No happy ending in site for Brighton’s Hippodrome


For those who are new to the drama surrounding the fate of the Brighton Hippodrome (where have you been? Stuck on a late-running train?) let me bring you up to speed.

Last year the city council gave Alaska Development Consultants the green light to turn the former bingo hall into an eight-screen cinema operated by the Vue chain. Then a grassroots protest group called Our Brighton Hippodrome launched an online petition and inevitable Facebook campaign to block the plans. The petition attracted thousands of signatures.

On Sunday the sudden appearance of the Pavilion constituency’s parliamentary candidates standing alongside the protestors in Middle Street alerted onlookers to the fact that a bandwagons was rolling. Our Brighton Hippodrome claimed that new landlord had dropped the curtain on the cinema scheme.

But, as fans of farce will know, all was not what it seemed. At the end of the week the city council released a “clarifying statement” which was anything but. It read: “The property is still under the ownership of Kuig Property Investments Ltd. Alaska are aware that Kuig Property Investments did invite bids at the end of 2014 for the purchase of the Hippodrome, however that process has not yet concluded. We have had no involvement or dialogue with potential purchasers so unfortunately we are unable to provide comment on what their future plans for the buildings might involve.”

The theatre group’s victory looks to be Pyrrhic.

A district valuer’s report has concluded that the development of the building as a theatre would not be commercially viable, making an annual loss of £250,000.

The protesters have called the report flawed but have not said why this is so. They have yet to produce a detailed, realistic and viable scheme of their own.

Last August, Samantha Johnson, inspector of historic buildings and areas at English Heritage’s south east office wrote to Maria Bowen at the Department of Communities and Local Government to underline the fact that English Heritage believed the plans for the cinema complex represented “the best chance to conserve the heritage asset.”

She said: “In summary, English Heritage considers that the proposals, while harmful to the significance of the grade II* listed building, are justifiable in policy terms because of the public benefits they would deliver, the principle one of which is securing the future of what is now a very vulnerable building at risk.”

For a city that likes to see itself as ahead of the curve, Brighton and Hove is remarkably resistant to change. The seafront remains littered with stalled projects. Marlborough House on the Old Steine, a fine late 18th century villa, has long been empty and unloved. I may be wrong but I do not expect the new owners of the Hippodrome to unveil any dramatic ideas.

Development in the city has long been in the grip of opaque profiteers. Despite the cheers of the conservationists there is no happy ending insight.

This article was first published in The Argus on January 17.


The plot thickens at Brighton Hippodrome


"Waiting for Godot?" "No, The Usual Suspects."

“Waiting for Godot?” “No, The Usual Suspects.”

The drama over the future of the Brighton Hippodrome has taken a fresh twist.

Last month, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) wrote to Adrian Smith, a planning officer at Brighton and Hove City Council , to say that the council should hold its horses over plans to turn the derelict building into a cinema.

Secretary of State Eric Pickles has issued an Article 25 holding notice, extending the time limit in which he has to decide whether to call in the plans.

On August 6, Samantha Johnson, inspector of historic buildings and areas at English Heritage’s south east office wrote to Maria Bowen at DCLG to underline the fact that it believes the plans from Alaska Development Consultants to turn the Grade II  listed building into an eight-screen cinema represent “the best chance to conserve the heritage asset.”

She said: “In summary, English Heritage considers that the proposals, while harmful to the significance of the grade II* listed building, are justifiable in policy terms because of the public benefits they would deliver, the principle one of which is securing the future of what is now a very vulnerable building at risk.”

She goes on to say that while English Heritage is aware of the objections from the Victorian Society, Theatres Trust, and Our Brighton Hippodrome, neither English Heritage nor Brighton and Hove City Council has been presented with a detailed alternative scheme that sets out a realistic and viable proposal for a theatre on the site.

The  district valuer’s report has concluded that the development of the building as a theatre would not be commercially viable.

Here is the valuer’s estimated trading performance for a theatre at the Brighton Hippodrome:


Reasonable expectation of Gross receipts

Estimated admissions 145,600 pa

Average ticket price £18



Food and beverage £196,560


Total receipts £2,817,360 pa



Cost of sales

Purchases £128,000

Direct costs £1,756,000


Gross profit £933,360



Indicative expenditure

42% Gross receipts £1,183, 250


Estimated annual loss -£249,890


The valuer’s report points out that although supporters of the theatre plan have said that a reborn Hippodrome would capable of hosting large West End musicals and even circuses, the space is similar to Brighton Dome, which only operates with the assistance of a council subsidy.

The report says: “I also considered whether an additional theatre in Brighton would generate additional custom for Brighton as a theatre destination location and thus would make the theatre proposal commercially viable. There is no evidence to support such a contention. Indeed, the Hippodrome at Leicester Square, surrounded by West End theatres, indicates that the opposite is the case. In my opinion, a concentration of theatres cannot reliably contribute to commercial success.”


Here is the developer’s scheme for a cinema at the site.


Food for thought on the Bribery Act


Organisers of corporate jollies need to be more open about who they are wining and dining.

A conference and events industry expert said transparency is needed to stay on the right side of the UK Bribery Act. The law was introduced to make it easier to prosecute organisations that made corrupt payments.

But analysts say it was not intended to stamp out corporate hospitality.

Last year Brighton and Hove council chiefs entertained eight conference and event organisers to slap up meals in the city.

The dinners took place at English’s restaurant in East Street and Chilli Pickle in Jubilee Square in the wake of the UK Meetings Show in London. They were charged to the credit card of Brighton and Hove’s convention bureau manager as official council business.

John Fisher, managing director at the FMI Group an international hospitality agency based in Shoreditch, said that event promoters and clients have agreed a few ground rules in the wake of the Bribery Act.

1 You don’t offer hospitality shortly before or shortly after the granting of a contract for services. Most people now offer a dead period of, say, three months when no supplier is offered hospitality if a big contract is coming up or just been awarded.

2 Any hospitality offered under the banner of marketing or promotion should be openly discussed and agreed and there should be no do this get that deals or secret arrangements.

3 There is generally more leeway with private firms but as the act is aimed mainly at public sector employees in positions of discretional influence, public sector workers need to be open and above board if any hospitality or promotion is offered.

4 A public record of expenditure should be kept in a register of offers and acceptances that is open to scrutiny. There should be an internal process of approval which again is open to scrutiny. Decisions to offer or accept hospitality should be openly recorded and reviewed from time to time to see if the hospitality has been proportionate and reasonable.

Mr Fisher said: “When the act was passed Ken Clark issued some guidelines from the Ministry of Justice stating very clearly that it was perfectly ok to offer hospitality to promote good relations with potential clients provided it was ‘appropriate and reasonable’. One man’s reasonable is another man’s outrage .

“It’s all about context. If a client is going to bring say £10,000 worth of spend to Brighton then £75 quid for a meal to encourage them to do so is probably reasonable. There are no monetary guidelines in the act so you have to take a view.”

A spokeswoman for Brighton and Hove City Council said: “We have had a note from Visit Brighton that reports a successful familiarisation visit following the UK Meeting Show. Lead times for meeting and conference bookings can be in excess of 12 months and Visit Brighton is in dialogue with several of the attendees who may confirm business in the future. To date, one of the attendees has booked two meetings and used two seafront hotels. Another attendee has booked an event with a sailing organisation based at Brighton Marina. A yacht based at the marina has also been chartered by an attendee of the visit.”



The multi-talented Merrill Garbus

The multi-talented Merrill Garbus

Imagine The Supremes backed by a scorching Afrobeat ensemble channelling Randy Newman’s gift for discomfiting lyrics and you’ll get an idea of the polyrhythmic assault on the senses that is Tune-Yards.

The project is the brainchild of Merill Garbus, a 35-year-old former puppeteer, who has the sweat-drenched audience at the packed Concorde2 eating out of her hand.

She recently told The  New Yorker magazine: “I hope that people who come to see the show feel that there’s risk involved, that the whole ship could go down at any moment. An audience deserves these rough edges.”

So it proved on the night, with the occasional snafu underlying the well-drilled performances propelled by Garbus’s collaborator Nate Brenner, on bass and synths.

The sound is celebratory, defying the audience not to be swept away by the carnival tempo.

Live, the dark undercurrents evident on the new album Nikki Nack, may be missed by an audience understandably keen to go with the celebratory flow.

When Garbus hollers: “I come from the land of slaves/ Let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves!” it’s a polemical poke at racism while ‘Manchild’ takes down machismo swagger.

This is music that engages your brain while it kicks your ass.

Here’s the official video for Water Fountain, the single from the new album:



This review was first published in The Argus on June 27.


The New York Times – still fit to print


Daniel R Schwarz

EndTimes? Crises and Turmoil at The New York Times, 1999-2009
500pp. Excelsior Editions
Paperback £14.64


The late Christopher Hitchens once offered the opinion, in a piece for The Guardian, that journalism has a low reputation because it has a bad press.

This celebration of mischief has never caught on in the United States. American newspapers are, on the whole, both less lively and more reliable than their British counterparts. When The New York Times – nicknamed the Grey Lady – became embroiled in a series of scandals, it was seen not merely as an embarrassment but as an existential threat.

Despite the gloomy title of his book, however, Daniel Schwarz has not come to read the last rites over an institution which he believes publishes “the worst newspaper in the world except for all the others”.

The Cornell University professor considered calling the book ‘Obit: The New York Times as a Newspaper’ but is now confident that the printed Times has a future. For how long – who knows? The newspaper industry has replaced Hollywood as the place where ‘nobody knows anything’ is a management mantra.

In microscopic detail, Schwarz relates how during the alternately autocratic and indulgent editorship of Howell Raines from 2001-03, the New York Times became ensnared in a scandal surrounding fabricated articles about serial killings written by a reporter called Jayson Blair and published reports by another star journalist, Judith Miller, which hyped the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction as the rush to war in Iraq gathered place.

Raines was deposed in a staff coup but Miller stayed on to embarrass his successor, Bill Keller, when she was jailed after refusing to reveal her sources for what she knew about the outing by the Bush administration of Valeria Plame as a CIA agent. Miller was regarded by liberals as a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and they were unenthusiastic about defending her First Amendment Rights. Keller kept his reporters in the dark about Miller’s sources, wasting their time and talent.

Schwarz admits he is no journalist, but like any good reporter he has been diligent in his ground work. He conducted 45 interviews, including every living executive editor of the newspaper along with a good number of section editors and senior staff writers. The result, which took seven years to write, is stronger on the economic causes and consequences of the Times’ tribulations than the personality clashes which also contributed to its troubles. Readers hoping for the stuff of soap opera must look elsewhere – this isn’t Ugly Betty.

The economic rot set in, according to Schwarz, around 2005, when operating profits and the company’s stock price plunged and investors took fright. He does not hide his disdain for the smoke and mirrors that too often surround media economics, and lambasts a number of Times journalists for their rose-tinted reporting of the paper’s dire straits. This feels a little unfair. No doubt the reporters were sent in to bat for their senior executives who really did seem to have their head stuck in the sand. Schwarz believes that media reporters ought to “occupy a place like the public editor, that is, a place insulated from the editorial supervision and hierarchy of The Times”. In an interview available on You Tube, the author admits that the journalists he met had a tendency to think that he was an academic on release from an ivory tower. You can occasionally see why they would form that view.

But he is surely correct when he writes that the publisher of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Junior,“flagrantly misread” the economic situation and behaved as if “he were trying to convince himself that the gathering storm clouds didn’t exist”.

Schwarz writes: “At times, he seems to believe the Times as a Sulzberger property has a divine right to survive.”

If he is acute in his description of the disease, Schwarz seems to me to be on less sure ground in his prescription of a cure. The professor believes there is a highbrow and a lowbrow, hard news and soft news, and never the twain shall meet. He clearly has no truck with fancy-pants postmodern suggestions that an article on, say, Tom Ford, could rub well-tailored shoulders with an analysis of the conflict between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

He writes: “I think The Times could sell a reduced paper edition – without the fluff I have called Timeslite and Timestrash – with a focus on opinions, investigatory journalism, cultural coverage, and analytical foreign news.”

You can hear the stampede of readers, investors and advertisers toward the exit.

Schwarz is culpable of his own Pollyanna moments. He states that the “competition among reporters and editors for external recognition in terms of prizes fosters the search for truth”.

On the contrary, it was in part lust for such baubles which led previous executive editors at the paper to allow too much licence to wayward journalists.

In essence, Schwarz has written a lament for a passing world, one where, it seems to him, standards were higher, motives were nobler and newsmen (for they were, mostly, male) more honourable.

We are all tabloid readers now.


This review was first published in The Times Literary Supplement on April 4, 2014

Forget Kate Bush – a dark star is born

While news of Kate Bush’s forthcoming gigs has sent baby-boomer bloggers into a frenzy, late-millennials have a new star to worship.
Banks prowled the stage at the Concorde in Brighton with a feline confidence that suggests she knows she has the audience exactly where she wants them.
Unveiling an unreleased track, Goddess, she told the audience:”Every single woman is a goddess.”
Some, it seems are more blessed than others.  Framed by a battery of blinding lights and a sea of dry ice, Banks swayed like a Balinese dancer, and at times her body seemed boneless. She made an O-mouth, staring into the mid-distance and pointed into the crowd as if defying them not to be bewitched.
Her voice range is limited and she knows this, keeping the tempo deliberately measured – you get the feeling her tone might thin out at a faster pace. Occasionally her guitarist,  Nate Mercereau, veered toward funk but the percussionist,  Derek Taylor, reined him back in.
The sound mixed Lana del Rey with Jessie Ware by way of the Weeknd. The synths burbled seductively and the arrangements never veered towards anything as vulgar as a hook.
Banks sings dark songs about loneliness, obsessive love, and happier times. Her future is bright.
This review was first published by The Argus March 31, 2014

Pie in the sky or hope on the horizon?

Sparking debate: the planned i360 on Brighton's seafront

Sparking debate: the planned i360 on Brighton’s seafront

Some cities invite lurid headlines like circus clowns attract custard pies. My home, Brighton and Hove, is such as place.

In The Guardian last month Simon Jenkins neatly summarised the ugly blemishes that disfigure the city by the sea.

Jenkins’ piece was written in the hope that Brighton and Hove City councillors would give Eric Pickles a black eye by holding a referendum on council tax. In the end, that possibility fizzled out in an ignominious political compromise which allowed all sides to fool themselves that they have emerged victorious from a squalid debacle.

But this week, the committee rooms in Hove’s brutalist Town Hall witnessed the birth pangs of a monstrosity which may yet dwarf any of the hideous items on Jenkins’ list.

A huge observation tower is to be erected on the seafront near the rotting hulk of the West Pier. The i360, as it is known, will be funded by £36 million of taxpayers’ money. The Green administration will play banker in this risky process and hopes to make money by charging more interest to the developer, Marks Barfield, than it will have to pay back to the Government.

What could possibly go wrong?

The saga of this project has more twists than the helter skelter on the end of the Palace Pier. Marks Barfield, the firm behind the London Eye, expressed the desire to build an attraction on Brighton’s seafront back in 2006.

The plan was for a viewing platform that carries 200 people at a time up and down a 183-metre high metal spike. Money from the paying public would  generate much-needed investment for the shabby streets around the West Pier.

But the recession put the frighteners on private backers’ appetites and Marks Barfield was allowed to miss one deadline after another.

In 2012, the Greens in charge of the city pulled a new deal out of the hat – the council would draw down £14 million of funding from the government. The local enterprise partnership chipped in with a £3 million loan, leaving Marks Barfield to find backers to come up with half the funding.

Still no takers could be found, so the local authority has now agreed to borrow  £36 million from the Government  – more than twice the amount previously agreed.

There are many traders and residents who regard this prospect as far more hair raising than any view from a giant observation tower. Yet the policy was agreed by a committee of 10 councillors, with seven voting in favour and three voting against.

Only in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Brighton’s political scene could you find environmentalists teaming up with true-blue Tories to fund a tourist attraction paid for with public money which, if successful, will see the city flooded with emission-belching tourists and which, if it fails, will land the city’s residents with an enormous bill.

We may one day discover what the English Channel looks like from the top of a stick outside the Hilton Metropole hotel.

Right now, the view from here is anything but pretty.

*Published by The Guardian March 9, 2014

Note: Since this piece was published in The Guardian an on-line petition has been launched calling on the Public Works Loan Board – the public body that will administer the money – to refuse the council’s request for funding. At the latest count it had gathered more than 500 signatures.