A BBC Arena film marks 50 years since the first gig at The Roundhouse and the start of a countercultural oasis

On October 15, 1966, Pink Floyd and Soft Machine provided the music at a now legendary launch party for underground newspaper The International Times.

It was the first gig at the Roundhouse, but certainly not the last.

Cream, Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin would play the former engine repair shed in the following years as part of the Middle Earth Club Night.

A BBC Arena documentary The Roundhouse: The People’s Palace celebrates five decades of a venue where poets, punks, hippies, artists and revolutionaries gathered and partied - and charts the rollercoaster of triumph and disaster for a decaying Victorian building that became a hotbed of radical theatre, hedonistic parties and countercultural ideas.

After a century as a bonded gin warehouse, the Roundhouse was bought in 1964 in a job lot of railway buildings by businessman Louis Minz.

He gifted it to left-wing playwright Arnold Wesker whose Centre 42 aimed to break down traditional barriers to elitist art forms as an arm of the Trades Union movement by creating a “thriving community centre for all cultural activities”.

But Anthony Wall’s documentary shows how, despite getting Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Arts Minister Jennie Lee behind the scheme, Wesker was defeated by a lengthy and exhausting fund-raising campaign and lack of enthusiasm from Unionists suspicious of the “high fallutin” “extravagant” nature of avant-garde art.

On that fateful evening 50 years ago Wesker loaned the keys to the empty building to Barry Miles for his newspaper launch.

Miles tells Wall that Wesker, presuming it was a small launch, didn’t attend.

In fact 3,000 people turned up, Yoko Ono staged a happening, Marianne Faithful won the fancy dress competition garbed as a nun. Paul McCartney came as an Arab and the two toilets overflowed onto the filthy floor.

At a later rave for which The Beatles recorded a special track, hippies were dropping acid and braving the unsafe balconies. The late DJ John Peel remembers it as one of the few places you could gather to hear music, hang out and take drugs.

There were happenings (many nude or semi-nude), avant-garde new music compositions (complete with operatic screams and broken crockery) and political debates such as 1967’s The Dialectics of Liberation conference where beat poet and pacificst Allan Ginsberg shared a platform with Black Power Leader Stokely Carmichael and cult psychotherapist R D Laing as they wrestled with differences over violent protest, identity, and collectivity.

The space was perfect for director Peter Brook’s aim to bring drama out of traditional spaces. In 1968 he staged The Tempest and in a clip says: “A space with its own beauty, its own feeling of life seemed to be perfect conditions for making theatre in.”

In 1970 came the London debut of sex sketch revue Oh! Calcutta! threatened with prosecution under obscenity laws,

Genesis, The Rolling Stones and Elton John played at regular Sunday night gigs but by the time Thelma Holt took over as artistic director in 1977, the Roundhouse was in crippling debt. She cleared the deficit by scheduling 40 gigs including The Clash, The Jam and X Ray Spex, instantly making it a punk landmark. One commentator says with its overflowing toilets and anything goes atmosphere it had the atmosphere of “a rock festival indoors.”

But in 1983 after staging political and experimental theatre, bankruptcy forced it’s closure. An injection of GLC cash to create a centre for black arts failed and it stood vacant until St John’s Wood toy millionaire Torquil Norman bought it in 1996 for £3m.

With a huge fund-raising campaign, he finally realised Wesker’s dream of a thriving cultural centre. It reopened in 2006 after major refurbishment with an educational hub where young people from disadvantaged backgrounds practice music, radio, spoken word, circus and other art forms.

Big name acts from Dizzee Rascal to Paul McCartney still play the main space while contemporary circus and spoken word are lynchpins of the programme by current director Marcus Davey, who points out many of its activities echo the venue’s traditions of out of the box theatre, poetry and cutting edge music.

He talks of it as a profoundly democratic space where the audience sit close to the performers and where where anything is possible.

The Roundhouse is launching a crowdsourced microsite and oral history project to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Collating photos, first hand accounts, artwork, footage and audio. Take part by emailing myroundhousestory@roundhouse.org.uk