A very tough act to follow: As the curtain rises anew, Emily Green recalls the awesome dramatic achievements of Riverside Studios

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The Independent Online
RIVERSIDE Studios in Hammersmith, west London, re- opens this week, victorious in its last round of funding battles and spruced up by the refurbishment that closed it in April. Following a series of appointments, there is also a new artistic director, William Burdett- Coutts, who arrives from the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh promising to return the Riverside to form. However, he should be warned how dangerously good that arts centre's original form was.

The first administration lasted nine years from the opening in 1976. By 1985, its founder, David Gothard, was sacked by the Labour-run Greater London Council, which denounced the Riverside as elitist. At the time the GLC was fighting for its own survival; Riverside, unapologetically superior, was a handy target for commoner-than-thou politicos.

Nor did the centre have the influential friends it might have cultivated: its worldly dedication to the avant garde made the Fringe look dowdy, the West End look taxidermied and the National Theatre a concrete maiden.

Gothard, a theatre director turned impresario, started by bringing the Polish director Tadeusz Cantor to stage the The Dead Class in the old Thames-side Dr Who studios. Access to the space was pot luck. As the Polish production rehearsed, a BBC electrician who had worked on Dr Who lent the studio keys to his son so he could practise with his rock band (it became the Sex Pistols).

The Cantor production was sanctioned by Peter Gill, a theatre director, who was influential in an independent trust composed of local worthies. Soon after, Gill became artistic director of Riverside and appointed Gothard as programmer to book visiting artists.

Gill achieved almost immediate success with a production of the Cherry Orchard, for which Julie Covington turned down the lead in Evita. This led to his promotion to the National. But what of the man who did most to build the Riverside's reputation, David Gothard?

Born in Suffolk, Gothard grew up in the Fens, a childhood friend of David Frost, who directed his juvenile plays. His father was a printer, a union man, who may have instilled in Gothard an affinity with the left and an insatiable appetite for newspapers. During the Sixties, Gothard travelled in Eastern Europe, forging friendships with avant-garde artists in Budapest, Cracow, Prague and Sarajevo. This paid off: he did not book artists from hearsay, but from having seen them. He knew Vaclav Havel. And he found Chaplin's youngest daughter performing in a tiny circus on a wet night in the old Les Halles.

Gabbling down the phone in a dizzying succession of languages, Gothard put Riverside's programme together. His phone bills are legendary. Before the accountants, the board, Hammersmith Council or the GLC had quite grasped what he was up to, the place was awash with mighty European, Oriental and American talents wondering where they should park their props.

AMONG them were Dario Fo, Samuel Beckett, the Zukuki Theatre of Japan, Joe Chaikin, Kathy Acker, Sam Shepard, Athol Fugard, Wozza Albert, the Irwin Group of Slovenia, Le Cirque Imaginaire, and the Berliner Ensemble.

The breadth of his enthusiasms gave the theatre the quality of a good newspaper: it brought the world to us. For the first time, we did not see an English actor interpreting Dario Fo, we saw Fo himself, the cleverness of this Italian's satire made magnificent by his humanity.

These artists woke up London. Before the world music craze, before Paul Simon raided Soweto for Graceland, black South African shows from the Market Theatre of Johannesburg were blowing the roof off Riverside.

Long before Coppola made Cotton Club, great black entertainers from the Apollo Club in Harlem - Adelaide Hall, Elizabeth Welch, Honey Coles, Chuck Green, Sandman Simms - had their careers resurrected in, of all places, Hammersmith. Shortly before his exile from the Soviet Union, Andrei Tarkovsky delivered an unforgettable lecture on the crisis in film-making.

Gothard never dignified the charges of elitism with a defence, other than to joke recently that, in retrospect, the first time Riverside opened its doors for a local school production the result had indeed been unpalatably elitist. It was of the Caucasian Chalk Circle and starred, as pupils, Hugh Grant, with a walk-on by Nigella Lawson.

During his nine years at Riverside, Gothard gave residencies, studio projects and reassuring odd jobs to unknowns such as the Asian playwrights Hanif Kurieshi (My Beautiful Laundrette) and Tunde Ikoli (Afro- Cornish writer of Scrape off the Black). He nurtured two theatre directors who are now, arguably, among Britain's best: David LeVeaux and Simon Usher. LeVeaux went on to secure two Tony nominations for his Broadway productions of A Moon for the Misbegotten and Anna Christie and last year directed the latest Pinter, Moonlight, in London. Usher is artistic director of Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.

Because Riverside's funding arrangement required it to be an arts centre rather than solely a theatre, Gothard offered residencies to the young architect Will Alsop (now the toast of France for the municipal building known as 'Le Grand Bleu' in Marseilles), the sculptor Bruce McClean, the film-maker Peter Greenaway and the dancer Michael Clark.

Riverside also trained Andrew Eaton, producer of Roddy Doyle and one of the best young film-makers to work for Arena. Rebecca O'Brien, the producer of Kenneth Loach's last several films, started there. It housed Margaret Harris's Theatre Design Course, which trained Ashley Martin Davies, Maria Djurcovic, Tom Cairns and Anthony Lambel.

Since Gothard's departure, Riverside, in keeping with a wider decline in London's cultural life, has been seriously marginalised. By booking in Le Cirque Imaginaire for its re-opening, William Burdett-Coutts has paid a deep and probably sincere compliment to Gothard and the original Riverside. Let's hope he means business - that is to say, theatre.

(Photograph omitted)