Unplanned London



Once there were a great many things I took for granted in London; a trip to a museum, cheap last-minute returns for the theatre, a bit of classical music, a talk given in a shop or a hall, a public event, a dance party, perhaps in a park or on the river – the London summer has always been peppered with special events, perhaps to make up for the fact that we’re trapped in a hot and sticky city when we could be in the countryside or at the beach.

Since the arrival of the global economy (also known as ‘Easyjet Economics’) all this has changed. The increased demand for a ‘unique experience’ has created a whole new market in London, so that a trip to a museum becomes a timed premium event, our theatre – now broadcast live around the world – turns into a once-in-a-lifetime live performance, a concert becomes a ‘rare opportunity’, events are sold out years in advance and even public displays are monetised, quantified, fought over.

An online theatre ticket is bundled with a hotel offer, dinners, a backstage ‘experience’ (that word again) and membership packages; the most offensive of these is the sliding scale member charges levied by theatres like the Almeida and Menier, once small local stages open to all, now the exclusive haunts of the rich.

Recently I was due to attend a talk given in a local shop. Owing to demand, the event was moved to a hall on the other side of the city, but by doing that they undermined the point of attending a simple, pleasurable talk in a local shop; I didn’t go. As the shop seeks interviewees of an ever-higher profile, they lose their very raison d’être.

It isn’t just Londoners who miss out – tourists find their experiences commodified and pre-booked.

Most councils host parties in the summer, but because the tickets are sold online the only way you can guarantee entry is to buy them nine months in advance. Theoretically, this new economy would start to push out further from the centre, so that the ‘fringe’ remains exactly that and other experiences are born from limited budgets – but in practice it doesn’t work like that anymore, because the cheap pleasures of the centre can’t be replicated so easily further out. The venues – often basements, arches or old engine sheds – have been sold. And in straitened times, the need to turn a profit produces too many similar events, most of which turn out to be glorified pop-up cocktail bars.

There are outposts; the Cinema Museum in the Elephant & Castle, the Southwark Playhouse, the Finborough, a few other tiny odd venues dotted about – but finding them is becoming harder and harder. Once there were hundreds of spaces you could visit without advance planning, simply by walking in. You could stumble across all kinds of hidden treasures. But as the centre continues to hollow out and ‘experiences’ are commoditised and priced by public demand, the spontaneous pleasure of a day or night out are becoming harder to find.

9 comments on “Unplanned London”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    Demand for events grows and everyone seems to plan their life by the hour for months in advance. On 20th June, I received an email announcing the availability of tickets for a Christmas event at a stately home near me. It seems the days are gone when we decide in the morning what to do in the rest of the day.

    It’s not easy for those of us with a more creative disposition, especially if we at least want to know the weather forecast before spending a fortune for an open air concert.

  2. Jan says:

    Dunno how correct u r about this Chris. I have recently returned from a trip up north Newcastle/ Carlisle, Eden Valley and central Lake district. There are plenty of local theatre/ festivals/ events going on far away from the capital. Lots of these events are there to capture the tourist buck but they r far more accessible than the sort of time frame u r discussing here. Most towns and cities have some form of folk or fringe or comedy festival. You can access most on a walk in basis.

    Sedbergh to the far east of the Lakes nestled in the west of the Pennines between southern Lake District and Yorkshire Dales sells itself as England’s book town, same role as Hay in the Welsh marches. Lots of North and South Devon resorts have folk + comedy weekends with both planned and spontaneous events. It’s like buying your panto tickets early – you can but you can probably buy a week b4 or on the day just as easily.

  3. Bill says:

    Yes, Jan, but Chris is talking about London. I was there so long ago; I could get a ticket to see aplay shortly before that night’s performance; could I not do that any longer?

    Some few years ago suburban NY/NJ movie theaters began selling tickets online, at ever higher rates. Ridiculous, I thought. Like so many “innovations”, designed to make the buyer feel puffed up, spending too much on something that shouldn’t cost that much at all. Now you don’t feel special if you don’t buy a twenty dollar cocktail. Forty, if the venue is grand enough.

    We are being trained to think gushing out money ids the thing to do, forgetting that we will get old and need that money in the future!

  4. admin says:

    Bill, you can go to a TKTS and buy a ticket for something that’s not in high demand on the day, but if it’s anything good (i.e. not Disney or a ‘Colour & Movement’ show for non-English speakers like ‘Stomp!’) you don’t have a chance.

  5. C Falconer says:

    It is still possible though – earlier in the year I met a friend on a Wednesday who said I ought to go and see Travesties – got a ticket the following day (not the most expensive, nor hidden behind a pillar) and this was the last week it was showing.

    A couple of years ago I got to see Matt Smith in American Psycho as a friend was wandering past the box office and decided to get a couple of tickets on spec. And that was at the Almeida.

    Been caught by Hokusai at the BM selling out though, but I’ll go early one morning and queue for a day ticket before work, hopefully

  6. Helen Martin says:

    You’ve always said there are too many tourists in London, Chris. The more people who read these reveal all columns of yours the fewer the tourists and the sooner London will be livable again. I liked Jan’s comments. How far out does the fringe have to go before it’s something else (like the Yorkshire Dales or the Peak)? Sure it’s nice to be able to attend theatre with just a bus or tube fare but TRoB (The Rest of Britain) is well worth the occasional trip and you might have one of those “talk in a shop” experience you so rightly enjoy.
    I just read an article about the sky high rents in Union Square, New York City, which are driving out the restaurants that made the square so attractive. The writer said that only chain restaurants or flagship ones would be able to absorb $2m rents, which means that other locations would have to help pay the rent on the highly desirable location.
    Once the raison d’etre is removed what happens to the rents? Will the location become an abandoned slum? That’s probably overstating the case but I do wonder.

  7. Jan says:

    No you’re right Bill Chris is talking about a specific range of events in London. But London isn’t typical of all the UK, far from it. We all write about what’s in our own backyards about what we know and care about. Life’s changed everywhere in the past decade but maybe the places that have felt the changes most are the big cities. People go to all sorts of events for the most genuine of reasons and many go because they want to be seen at something viewed as “cutting edge” and fashionable. London suffers from the ‘wanting be seen’ crowd more than most places. Factor in folk buying ‘experiences’ as soon sort of tourism then there will be pressures.

    Just one thing I would add I lived in the capital for over thirty years. From the mid seventies until one Friday afternoon in October 2006 my work contract expired and having finished work that Friday I left the capital on the Saturday. When my work didn’t tie me there I was off. I enjoyed my London years and I knew the place well – better than most with intimate knowledge of the perks and problems – but it wasn’t a place I saw myself in the next stage of my life. It was lovely to have access to galleries, museums, theatres and concert halls but in the larger scheme of things it didn’t mean much.

  8. agatha hamilton says:

    Absolutely right, Chris. Excellent post.

  9. Terenzio says:

    A good time to go to see a popular and usually sold out play is to go on the day it’s being recorded for a live broadcast in cinemas. For whatever reason the English don’t like to go on these days because they don’t want to be filmed.

    À Bientôt….the one in the gorgeous purple dress gown and lovely velvet slippers. I shall retire to the boudoir for a lovely cup of earl grey and a couple of Walker’s delicious butter cookies to ponder spontaneity (doing something on the fly) versus planning/coordinating an event a few months ahead of time.

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