Architecture: Enter, pursued by a planning officer: Peter Dunn reports on a corner of Shakespeare country earmarked for Bard Land: part film set, part theme park, part housing estate

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Kris Kliszewicz, man of dreams and fixer of film deals, has a vision for the broad farming acres of Warwickshire - a 280-acre Shakespearian theme park two miles outside the Bard's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Here, subject to planning permission from Stratford district council next month, Mr Kliszewicz's company, Will Power Holdings, will build a pounds 14m replica of Elizabethan London, complete with timber-framed buildings, old London Bridge crossing a copy of the Thames as well as a fake Avon.

Historical authenticity will be the keynote of this urban development, with varlets toiling over ancient crafts in workshops along the cobbled streets. But what sets Bard Land apart from other theme parks in Britain is that it will start life as the set for a pounds 16m feature film about the life of Shakespeare (another first), and when the film is made the houses will be sold to families who want to lead a theme-park life for real (as it were). Given the English love of mock-Tudor and neo-Elizabethan houses, exposed ceiling beams and theme parks, how can Mr Kliszewicz - who lives in Stratford with his wife and fellow director of Will Power Holdings, Sharon - go wrong?

'The idea started in an Indian restaurant in Kensington,' he explains. 'A colleague - a producer - was saying in one of those drunken conversations: 'No one's ever done a film of Shakespeare,' and I said: 'That can't be true.' I did the research and found that no one had.

'And then I was at Pinewood Studios for lunch one day when they were burning down the sets for Batman - Gotham City, a multi-million-pound development and destroyed just like that. I thought it was a crime. Why not build a set and keep it?'

The Shakespeare film, judging from Mr Kliszewicz's guarded response to questions about it, is in its earliest days. Director ('we were looking at Fellini'), producer and star ('we wanted River Phoenix') have all to be decided.

'I've written the script myself,' says Mr Kliszewicz. 'Forget the massive Shakespeare industry, all these professors and writers. I threw all the research out of the window; this will be new and mind-blowing.'

Antipathy between Mr Kliszewicz, the Welsh-born son of a Polish army officer, and the world of Shakespeare scholars is mutual. Roger Pringle, director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is politely appalled by the whole Bard Land scheme and thinks it would be better off being built in America. 'I don't think Mr Kliszewicz appreciates how much of the physical heritage of Elizabethan Stratford remains intact,' he says.

Sensing academic disapproval - and concerned about the financial success of the planned film - Mr Kliszewicz's own advisers, the Grant Leisure Group, have advised him to play down the Shakespeare angle in favour of recreating the 'historical integrity' of Stratford. Which is, after all, no more and no less than what the Prince of Wales is doing at Poundbury, on the edge of Dorchester in Dorset.

Mr Kliszewicz feels that what Stratford lacks is olde worlde streets and buildings. 'I don't want to criticise Stratford,' he says, 'but unfortunately the reality is that once you've seen Shakespeare's birthplace and Anne Hathaway's cottage that's about it. Tourists spend a whole half-day here; they say: 'Where's the rest?'

'We've looked at 25 sites in the area. The best one had a bunch of badgers living on it. The owner said: 'Why don't you gas them?' but we backed off, which shows we care for the countryside.'

Mr Kliszewicz's suspicion of Shakespearian experts pales against his life-long aversion towards planning officials. Two early schemes he was involved in - an early Seventies project based on Walt Disney's Fantasia, sited off the M1 and backed by the Duke of Bedford and the London Brick Company, and a pounds 20m Robin Hood theme park in Sherwood Forest - fell through after rows over access roads.

'The Robin Hood park was a 500-acre site with detailed planning permission for a complete reconstruction of a medieval town,' he says. 'It had total funding and it was stopped by one sentence of red tape to do with building the roads first.'

Some observers of Britain's theme park scene believe that a project such as Bard Land, with its historic facades and earnest ambition to be 'educational', is at least 20 years out of date as well as representing retrograde architecture. Paul Finch, editor of Building Design magazine, says: 'It's interesting how people all want to do theme parks which look back. Why not forward? The Great Exhibition was a theme park of its day, but was concerned with science, technology and the future. You didn't get Victorians saying: 'Let's make a nice bit of olde London'.'

Kris Kliszewicz refuses to be disheartened. 'I'm one of the few people who works on the old Renaissance-type basis,' he says. 'I'm an ideas man and I get backing and get these ideas off the ground. The opposition to theme parks is the same thing that holds this country back in all fields - science, medicine, old people. The general attitude is pathetic.

'All you have to do is pick up a local paper round here and it's a nightmare for anyone just trying to build a garage, never mind a theme park. If Stratford turns us down, the thing will be built somewhere else. There's one or two sites we've looked at in the London Docklands. Quite frankly, whether we build it in Stratford, England, or Stratford, Ontario - where we do have a site and co-operation that leaves this country standing - doesn't really bother me.

'All that's going to happen is that Warwickshire's going to lose a lot of money when they've serious unemployment and no industry.'

It is now up to the planning officers of Stratford to decide whether the winter will bring discontent or glorious summer to Kris and Sharon Kliszewicz.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments