John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Like David Attenborough clucking over a stricken yak, one wonders what will come of tragic Battersea Power Station'
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The Independent Online

I'd been meaning to check out the China exhibition at Battersea Power Station since it opened last month, and I finally snuck in at the weekend. This was a bittersweet pilgrimage because I grew up in Battersea and the power station, with its tall, obscenely white legs poking into the sky, was a potent symbol of London SW11. It was a crazy, million-brick folly in a bombed- out wasteland, kind of hideous but also kind of imposing. I looked at it the way Wordsworth once looked at Tintern Abbey.

You can inspect the wreckage from any train heading from the south into Victoria station - the broken windows, the disappointed brickwork, the redundant sense of purpose, the puddles of rainwater, the energy-less wires. To be able to walk around inside it was weird. The children said it was like being inside a spooky church. I wasn't sure. The interior is so vast, you don't feel you're inside anything, only looking across a great stony field towards a distant wall with a complicated arrangement of huge joists and gantries. It's shockingly decayed, the bricks crumbling and the metalwork corroded. Like David Attenborough clucking over a stricken Arctic yak, you wonder what will happen to the tragic thing.

After the dull exhibition of Chinese video installations (proving that the New East is just as capable of howling pretension as the rest of us), we were shown a computerised graphic of what the power station will become, once its owners (Parkview International) have spent £1.5bn on it - the two enormous hotels, the ballroom, the banqueting hall, the concert auditorium, the posh residential block, the recreated main building with its solar-panel roof and art-event interior, the tree-dappled public walkways and ponds, the Thames-side jetty... You could take home a memento of your visit, complete with an artist's impression of the site. The children wanted to know when they could visit it.

What they didn't know, and what remained unsaid, was that the plans are utter moonshine. A month ago, Parkview announced that their proposed billion-quid complex was being shelved in favour of a housing scheme. This is the latest in a long line of initiatives announced, leaked or rumoured about the power station, while project managers and senior staff have come and gone. In the 13 years since he bought the site, Victor Hwang, a Taiwanese businessman who relocated to Hong Kong before coming to London, has talked about involving Warner cinemas, the Cirque du Soleil, an "entertainment complex," an Eden-project-style tourist destination and "an arts destination to rival Tate Modern and the Royal House." It's all been dreamland. Mr Hwang has apparently raised £150m from City investors (especially Barclays and the Bank of Scotland) and spent it on the ruined building, but it's hard to see where.

This week, the immediate future of the power station will be decided. On Thursday, Wandsworth Council Planning Committee will consider Parkview's application to change its plans. They now want to build flats and offices on a neighbouring site, and to renovate the main building with a plastic roof. They also want to demolish the four great chimneys, which they claim are unsafe, and replace them.

"They mean to mothball the power station in a tenant-ready condition," a chap from the Battersea Power Station Community Group told me, "and convert a couple of floors, while they develop the surrounding site into flats, while they look for a buyer. They want to know what's the minimum amount of renovation work they can get away with."

Will Parkview's prosaic and money-grabbing new plans be accepted? Probably. The company is lucky to have a skilled "planning consultant" to argue their case. He is Ian Thompson and until January 2004 he was Wandsworth Council's own borough planner. He went to work for Parkview two months later for a rumoured salary of £75,000. Those of us who grew up within sight of the old industrial cathedral, and who want to see it properly and lovingly renovated, will be watching with interest.

***

I know of no cultural phenomenon which engages the attention so perversely as does The Archers. I've listened to it, on and off, for 40 years, and I still can't identify half the cast. If you asked me to name the voice (or plot function) of Brenda Tucker or Matt Thingummy, I'd be lost. If you insisted I distinguish Usha Gupta, the solicitor, from Shula or Kirsty or a dozen other middle-class women, I couldn't do it (even though she's Anglo-Indian).

I simply cannot stand certain deliveries, particularly those of Ed Grundy, who converses in a sub- hysterical, pubertal squawk, or the elderly sophisticate Lilian who calls everyone "Dahhh-ling." I weep with boredom at the clichéd exchanges down at the Cat & Fiddle, and what passes for wit during auctions at The Bull. I cannot raise the smallest interest in Tom's organic sausages or the problematic love life of that Gorbals halfwit, Jazzer. And then, after long periods of non-interest, I find myself gripped all over again by a story-line which has turned the cast into real human beings.

For years I've listened to Ruth Archer radiating sensible, mild, be-cardiganed, passionless Geordie-mum qualities. Now, hearing her copping off with Sam, the cowpoke in the cowshed, was like catching your auntie Flo at a dogging site. And as your amazement brings you back to the radio again and again, you realise the skill with which the scriptwriters play with their thunderstruck listeners: witness the number of times Ruth has been interrupted by children and doorbells while on the point of telling her guilty secret. Check out the quaver in her voice when someone asks if she and David can come to dinner next week - by which time she's supposed to be shacked up in bovine bliss with her new love. This is subtle story-telling (and subtle acting by Felicity Finch) of a level far above most radio drama. Can they keep it up for another 15,000 shows?

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