Leisure Riot

We were enormously impressed with Tom Cordell’s documentary Utopia London, which looks at the idealism of the post-war Modernist architects and the egalitarian buildings they created.

So we asked him to write an article around our summer issue theme of possibilities. They say the revolution will be a carnival, and Tom’s vision of the future might see us organising around shared fun – anyone for a leisure riot?

Leisure Riot: Utopian Architecture and Organised Fun by Tom Cordell

Crap work 

Recently I was filming on the Atlas Mountain tourist trail in Southern Morocco. My 11am stop was a visit to a factory producing the local speciality – argan oil. It was an all female co-operative, providing jobs for divorced women.

As a window on the past it was fascinating, but it didn’t look too great as a job. Yes it was better than absolute poverty, but it was boring, slow, almost certainly arthritis inducing   – the global qualities of crap work.

Thinking aloud, I mumbled “Wouldn’t it be better to use machines?”

Immediately my guide admonished me: “But then the ladies wouldn’t have jobs!” Of course, she was right – unless the ladies owned the machines.


Near Manchester, England, 1932. Hundreds of ramblers had trespassed on open and uncultivated moorland close to Manchester owned by the Duke of Devonshire. He used it 12 days a year for his own leisure pursuit of hunting. The trespassers demanded the right for local people to walk the land on their Sunday off from work. The Duke’s gamekeepers resisted, and the result was the world’s first leisure riot.

The Kinder trespass was organised by a 20 year old Jewish communist, Benny Rothman. His genius was to realise that by demanding the peaceful right to ramble, he could make a direct attack on the idea of the private ownership of property. His challenge was not unnoticed by the local magistrates, who sentenced him to three months in jail.

Rothman’s pioneering politicisation of leisure started a new movement. A few weeks later 10,000 ramblers gathered to walk across Kinder Scout in protest at the jail sentences.

Among them was a young playwright and singer called Jimmy Miller – stage-name Euan MacColl. MacColl with his future wife, Joan Littlewood, went on to pioneer a new form of politicised theatre directly inspired by the Kinder Trespass, believing that mass action based on shared cultural experiences could change the world. Seventeen years later, in 1949, a part of the dream came true: in direct response the the Kinder Trespass, the post-war Labour government created national parks across Britain, giving all citizens rights of access to private land. Leisure had proven to be a potent organising force for political change.


London 1964. A group of British radicals drew up plans for a vast building that they believed could open the door to a new society. It was called the Fun Palace.

Their vision:   a computerised, mechanised future, free of exhausting, tedious jobs, where humankind would be free to live creatively in an age of leisure. If in industrial Britain work defined social division and inequality, in post-industrial society its antithesis – fun – could heal these wounds.

Leading the group was Joan Littlewood. In the 1930s she had created a traveling theatre group – called Theatre Workshop – committed to her dream of using art as the catalyst to create a new, socialist society. After many years of poverty and struggle on the road, by the early 1960s Littlewood was finally successful and famous.

Designing the scheme was a young architect called Cedric Price. He was a man whose work would reshape modern architecture, yet he completed almost no buildings. An anti-architect, Price generally saw building as the wrong solution – he once advised a client asking for a new family home that the solution to his problem was not bricks and mortar, but divorce.

Backing the project was a man hugely famous in the 1960s, but almost unknown today – Tom Driberg. Tabloid gossip columnist, TV personality and left wing Labour MP, his vision of an egalitarian future was forged during the hours he spent each day cruising for gay sex in London’s public toilets. Here, while seeking his own pleasures, he learnt that all men were equal before the porcelain. To Driberg it was clear that radical change would need to appropriate space, and use it in ways that went far beyond the imagination of its designers.

Detailed drawings superimposed the new building onto the the brownfield wastelands of East London. The artwork highlighted how spaces that had once hosted mass industrial employment would now put the people in charge of their own fun. The users were expected to reconfigure the palace’s activities – and even the building itself.

Here’s a taste of the Fun Palace manifesto:

“Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot…”

But the Fun Palace was not to be. In October 1964, even as Price was drawing up the design, Littlewood told Vogue: “I forecast disaster for this cathedral-brothel. I’m throwing myself in the fan. Who cares? Someday it’ll work.”

Defeat came not from reactionary capitalist forces, but from the Left. The Palace’s offer was beyond the imagination of the traditional Labour establishment; for them, working class power came from workplace identity, family and the repression of these most frivolous urges to pleasure. Rumours spread that the palace would corrupt the innocent, that actors (universally known for their transgressive morals) would be available for sex with the public in the bushes outside the venue.

Meetings to present the scheme only intensified the hostility. A local resident shouted: “ A new attitude to time and space? What’s she talking about? I’ll tell you what it’s about, a lot of rowdies infesting the place day and night.” The urban working class showed no taste for being emancipated by this kind of culture – one man telling Littlewood: “We’ve got all we need here, a museum, a cinema, and the women have their housework.


The broader vision of the Fun Palace would eventually come to be realised but in two separate and totally contradictory ways. Architecturally, Price’s concept of high-tech, reconfigurable buildings inspired countless airports and those steel and glass temples of inequality – the Lloyds building and The Shard.

But more joyously, the true spirit of the palace came to life at the end of the 1980s, with a suitably radical application of technology to mass leisure –   through pharmacology. The mass use of ecstasy at rave parties – held suitably transgressively in abandoned industrial workspaces – created, at least for a few hours, a world free of class distinction. More significantly it gave the worker the chance to choose to maximise the use of his or her serotonin levels in their free time and concentrate their subsequent lows during the following week of wage slavery.

The uninhibited mix of sex and ecstasy that dominated the rave scene through the 1990s and 2000s was one that Driberg – an early campaigner for liberal drugs laws – would surely have approved of.

Admittedly this utopia faded with the come down, and rumours that Tory cabinet ministers took ecstasy in their youth make it harder to believe that drugs alone could help create a better world. The rich and powerful have never given up anything without some threat of violence, either.

But now that social solidarity based around work seems as alien to modern urban existence as the spectacle of extracting argan oil by hand, in this time of mass un- and under-employment, maybe we need to follow Benny Rothman’s idea of organisation around shared fun. Anyone for a leisure riot?

Tom Cordell is the director of documentary film Utopia London.


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