Showbiz stars behind makeover proposed for shabby Leicester Square

Paul Peachey
Friday 21 March 2003 01:00
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Influential figures from stage and screen have been consulted over ambitious plans to transform Leicester Square in London from a tawdry city centre haunt into Britain's leading live entertainment venue.

A new casino hotel and a roof terrace along the north side of the square have been suggested for a project to revitalise the area, which has also become a mustering point for aggressive beggars and pickpockets. The theatrical impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh and the film director Ridley Scott have had talks on the plans with Westminster City Council. Other proposals have included a permanent base for the circus troupe Cirque du Soleil.

Leicester Square has long held sway as a centre for popular culture, with artistic connections dating back to the 17th century. The artists William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy, used to live there. On the north side of the square, Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier appeared in cabaret shows at the Café de Paris.

The area remains at the centre of British film going, with its seven cinemas hosting 50 premieres a year. Apart from brief appearances from the odd Hollywood superstar, though, it has become more of a centre for hard-drinking youth and petty crime. Late- night licences for some of the 15 bars and nightclubs help attract up to 250,000 people a day.

Simon Milton, leader of Westminster council, said the plan to make the area the focal point of London entertainment was in its early stages. Consultants were expected to report soon. Mr Milton said the scheme had been inspired by the family-friendly atmosphere of Times Square in New York. A refurbished square could be a valuable draw for the tourism industry, which has been hard hit by American travel fears.

"What we have at the moment is a series of bars and clubs on the north side, some of which are very nice, some of which are pretty dire," he said. "What it does is attract young people who are looking to get drunk. Live performances brings different kinds of people into the Square. It wouldn't be just another entertainment venue – the role of Leicester Square should be to be the showcase."

Around-the-clock wardens and closed-circuit cameras have been introduced in the past year as a first check on the drink-related crimes and thefts in the square. The central area is also likely to be redesigned to make more space for outdoor cafés and dining. "Leicester Square is a great place. Ultimately it will be larger organisations that can afford to be there," Mr Milton said.

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