was the mounting concern on the part of the City Fathers about London turning into a ghost town after working hours. London had been an inhabited city – a place where people lived as well as worked – for the first nineteen centuries of its existence. And it had got to the point where almost no one lived – no one resided – in the City of London. The City Fathers were uneasy about that. They wanted to do something about it, reverse that trend. So the Barbican was also a housing complex. Super modern flats in a super modern complex, a super modern complex woven round an Aladdin’s Cave of arts venues. 

Ok, here are the facts and figures. The complex covers 36 acres. The flats house 4,500 people. They’re in three towers 44 storeys high. At the time they were tallest residential buildings in Britain. It’s one of the largest arts complexes in Europe.

Two theatres – they were originally the new home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

A 2025 seat concert and conference hall. An art gallery. A sculpture court. A school of music and drama. A library, three cinemas, five conference seminar rooms, trade exhibition halls and two restaurants. And it adjoined the new Museum of London, so that was an additional attraction. All changed, changed utterly, since those first heady days. The RSC decamped. The Museum of London will be moving to its new home in West Smithfield – ok, that’s not that far away – in, best guesstimate, 2024. 

Finally, bottom line: The Barbican development cost more than 200 million pounds. It’d be billions in today’s money.

For me, the RSC main theatre was the thing. It was very innovative.

It has the same capacity – 1150 people – as the Olivier, the biggest of three RNT – Royal National Theatre theatres. But the miracle is that it does that in only two-thirds of the volume of the Olivier Theatre. So no one is more than 65 feet from the stage’s focal point. A huge audience that’s also an intimate audience. That’s squaring the circle. How did they do it? Each of the circles is set forward so it overhangs the one below. And, the coup de grace, the real stroke of genius – the Barbican Theatre does not have space-taking aisle. Each row of seats has its own access door on either side of the auditorium. In the words of Terry Hands, the Artistic Director of the RSC at the time, it was “a brilliant solution.”

The other thing that impressed me mightily was they took as the focal point an actor delivering a Shakespearean soliloquy – say Hamlet’s To Be or Not to Be speech – and they worked out what the maximum angle could be from the actor so that everybody in the audience had the impression that they were fixed in his gaze, that he was looking at them, speaking directly to them. And that’s the geometry, so to speak, of that wonderful theatre. I wish the RSC were still there.

Finally, a personal reflection. And a reminiscence. Theatre-going in the West End of London has sides. Sides as in a menu. What you want to go with your main course. The sides for a West End Theatre outing are the bright lights and the nearby theatres, and the throngs of people, and the restaurants, and the black cabs and buses, and the general buzz. 

The Barbican doesn’t have much in the way of sides. You’ve got the main course – the theatre – but next to nothing in the way of sides, no buzz on the journey from the Tube to the Theatre. So you remember the show, if it’s a particularly good piece of theatre – but there’s no West End experience, no West End buzz that it’s wrapped in and that together with the show is the totality of that night’s theatre-going. That, frankly, is a strike against the Barbican. The experience is poorer for there being no sides to speak of. But it is what it is. 

On the plus side, the RSC at the Barbican gave me the best night of theatre I’ve had in 50 years of London Theatre going. It was Richard III. Starring the great Antony Sher. Antony Sher, we lost him just over a year ago.

It was 1985. Between my stints in the newsroom I was teaching a Shakespeare course at an American university here in London. The production had opened and spent a season in Stratford before it came to London. The word got out in no time and it was completely sold out long before it came to London. In those days, though, the Barbican Theatre set aside 50 I think it was Day of Performance tickets. They were held back, you couldn’t buy them in advance. They went on sale on the day of the performance. So people were getting there very very early in the morning so they’d be sure to be at the front of the queue to get one of those precious tickets. Each person in the queue could buy two – but of course they sold out in the first five minutes. So if you got there at 5.30 am and there were already 30 people in the queue your early morning trip to the Barbican, you weren’t going to get one of those tickets. I had twenty-five kids in my class. I was determined that they were going to get to see the performance of the century. So we queued all night. Thursday night it was. We got to the Barbican at 10 pm. We were there before the Thursday night performance ended.

Queued all night. I’ve only done it once. And I was so glad I did it. We were right at the front of the queue. People started arriving – what they thought was nice and early – early enough to guarantee they’d get a ticket – started arriving at about 5 am on Friday. And of course to their dismay, there were 25 American college students and their professor in front of them. Funny moment: all the kids bought two tickets. One for themselves and one for their roommate. One of them was immediately accosted by an extremely well-heeled businessman who said, “I’ll give you £500 for those two tickets.” Kid looked at me. I nodded. Done deal. Kid still got to see the show because he got the ticket his classmate had bought for his roommate. The two of them went to the show on Friday. The £500 financed a first-class flight to Paris on Saturday for the two of them and two nights in a five-star Parisian hotel. Doubtless the most remarkable weekend of their collegiate careers. No downside at all except the businessman got the tickets that had been earmarked for the roommates – so the roommates didn’t get to see the performance of the century, but priorities are priorities.

Now as for the performance. It is, I think, the most famous entrance in all of Shakespeare. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York. We know a great deal about that entrance, its theatrical history. How great actors did it in the past. Olivier’s is of course on film. But other, earlier theatrical greats – well, people in the audience wrote about how the actor entered. 

The problem for any modern actor is that tableau of all those great entrances. He’s got to find his own way of doing it that is 1. true and 2. not overshadowed by what went before.

Antony Sher didn’t enter. The lights came up and there he was, way up stage, perfectly still. Speaking those lines.

And then somewhere in that speech he found a cue for movement. And what an astonishing movement it was.

He’d decided to play Richard III as extremely crippled. Huge humpback. Physically badly distorted. And on crutches. Not under the armpit crutches but the modern ones that clasp to the wrist. He had them painted black. And they were very long. His costume was black. And it had an empty pair of sleeves. So his legs, his arms, his empty sleeves and those long black crutches – it was like a spider’s eight legs. And he used those crutches again and again. So he’d transition instantly from being terribly crippled, hunch-backed, malformed to being extremely, swoopingly, scuttlingly, terrifyingly mobile. He’d rub those crutches together. There was something obscene about those moments. It was like a fly rubbing its legs together. They were extensions of his arms – so he could use them as weapons – or he could reach out with them, put them round, say, a frightened woman and pull her toward him.

Anyway, it’s his entrance, he’s up there at the back of the stage, perfectly still, crippled, leaning on those crutches and then suddenly, he reared up, swung those crutches round like some infernal huge bat, swung them round over his head, planted them way in front of himself and launched himself forward. Repeated that action once more. And just like that, in two bounds he was at the front of the stage. I saw something I’d never seen before in the theatre. The people in the first recoiled in fear. It was as if this nightmarish, diabolical creature out of hell was rushing at them. And they reacted in fear. Extraordinary moment.

And then the end of the first half. The scene was – well, it was as if it was in Westminster Abbey. Lots of tombs and statues. The place of kings. And up at the back of the stage, the throne. With a red carpet running from it right down to the front of the stage. And at the front of the stage, kneeling, Richard Duke of Gloucester, Antony Sher and beside him, Lady Anne. He’s killed her family and then wooed her, successfully. They’re kneeling. Right at the front of the stage. With their backs to the audience. They’re each wearing just a simple cloak. They unfasten their cloaks and they’re naked. Her beautiful young feminine back next to his hideous, deformed back, with that hunchback. And then he starts to slither up that red carpet toward the throne. It seemed to take forever. It was disgusting. You couldn’t take your eyes off it. The attraction of repulsion. I suddenly realised that the red carpet leading to the throne was a river of blood and he was making his way up it like an utterly repugnant silverfish, you know those horrible slithery insects.

Well, those are just two of many memories that performance burned into my mind that night at the Barbican Theatre. 

…my manhood is cast

Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

That’s all for tonight. Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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