The Old Vic Tunnels: London’s Leading Avant-Garde Venue

What do ex-president Bill Clinton, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, street artist Banksy, ex-servicemen and theatre performers Combat Veteran Players and The Big Issue have in common? All have participated to events organised at the Old Vic Tunnels, arguably the most exciting artistic venue in London. With its quirky masked balls, original theatre performances, edgy art exhibitions, “Secret Cinema” nights and glamorous fund raising parties, this series of cavernous Victorian tunnels, acquired by the Old Vic Theatre in 2010, offers to this previously neglected South London corner a suitably gothic-y venue to an eclectic mix of events. Here, its creative director Hamish Jenkinson, who cut his teeth working with Madonna, Guy Ritchie and Kevin Spacey before taking over the Tunnels (as well as becoming UK chairman for charity Free the Children), talks to Chic-Londres about his ever expanding and inventive art venue.

How did you discover this place?  I was invited by Banksy in 2008 to a street art festival called the Cans Festival in Leake Street, underneath Waterloo station. Because Banksy is so secretive, it was all folded up so no one could see what was happening inside the tunnel, which back then remained closed 99% of the time. I started exploring and saw a side door on the tunnel wall, which I kicked open. That’s when I discovered those Victorian vaults, built in the 1850s to prevent Waterloo train station from sinking into the marshes. I learnt later that they had been used as a raid shelter during the Blitz and squatted by tramps in the 70s, until they were finally boarded up and forgotten.

What were your first impressions? There was no light and I only had my mobile phone to explore the space. It was easy to guess that nobody had been here for a long time, which made it very special. It was quite scary but very beautiful at the same time- the place really had some kind of magical energy. For the following year, I set about trying to persuade anyone who would listen that I had found the coolest space in London, without much success. Eventually, I met theatre performers Punchdrunk, who recognised what a special place it was. Together, we produced a hugely successful theatre show, with 20 000 people visiting within a few weeks: the Tunnels were launched.

How involved is the Old Vic Theatre? The Tunnels are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Theatre and I wouldn’t have been able to start the Old Vic Tunnels without the support of Kevin Spacey, for whom I have been working as executive assistant for several years. He may not be there every single day, but he has made everything possible and is fully involved.

How much work did you do on the venue? The biggest job was clearing out 50 tonnes of rubbish and rubbles which had been left in this space over the years. But the place is constantly evolving and improving. More recently, we had Stéphane Gerschel from Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin at one of our events. When he said the vaults reminded him of Madame Clicquot’s chateau in Reims, we started a conversation and decided to ask 20 young designers to come up with ideas for a new bar at the Tunnel. So we now have a Darling and Edge-designed Veuve Clicquot piano bar, which is truly fantastic.

What makes this place special? The fact that this was an abandoned space which we haven’t tried to completely transform: we haven’t levelled out the floor or stopped all the drips. So we’ve kept this rough edge that defines the Tunnels and makes it a very versatile, dynamic and ultimately unique space. In terms of events, we are establishing the Tunnels as the home for London’s avant-garde community, through an innovative and varied program.

What have been the most memorable events you had so far? I have a real fondness for the first event we did after Punchdrunk. We worked with Banksy on the UK premiere of his film Exit through the gift shop, and built an underground art exhibition and a cinema for this event. The space was still a bit dangerous, which made it quite exciting. I’m also very happy with the play we did last year with 100 members of the local community and for which we won the 2011 Big Society Award from the Prime minister. That’s a great feeling to know that you’re investing something towards the local community.

What’s your vision for the future of the Tunnels? We’ve only discovered one tenth of the tunnels which are underneath Waterloo train station. My objective is to acquire the ones that remain empty to create a new Camden Town or Brick Lane for South London, owned and controlled in partnership with the station and the community. If we can create a bridge between the old London found in places like Lower Marsh street, which dates back to 1377, and the new London represented by Banksy’s tunnel, which was only created in 2008, then we will have created something really beautiful, unique and exciting.

A selection of (great) upcoming events at the Tunnels:

 22 May 2012: Clinton Foundation Presents “A Night Out with the Millenium Network” with Bill Clinton, Gwyneth Paltrow and

9 June 2012: The Blitz Party “Special D-Day Celebration”

 13, 14, 20, 21 July 2012: Secret Cinema “Saturday Night Fever” Party and After-Party


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Hamish Jenkinson (above left) and Parties at the Tunnels