Moving on

15th May 2019

John Wyver writes: On Friday this week, after 30 remarkable years, we leave our beloved offices in Islington’s Rheidol Mews. Above is the view that has greeted some of us each day for three decades, and below is a glimpse of the chaos that we are currently living through – along with our accountant Kay and colleague Tom. We are moving to a new space a mile or so away at ScreenWorks, from where we’ll be working from Monday onwards:

Illuminations, Studio 309, Screenworks, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2ER

I’m going to start contributing some thoughts and memories about this space – and I’m also going to encourage Linda, who has been here as long as me – and who found the space originally – and others to add their own recollections.

We came to Rheidol Mews in July 1989, after a couple of years in Newman Passage, close to the first offices of Channel 4 in Charlotte Street. There we produced State of the Art, 1987, and two series of Ghosts in the Machine, 1986 and 1988, but by the time we arrived in Islington much of our focus was on archive programming for Channel 4, including The A-Z of TV (1990), 1001 Nights of TV (1991) and the 13-week series TV Heaven (1993). We made four series of The Net for BBC Two here, four series of the arts series Tx. for the same channel, as well as a host of single documentaries and performance programmes for British broadcasters. We created ambitious series for the US, including Artland USA and Art Race, and we co-ordinated the UK end of the online Fathom project for Columbia University. And since around 2000 we have tried to find complementary and alternative ways of working, alongside the shrinking broadcast market for arts programmes, all the time trying to create distinctive and interesting media.

At different times we have occupied a host of different rooms and spaces in the Mews, including on the opposite side, where we set up two editing suites and a lovely meeting room. That was where I recall watching the horrifying live coverage of the events in New York on 11 September 2001. But there are many happier memories too, including a glorious summer’s evening when we took over the whole of the Mews for a party. We spawned three spin-off companies here: Illuminations Interactive, Illuminations Films and Illumina. And we did really early work combining broadcasting with the web and with innovative 3D social spaces on projects like The Mirror, Ages of Avatar and Heaven and Hell- Live.

One of my most vivid memories is of watching the first episode of the first series of The Net in – I guess – the autumn of 1994. (Our new office, and the clear out of so much of our accumulated papers, should give us the opportunity to detail our history rather better than we do at present.) I have always claimed that this was the first British television programme to include an e-mail address in the closing credits. Which is what we did, featuring what we believed to be our recently opened Compuserve account.

The production team watched the show together and then went on to the pub. At 11pm a handful of us came back to the office to see if we’d received what we thought might be half a dozen mails. In fact, there were more than 600 responses in our mailbox – many of them pointing out that (a) we had managed to omit the “@” symbol from the address, and (b) that they were nonetheless sufficiently digitally savvy to be able to mail us anyway. That was a kind of “Eureka!” moment for me, when I realised that the whole relationship between producers and viewers was going to change fundamentally. As indeed has proved to be the case.

Comments

  1. CJ Munn says:

    I’m sad not to have had a chance to pop in and say goodbye to the old place before the move. Loved my time at Illuminations. It was the only time I was really happy working in TV land (otherwise it wasn’t a terribly great fit for me in the media). Lovely company, lovely bosses, really nice location. Some truly innovative stuff came out of those offices, and I was proud to be a part of it before I stepped sideways into the arts. I made some lovely friends, some of which I’m still buddies with 25 years later. I still remember my interview, my first day, our day out at the beach, late nights working on strange digital projects and answering emails after The Net shows went out, cakes on a Friday courtesy of Linda, some fabulous Christmas parties and just the lovely warmth and flexibility of the place compared to any other media company I worked in. We were more like a big family. Oh and it honestly *wasn’t* me that set off the smoke cloak alarm that time.

  2. Craig Melson says:

    Sad times ! Nicest building ever worked !

  3. Louise Machin says:

    I think it’s been 18 years at Rheidol Mews for me; I’m just ahead of Seb’s 15 … you see, it’s really rather hard to leave.

    I started at Illuminations fresh off an MA course in Film and TV at Birkbeck, having met John when he came in to lecture us one day. We got talking, he found out I’d worked in publishing in a former life, so decided that it might be good to see if we could set up a publishing arm for Illuminations, to try and make some money a different way.

    Initially, it was visual arts films that we owned rights to or shot afresh for very little money (no fees, no presenters, no archive) and we kicked off with Mona Hatoum for a series called theEYE. That morphed into a successful series of 45 artist profiles, many of whom I was lucky enough to meet or interview. Today we have close to 150 titles in our catalogue, that we have either made ourselves or distribute on behalf of others, having expanded into Shakespeare and performance too. The release in 2013 of our first beautiful boxed set, An Age of Kings, was a proud moment only eclipsed most recently by the birth of our first digital download babies.

    It’s been fantastically exciting building all this from scratch, rather plunging in at the deep end with the intention to create a new market for our material. Which we absolutely have! It’s also been wonderful being a part of the hugely creative family at Illuminations. I continue to be inspired by all that we do, feel immensely proud of our achievements and am indebted to John and Linda for their endless support and encouragement.

    Highlights, in no particular order, of my time at the Mews include my first sale of 10 VHS copies of our very first published product (Mona Hatoum) to Tate Britain Shop – I whooped all the way back on the Tube! Being involved in numerous documentaries, sometimes as a bit-part, including being squeezed into a tight-fitting crinoline for Sense and Sensation and dressed as a policewoman for the recreation of a bust on a fetish club in East London). Interviewing important artists has been fun and I clearly remember the unsettling experience of visiting Gilbert & George at their meticulously restored home in Fournier Street and being shown a pubic louse through a microscope, with peals of laughter from the artists as they witnessed my shocked reaction. Another memorable occasion was Martin Creed winning the Turner Prize in 2001 and driving colleagues and a horribly drunk Alex James (Blur) squashed into my little Ford Fiesta from the Tate to the celebratory party at The Savoy. Other treats include standing next to Patrick Stewart in his underpants whilst filming a scene for Macbeth, travelling to Mexico with Ian Serfontein when six months pregnant to film Aztecs and losing all kit and clothes in transit, and a summer outing to Bergamo when the plane home was cancelled and we spent virtually all night on the floor at the airport.

    Like John, the memories of watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11 on the TV in our meeting room will always remain with me, the horror etched on the face of our American colleague, Gillian, was all too palpable. We actually don’t have a TV at Rheidol Mews anymore and haven’t for some time – Linda was incredulous when the TV licensing people chased us on numerous occasions in recent months, not quite believing that we could be a TV production company without a television anywhere in sight! The entrance area of ScreenWorks is packed full of them – it’s on the site of an old TV factory – so whilst none of them works, we’re back where we started.

  4. Linda Zuck says:

    So many memories…where to begin … why not with a steamy summer night in 1993?

    I was deeply asleep at home when the phone rang in the middle of the night. And I was 7 months pregnant.
    “This is your alarm monitoring centre. We have your number as the lead keyholder to Rheidol Mews. You have had an alarm activation and you must attend at the premises.” the voice said.
    “What? I can’t do that. It’s the middle of the night!”
    “You have to. There may be an intruder. You have to get down there as soon as you can.”
    I drove down a virtually empty Holloway Road and reached the mews within 15 minutes. As I pulled up I noticed a light on downstairs and only then did I realise the insanity of going inside on my own. I drove round to the local police station and explained my dilemma. “Return to your vehicle madam and to the address and a unit will join you there shortly.’
    Before long a police car drew up and two police officers approached the front door behind me as I opened up.
    I remember the first thing I noticed was the empty box of doughnuts. I’d been the last person to lock up that night and there had been one left in the box.
    “Oh my god! Someone has eaten the doughnut!”
    “Someone certainly has madam” said one of the police officers looking down at the crumbs.
    Almost immediately the three of us became aware of the unmistakable moaning sounds of – how can I put this delicately – in flagrante delicto. “Oh my god! There’s someone in there!”
    “There certainly is madam” said the policeman in his deadpan voice.
    The next moment the door to the inner edit suite opened and to my astonishment Dick Fiddy (our esteemed collaborator and consultant on our recent archive shows for Channel 4), stark naked, leaned round the door.
    “Linda!” he said awkwardly.
    “Dick!” I exclaimed.
    “Is this your boss madam?” asked the police officer, maintaining his deadpan tone.
    “Certainly not!” I replied angrily. “He’s a comedy writer”.
    “Well madam, he’s got something to write about now hasn’t he?” observed the police officer.

    I couldn’t yet see the funny side. I was relieved but also infuriated.
    “Dick – your punishment is going to be that EVERYONE is going to get to hear about this!” I said, before leaving him to it.

    The next morning I found a note on my desk –

    “ Dear Linda,
    Words fail me …”

    • Dick Fiddy says:

      Words certainly did fail me. Obviously that incident is etched deeply in my DNA and is an abiding memory I will have of the building. From my point of view the evening began when I was having dinner and a drink with a barmaid of my acquaintance who was returning home to New Zealand the very next day. During the course of the evening we developed a sudden urge to be alone together for some quality time. As Illuminations was around the corner and I had access to the building I suggested we go there (they had a couch!). Upon arrival however I keyed in the wrong alarm code and realised I’d triggered the alarm.

      I explained to the young lady that we would be visited by the police and sure enough a few minutes later two cops arrived and I met with them, explained my error and convinced them I was working there. They left and I thought everything was done and dusted, unaware of the call that had gone through to Linda. Fast forward some 30 mins and I was suddenly aware that someone had entered the premises and was whispering on the other side of the door. I was in a state of undress but bravely opened the door to peek out only to be confronted by the enormously pregnant Linda.

      The exchange with the policeman, myself and Linda happened pretty much as Linda remembers and I think things would have gone a lot smoother if the policeman hadn’t enquired if I was Linda’s boss! That brought about a chill to the atmosphere. Anyway Linda sent the policeman away and didn’t have me arrested. I was told to stay the whole night as a night-watchman as the alarms were not back on. Linda’s parting statement left me in little doubt that this wouldn’t be ‘our little secret’. When I returned to my friend – who thought the whole thing was a hoot – she remarked wryly that until then she believed people just blushed from the neck up. Apparently I was red from top to toe. Still am.

      Dick

  5. Sebastian Grant says:

    Oh Rheidol Mews – home from home for 15 years and the site of so many wonderful memories. – 8 years on and I wonder if anybody ever really leaves Illuminations. It remains as much a family as it is a business.

    The Mews encapsulated so much of what continues to make Illuminations so special – an unconventional, surprising, creative space – still defying its more corporate cousins.

    Happy memories include Greg Doran’s Shakespeare masterclasses around the old pine meeting room table, late evenings trying to pull together impossible logistics for some mad cross-US adventure, and the endless silly jokes that are the lifeblood of any office. Less happy memories include putting my foot through one of the edit suite’s signature glass tables…

    One afternoon to savour was when Illuminations’ financial situation went from parlous to desperate. The bank had called to tell us that our overdraft had been exceeded and that they were on the verge of doing something suitably drastic. They would be calling back to hear a decision about what we intended to do. Typical of John’s collegiate spirit, he gathered us all together to see if anybody had any ideas about what we could do – any outstanding debts that we could call in? Everybody shook their heads wondering if this was finally the end of the road – everyone that is apart from Linda… I distinctly remember Linda looking around and saying, “hold on, did the bank say they were going to call us back?… Then, it’s simple, we’ll simply not answer the phone”. And that’s exactly what we did…

    My lasting impression though is one of hugely impactful and privileged work, underlined by care and laughter. There was always a sense that what we were trying to do was valuable, edifying – and that we owed it to others to try and get it right.

    And apologies – this is the paragraph where I want to mention my colleagues and friends at Illuminations – a big part of the adventure was down to them, their professionalism, good humour and dedication. Illuminations just seemed (and continues) to attract the most wonderful people. And at risk that these few scribbled paras on a train are reading more like an obituary, I also want to thank John and Linda – it’s their character that is, of course, stamped all over the company – simply it’s because of them that Illuminations is what it is – their humility, warmth, ambition, trust, creativity and wisdom continue to be a blessing and a constant inspiration.

    Life at the Mews may be ending, but of course, Illuminations’ heart and soul is just moving a mile up the road. I remember at the end of all the bigger shoots – John and I would share a beer (strictly speaking we had a beer each) and ask one another, “Do you think we’ve got away with that one”? “Yes”, was always the answer. Long may it continue to be so!

  6. John Wyver says:

    Brilliant comments – thanks so much to you all, for these and so, so much more.

    PS. I truly don’t remember the bank conversation, Seb… I’m sure we were far more fiscally responsible than that!

  7. Craig Melson says:

    Still pass it every now and again and Rheidol Rooms still is the best cafe in the area.

    Also . . . recently caught up with Courtney (who did an internship) and she had a great story. As she rang the bell to start an internship she was confused as to whether it was the home of a TV company or a house as Seb came down in shorts, bare feet and an ice cream….(btw she is now a Hollywood powerhouse).

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