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25th January 2011

German television film helps West Country tourist industry

By Jolyon Gumbrell

A television film broadcasted on the German television channel ZDF on Sunday 23rd January 2011 - is likely to attract tourists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland to the south West of England this year.  The film called Sonntagskinder which translates as Sunday’s Children - is the latest production in the Rosamunde Pilcher series of romantic films, to have been filmed in Devon and Cornwall since 1993.

Sonntagskinder was filmed at Mount Edgcumbe House in Cornwall, which overlooks Plymouth Sound, and is jointly owned by Cornwall County Council and Plymouth City Council.  In the film the house was used as a location for a fictitious hotel, where a female chef had an affair with a wealthy businessman who owned a record company.  The house which is open to paying day visitors from April to September may well see a greater influx of visitors who have seen the film.

It is ironic that Mount Edgcumbe House is now generating revenue from Germany, as it was badly damaged in an air raid on Plymouth during the Second World War.  The 6th Earl of Edgcumbe had the shell of the house sympathetically restored in 1958.  His heir sold the 865 acre estate to the two councils in 1971.

©Jolyon Gumbrell 2011

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28th August 2010

A controversial Berlin rebuild project could highlight the social purpose of classical architecture

by Jolyon Gumbrell

Recent controversies over planning in London - on the site of the Chelsea Barracks, and the development of the Olympic Park - have brought public attention back to the debate between classical and modern architecture.  Traditionally the left has always been very hostile to classical architecture: seeing it as the preserve of the aristocratic and capitalist classes.  However, a controversial rebuild development in Germany could point the way to the practical and social benefits of classical architecture.

On 3rd February 1945 just over three months before Nazi Germany was defeated at the end of the Second World War, the Berliner Schloss or Berlin Palace was severely damaged in an air raid.  In spite of being hit by incendiary and high explosive bombs and burning for almost four days, the external walls remained standing when the Soviet Army finally took Berlin in early May 1945.  The shell of this historic building dating from the late Middles Ages had survived the war.  However, a political decision made in 1950 by the new communist government of the German Democratic Republic: meant that the remains of this beautiful historic building, and potential tourist attraction for East Berlin were finally raised to the ground.   Future generations would be denied the splendor of the work of the architects Eosander von Goethe and Andreas Schlüter.

For many years the empty site where the Berlin Palace had stood was used for military displays.  Between 1974 and 1976 a steel, glass, concrete and asbestos building called Palast der Republik or Palace of the Republic, also known as the People's Palace was erected on the site.  The building was supposed to be the showpiece of the communist East German state, but was typical of the ugly and unimaginative modern architecture knocked up in many European cities in the post war period.  By the time of German re-unification in 1990 following the cold war, the modernist design of the Palace of the Republic itself looked old fashioned.

After German re-unification: it was descovered that the huge quanties of asbestos used in the construction of the People's Palace, proved a significant health hazard for anyone who used the building regularly.  The operation to remove the asbestos was begun in 2002 and completed in the spring of 2003.  In an article on the website of http://www.berliner-schloss.de, it was estimated that the building contained 750 tons of pure asbestos mixed with 4,000 tons of binder material.  In 2006 the Bundestag, the German parliament decided that the 1970s People's Palace should be demolished.  However, due to worries that there might be more asbestos in the building the demolition work was not completed until 2009.

In 1991 discussions began on the possibility that the old Berlin Palace, destroyed in 1950, could be reconstructed.  The new palace in the original baroque design would once again enhance the beauty of the Museum Island in the centre of Berlin.  In 1993 scaffolding and tarpaulin were put around the People's Palace, where the tarpaulin had been painted to create a simulation of the old Berlin Palace.  This project had been the initiative of a businessman from Hamburg called Wilhelm von Boddien, who was a founding member of Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V or the Union for the Berlin City Palace.  The idea for the simulation originally came from the architectural historian Prof. Dr Geord Peschken and his friend the architect Frank Augustin.  The tarpaulin was hand painted by Catherine Feff’s team of artists.  The simulation gave Berliners a vision of what had been lost from 1945 to 1950, as well as what could be recreated on the site for a modern purpose.

In 2007 the Bundestag decided that the Berlin Palace should be rebuilt and used for an international cultural centre called the Humbolt Forum, named after the early 19th century German explorer Alexander von Humbolt.  In 2008 an international architectural competition was held in order to choose the architect, whose design could recreate the splendor of the lost Berlin Palace.  The winner of the competion was Prof Franco Stella, an architect from Vicenza in Italy.

The new palace of the Humbolt Forum built in a traditional style - recreating the original facades, the dome, and the Schlüterhof courtyard of the ancient palace - will accommodate: the Museum of East Asian Art; the Museum of Indian Art; the scientific collections of the Humbolt University; and the non-European literary resources of the Central and State libraries.  The palace development will also include the Agora conference and events centre, which is described on the the Berliner Schloss website: “as a magnificent international meeting place for people from society, politics, business, culture and science.”

Although the creation of the Humbolt Forum - in the external form of the beautiful palace which once stood on that spot - might seem a practical and sympathetic way of bringing a modern facility to the centre of Berlin, the scheme has not been without its critics.  In spite of the deadly asbestos, some Berliners did not want to see the 1970s Palace of the Republic demolished.  A modernist architecture magazine called SLAB, described Franco Stella’s design for the recreation of the palace, as a Prussian turd.  SLAB has been running a campaign against using a traditional design of architecture for any building on that site.

On SLAB’s website there is an English translation of a letter of petition against Francesco Stella’s design for the palace.  An extract of the letter entitled, ‘Berlin Palace - not in my name’, can be seen below:

We oppose the palace replica because it stands for an image of Germany’s past and present which we do not share.  The idealised reconstruction of the Hohenzollern palace suppresses elements of Germany history.  It is a forgetting machine.  Almost 600 years of architectural and political history, with its numerous twists and turns, is reduced to an idealised structure characterised by a seemingly timeless form which supresses the conflicts and changes experienced in Germany history and, on reestablishing the tabula rasa, presents to the world the fiction of an unbroken tradition.  On this site, so closely intertwined with German history, 20th century details are eradicated allowing a seamless connection to be made to the supposedly ideal world which preceded that epoch.

The argument that the palace replica will be a “forgetting machine” does not make sense, because all Francesco Stella is trying to do, is recreate the beauty of a building that was destroyed in 1950.  Surely the person who first created a “forgetting machine”, was Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the GDR who ordered the destruction of the original Berlin Palace in 1950.  This was an act of cultural vandalism in itself, destroying “600 years of architectural and political history, with its numerous twists and turns”.  It should also be remembered that Ulbricht, the man who ordered the destruction of the Berlin Palace, also ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, a barrier which caused so much suffering and inconvenience for the people of Berlin.

The building of the Palace will not eradicate details of the 20th century “allowing a seamless connection to be made to the supposedly ideal world which preceded that epoch”, because that is not the purpose of the project.  The purpose of the new palace will be to provide a home for the Humbolt Forum.  The thing the modernists hate, is that the reconstruction of the baroque facades of the Berlin Palace, might actually provide a practical way of building a beautiful international cultural centre in the middle of Berlin.  Modernists are ideologically opposed to the idea that anything useful can be taken from the past.  They hate to think that any technique or style used by an architect in the 17th or 18th century, might be useful to the modern world.

The Hohenzollerns may have been despots, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know how to commission the best architects to design their palaces.  It is understandable that people do not want to make the same mistakes as those of the past, but that doesn’t mean we should reject good art or architecture because it was once in the possession of a despot or tyrant.

©Jolyon Gumbrell 2010

30th April 2010

Review of the play Enron

by Jolyon Gumbrell

The stage play Enron, written by Lucy Prebble, is about the American energy giant Enron, which went bust in 2001. The play gives the audience a good understanding, of how easily the individuals who run a big corporate organization can become deluded. Those at the top of Enron were intoxicated with greed, and the hubris that their own company was an invincible money making machine. For those in the company it became more of a religion than a business: as Enron's chairman, Kenneth Lay, believed that his organization had a social function comparable to a church, a charity or a political party. For Lay, Enron was "The Company" for which every employee was expected to give his or her last breath.

When Jeffrey Skilling was made CEO of Enron, he was equally deluded by the belief in free market capitalism, but keen to tell all those around him that unregulated free markets are a rational Darwinian system. For Skilling had a deep psychotic hatred of his contemporaries who went to work for government instead of the private sector. He believed that those who went to work in the public sector lacked talent, and didn't have what it takes to survive in the jungle of the market. At one point in the play Skilling sounded remarkably like David Cameron, as he bemoaned the involvement of government in the regulation of the business world.

The three chiefs of Enron: Ken Lay, Claudia Roe, and Geff Skilling all had different ideas how Enron could ultimately control and dominate the world's energy supply. Lay believed he could buy political support for deregulation, by putting his man George W. Bush in the White House. Roe believed that Enron's empire could be expanded by building power plants in other countries such as India, where there was a growing demand for electricity. Skilling believed that the market itself was the means to controlling global energy supply, and that there was no need to invest in any physical infrastructure such as power plants and pipelines. Skilling was only interested in pushing Enron's share price ever higher.

When Ken Lay's man George W. Bush became president of the United States in 2001, the state of California was forced to deregulate its power market. This meant that Enron could reduce its electricity power supply to California whenever it wanted to, thus causing blackouts in the state. Enron used the threat of blackouts in California, as a means of blackmailing the state to push the price of electricity up to exorbitant levels.

During the 1990s, Skilling had created a system whereby Enron stock would appear more valuable than it really was. The company had been valued around $70 billion shortly before the collapse of its share price. However, Skilling had known for some time that there was a black hole in the company's finances.

Skilling had conspired with Andy Fastow, Enron's chief financial officer, to hide the company's $30 billion debt in a series of companies known as special purpose entities. Enron's accountants Arthur Anderson had been complicate in the fraud to hide Enron's debt, at a time when investors believed the company was worth billions of dollars. Many of the investors were Enron's own employees, who had been encouraged to invest their life savings in the company.

The share price of Enron was held up by faith alone in April 2001. The spell was broken at a press confence, when Skilling called a person who had asked him an awkward question an asshole. From that moment, the price of Enron's shares began to fall. This was just a few months before the terrorist attacks of 911.

Some clever techniques have been used in this play, which is being staged at the Noel Coward Theatre in London. Andy Fastow is portrayed as a mad scientist, who will do anything for his master Jeff Skilling. Fastow's hideous creation of the special purpose entities - the shell companies used to hide Enron's billions of dollars of debt - are represented as reptiles dressed in suits. Towards the end of the play when Enron is on the brink of collapse, Skilling tells Fastow he must kill off his beloved monsters.

Throughout the play there is a sense of doom, perhaps this is because we are aware that the play is based on a true story, and we know that all the main characters will be ruined by their own greed, and in the process ruin many others. Although Skilling and Fastow were convicted for the fraud behind Enron and spent years in prison, the company's chairman, Ken Lay conveniently died shortly before he was due to start his prison sentence. Unfortunately many of the lessons which could have been learnt about the dangers of corporate corruption, were allowed to die with Lay.

This play is very relevant to the economic crisis, the world is now suffering as a result of the credit crunch of 2008. The type of business practices used by Lay, Skilling and Fastow were continued by the executives who ran the big global banks such as Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and RBS. The executives and traders of these institutions hid and sold amassed toxic debt which amounted to the size of the GDP of major economies, and when it came to disaster they turned to their friends the politicians for help.

©Jolyon Gumbrell 2010

10th December 2009

Dorothy Dickson, an icon of the 1920s and 30s

by Jolyon Gumbrell

In 2009 some items of Art Deco jewellery were brought into Georgian Gems in Swanage, Dorset for repair.  The lady who had once owned the jewellery, died at the age of 102 on 25th September 1995.  During the 1920s and 30s she had been a celebrity.  A short biography of her can be read below ...

Dorothy Dickson was an actress, dancer and singer who appeared on stage and screen.  Born on 25th July 1893 in Kansas City in the United States: little is mentioned of Dickson’s early childhood and youth in the biographical accounts of her show business career, but one source told Jolyon’s Review that her father owned the first automobile in one of the major cities of the United States.

Around 1914 Dickson married her ballroom dancing partner Carl Hyson.  The couple’s daughter Dorothy Hyson was born on 24th December 1914, and would go on to follow her parents into show business.

From 1917 to 1921 Dorothy Dickson was performing on Broadway in musical comedies and revues such as: Oh Boy, the Ziegfeld Follies, Girl o’Mine, Rock-a-Bye Baby, The Royal Vagabond, and Lassie.  In 1921 the impresario, C.B.Cockran brought the Hysons to England, where Dorothy Dickson and Carl Hyson were ballroom dancers in a revue at the London Pavilion called London, Paris and New York.  In September of that year Dickson took the principal part in the musical comedy Sally, produced by George Grossmith and J.E. Malone with the music by Jerome Kern.  For Dickson, the musical Sally must have been the turning point in her career, bringing her fame and success for her rendition of Kern’s song “Look For The Silver Lining”.

The following year Dickson was performing in The Cabaret Girl, which received a complementary review in The Manchester Guardian, saying: “To-night Miss Dorothy Dickson danced and sang as well as a lady ‘lovelier than the first rose of summer’ can be expected to dance and sing; with grace, but also a certain pertness: tastefully, yet with the kind of dash that is as salt to this performance.  The play undoubtedly delighted the audience.”

In 1928 Dickson sang live in a BBC radio broadcast from Savoy Hill.  This would have brought her voice into homes around the British Isles at a time when the wireless medium was still in its infancy.  However, she remained famous for her West End musical roles throughout her career.  She did appear in some film roles such as Danny Boy in 1934, and Sword of Honour in 1939, Dickson did not star in as many films as her daughter Dorothy Hyson.

In the 1930s Dickson continued her stage career starring in Ivor Novello’s Careless Rapture in 1936 and Crest of the Wave in 1937.  In 1937 she took the part of Princess Katharine in Shakespeare’s Henry V, alongside Ivor Novello who took the part of the English King.  At the time critics were surprised that Dickson and Novello should appear in a shakespearian play, when their usual genre was musical comedy.

During the Second World War Dickson performed in morale boosting revues such as Diversion in 1940.  She also performed in ENSA for British troops who were serving overseas.

Since the 1920s Dickson had been a friend of the Queen Mother, a friendship which would last until Dickson’s death in 1995.  After the Second World War Dorothy Dickson became a socialite, often hosting parties for famous guests at her flat in Eaton Square, London.

In 2006 there was an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, of the photographic work of the late Angus McBean.  One of the photographs in the exhibition taken in 1938 of Dorothy Dickson, is of the actress with her head just above water in a pool of water lilies.  This photograph may have been inspired by the theme of Ophelia, a tragic character in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.  In the 1850s, the artist Sir John Everett Millais had painted Elizabeth Siddal as the drowned Ophelia, however in McBean’s studio photograph of Dickson, the latter has her head clearly above water as if she has just gone into the pond for a quick swim.

At the time of writing Angus McBean’s photograph of Dorothy Dickson can be seen on the National Portrait Gallery’s website at http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait.php?sText=Dorothy+Dickson&submitSearchTerm%5Fx=7&submitSearchTerm%5Fy=9&search=ss&OConly=true&firstRun=true&LinkID=mp18536&page=1&rNo=0&role=sit.  The website of Georgian Gems can be seen at www.georgiangems.co.uk.

©Jolyon Gumbrell 2009