Saturday, 5 September 2009

Whitehaven 2: Oliver Messel

Messel was one of the leading interior, film, and theatre designers of the thirties and forties, through to the advent of the new realism of John Osborne and the so called concrete-and-barbed-wire school of design suitable for such as Jimmy Porter. Messel's was altogether another world:

The picture shows Oliver Messel and his sister Anne, later Anne Armstrong Jones, mother of Lord Snowdon, who gave the comic impression of Nicholas (Miki / Niki) Seker on the film yesterday.

This is a sketch by Messel for the set of the film 'Suddenly Last Summer'

And this is his design for the Dorchester Hotel:

As may be seen - and as we saw in profusion in the slide lecture conducted by his son Thomas - Messel was of the same line of sensibility as his friend Rex Whistler. I am not sure what the correct name for this style is (Osbert Lancaster will have labelled it) but maybe we could call it Thirties Rococo for now. It is Fancy writ very large, a last minute doomed frivolity - Hungry Thirties Glamour might be another name for it - that the war, or the post-war generation, was to blow away, leaving nothing except some exclusive interiors and a few films. Concrete and barbed wire.

Messel worked like a demon at it, as if it were for ever the last minute of the last hour before the last and greatest party in the world, at a moment when everything had to be lighter, flouncier, dreamier, wealthier, more of a wonderful- wonderful-darling-joke. He adapted materials. He'd have made Versailles out of rawlplugs if he could.

And then there was Society, that was inextricably a part of this, and of which Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones were the last beacons. Not that Society has stopped existing - it just doesn't exist in quite the party-party form it did before before. Instead they are at the clubs out of which London Lite shows them spilling at 3am, with singers, actors and models with names like Pixie.

Sekers had become part of this world. Darling, darling, he would say to Princess Margaret on the phone, you simply must come down to Glyndebourne.... etc. That's according to Snowdon.

And so stands the Rosehill Theatre in sea coal and nuclear fuel station Whitehaven. The cars arrive with their evening gowned and bow-tied patrons, watched - as one photographs currently on show in the local museum shows - by the locals. Rosehill was not to be confused with Glyndebourne, Sekers insisted when asking for public support. His personal contacts came to perform for him at a much lower fee. In one of the letters on display Sekers tells how David Oistrakh has come over for three performances: one in the Royal Albert Hall that he could fill three-times over, and two at Rosehill where he would receive a fraction of the fee. And Pauk and Menuhin and Soderstrom and Break and Gielgud and Grenfell and Rostropovich...

I wondered whether Rosehill had any fanciful connection to Budapest's Rózsadomb (literally Rosehill) district where the rich lived and continue to live, but it had been Rosehill from the beginning of the 19th century. The name will, I suppose, have tickled Nicholas Sekers (Szekeres Miklós?) as well as his Hungarian business partnes Tomi de Gara (Garai Tamás?).

So, it's a puzzle: The Messels, the Sekers, the poor in their Fords, as Belloc wrote, the rich in their Rolls Royces. The Rosehill Theatre opens in 1959, just twelve years after the great 1947 mining disaster. The mines function into the 80s.

Concrete and barbed wire are sometimes salutary. I am, of course, a child of concrete and barbed-wire, not of Versailles, not even of a Versailles constructed out of rawlplugs.

Two more nuclear power stations to be built here in the next five years. There is cross-party support. It will be boom town again, says Lee at the hotel.

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