EC1 resident George Feltham-Parish talks about the thrills and spills at his vibrant 1990s arts space by Farringdon station – nicknamed the Tardis
In 1994 I found a derelict building in Turnmill Street while working for The Serious Road Trip – an NGO supplying aid into the former Yugoslavia. My colleague Howard Jones and myself needed an HQ to start International Humanitarian Aid Concern while working in Bosnia supplying information technology to those in need. Our landlords London Transport kindly charged us a ‘peppercorn rent’ of £1.00 per annum for 14,000 sq ft space on the west side of Turnmill Street.
Howard, who we called ‘the Dark Lord’, wanted to call it the labyrinth, but I pointed out there was already a club of that name over in Hackney, so I chose the name the Tardis as, like the famous police box in Dr Who, it looked small on the outside but was big on the inside.
The building had originally been a parcels depot, a pornographic film studio, and also where the Strobe Light had been invented by one David Cecil. Once in, we needed high profile friends to fund our various charitable exploits. These came in all shapes and forms, from disorganised 500-strong raves to organised parties, book launches, record launches and PR think-tanks. As the Tardis was partly below ground and adjacent to Farringdon station nobody ever heard our noisy parties. Every major DJ played there and we never once paid them. They should be have been so lucky…
We were raided once, by the Transport Police only for them to find 50 ladies listening to Tom Jones all dressed in very low cut gowns, launching a magazine called The Passion by Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama fame. I never allowed a queue to form in the street as our door was skilfully managed by our team of hilariously funny but well-respected doormen and one woman – Big Hazel.
The printing company in the adjacent part of the Tardis departed and we quickly acquired their building. It was part of the spirit of the time, and 200 yards away was John Newman’s famous club Turnmills (see EC1 Echo, Oct-Nov 2020). John was one very interesting character with an amazing eye for detail in his eclectically designed club. We became good friends.
The residents of the Tardis were electic, too. Incorporated within the Tardis umbrella was The Smithfield Trust, the Historic Clerkenwell Association, The Clerkenwell Artists Association, and The Miscarriages of Justice Organisation. We sponsored various charitable enterprises here and abroad covering Bosnia, supplying blood testing & vaccination kits to Tanzania and funding The Sunshine Children’s Orphanage in Egypt. One of our many money-raising events was the Tank Girl film launch party held at the Roundhouse Camden. About 3,000 people attended and it cost our sponsors £45,000, which also included 12,000 bottles of beer and 2000 bottles of Smirnoff Black vodka. Financially it was not a success.
The Clerkenwell Literary Festival was based within our building and held over five years, extended with events all over Clerkenwell’s various venues. I managed to entice Andy McNab, David Bowie and Irvine Welsh to become our patrons – indeed, Bowie paid £6,000 for six months usage of our street window with a piece entitled, ‘Window Pain Project at The Tardis’, when he hosted Bowieart. We estimated that about 20,000 people passed the window daily. The writer and ex-SAS hero Andy McNab held his wedding reception in the Tardis.
With several rooms and 17 arches, I was able to let space cheaply to start-up companies, interesting individuals and artists. Clerkenwell Films with John Hannah was an early client – still in Clerkenwell, and whose latest film is the highly successful The Dig. One office was rented to six talented journalists who now work for the UK national press. Malkovich once rented the Tardis for a week filming his 2002 film, Hideous Man. On Andy McNab’s wedding night it was full. The place was full of models which was great fun and highly memorable and his guests were a motley group ranging from the head of MI6 to the Pope’s lawyer. Jim Henson of The Muppets, John Torode from Masterchef. The Guardian & Observer newspapers all held Xmas parties there.
Time moved on and Clerkenwell became the home of the Dotcom boom. It was also full of YBAs or Young British Artists, and we held Chris Ofili’s post Turner Prize party here, with him winning the next day. We were then inundated with YBAs wanting to hold their own parties here as we were considered a ‘lucky’ venue. Banksy’s statue, the Scales of Injustice, was unveiled on Clerkenwell Green then relocated to the top of our building for two months until water started leaking down into my office.
I stopped doing parties because I became concerned for my many guests’ safety and then concentrated on PR companies involved in new products, ranging from trainers, mobile phones, cat food and the highly successful ‘Flat Eric’ campaign for Levi’s jeans. The jeans were accidentally thrown in the rubbish bin and Levi’s had to fly in a new pair at a cost of $3,000.
There came pressure from our landlord to vacate and they increased our annual rent to 400 per cent. By then I was then paying £12,000 per annum and the continual upkeep of the building was a constant drain on finances. Meanwhile, the regeneration of Clerkenwell had led to the area becoming trendy and fashionable. London Transport upped my rent again and backdated it for five years, forcing me into court. I gave in gracefully.
Turnmill Street and The Tardis is now Farringdon’s European Gateway. Such is life. But since the Covid-19 virus and its repercussions I can see many more buildings remaining empty, just awaiting someone’s entrepreneurial endeavours…