William Burdett-Coutts is the Artistic Director the newly renovated and re-imagined Riverside Studios overlooking the Thames at Hammersmith Bridge. As Artistic Director of the Assembly at the Edinburgh Festival, Burdett-Coutts is one of the UK’s leading figures in the Arts. Here he talks about his vision for the landmark venue and its potential to make West London home to some of the most innovative live and digital performances in the UK.
I arrived early for my meeting with William Burdett Coutts so I slipped round the corner to a corner café close to Riverside Studios. And there he was on the pavement chatting to one of the construction specialists who populate an area which looks destined to become one of the most stunning riverfront spaces anywhere on the Thames.
Despite not having met him before, I recognised him immediately from various online images. He has a distinctive face, which coupled with a low-key manner, gives him the kind of demeanour which I imagine has been useful in a career spanning nearly four decades in a profession where keeping calm and carrying on is a key asset.
Yet, he is undeniably passionate about what he does and has the kind of staying power than only the most committed characters develop. He admits that other careers would have netted him more money but from the moment he took drama as a secondary subject at University in Zimbabwe he felt as though the highs and lows of live performance would prove an irresistible force.
‘I certainly didn’t do this for the money. I knew it would be uncertain but I never worried. I got involved in one project and then moved forward to the next. The development of Riverside Studios has taken a long time but sometimes you have to stick with something when you believe in it.
‘The great thing about the new building is that it is so prominent that it will become an attraction in its own right,’ he said.
Indeed, when Riverside Studios reopens its west London base following an extensive redevelopment costing up to £50 million, it will aim to be the country’s first arts centre devoted entirely to the concept of digital communication. It will be geared up to transmit any live performance to any digital platform in the world and, in turn, receive incoming live streams from other global and UK outlets.
Occupying the ground floor and parts of the basement area, the Riverside Studios has three studio theatres (with capacities of 180, 380 and 444 seats), a 200-seat cinema and screening room, a community and rehearsal area, a local events space and a number of restaurants and bars. The foyer will look out on to the river, and the river walkway will be opened up for the first time, allowing visitors to walk beside the river all the way from Barnes Bridge to Craven Cottage.
Add to that the newly opened Sam’s Brasserie and further along the esplanade, the internationally renowned River Café and you get a picture of just how important this stretch of the river can become. The closure of Hammersmith Bridge has been a huge problem for residents but eventual restoration to its former Victorian glory would go a long way to putting this venue on the map for locals and tourists alike.
There have been delays in getting Riverside Studios open but the public areas are now completed, the cinema will open at Christmas with live performance spaces opening in mid January and mid March. This will be the best equipped theatrical location for recording live performances in the UK and as such it will be hugely important to the area on several levels.
Forty years ago when the young Burdett Coutts lived on a barge outside the Dove pub, he would never have imagined that the building, which so fascinated him – it was an iron foundry – would end up as a hub of live performance, entertainment and smart, residential living.
Yet, here it is and Burdett Coutts is the ideal man to run it. He worked in Edinburgh in the early 1980s, rented some performance space and never looked back. He became Artistic Director of Assembly in 1981 and moved to Barnes in 1991 where he now lives with his wife and family. Within two years he took up a post as Head of Arts for Granada TV. In the same year he became Artistic Director and CEO of the Riverside Trust, responsible for Riverside Studios. Somewhere along the line he took over the running of the Brighton Comedy Festival as well.
Riverside Studios has taken much longer than anyone expected to come to fruition, but once the doors are open the frustrations and delays will be forgotten – we will see only the fabulous building and location. Burdett Coutts – I suspect – will remember but say little. Those with staying power tend not too.