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Farce of knight and the opera house

EDINBURGH’s dream of building an internationally important opera house was dashed after civil servants dubbed blueprints an "expensive fiasco" waiting to happen, documents kept secret for 30 years have now revealed.

Just weeks after the Government gave its public backing to Edinburgh Corporation’s designs for a 4.5 million opera house to be built in Castle Terrace, voices within the Scottish Office were already privately warning of a political disaster if it were followed through.

It had taken ten years for Edinburgh’s opera house plans to be accepted - and just a few months for government civil servants to sow the seeds of doubt which eventually led to the whole idea being scrapped.

Now government records of the fiasco, released under the 30-year rule, finally show how claims by the scheme’s official architect Sir William Kinninmonth that he was the victim of a "clever and unscrupulous" campaign by Scottish Office mandarins and city corporation officials to have him ousted and his vision scrapped, were not as far fetched and bitter as they may have seemed at the time.

The opera house deal between the government and the corporation was trumpeted in 1971 as a new dawn for Scottish culture and a watershed which would allow Edinburgh to take its rightful place among Europe’s capital cities. Yet less than a year later the whole plan had collapsed in acrimony and allegation when revised costs surged to an estimated 12m.

Despite successive half-hearted attempts to revive the opera house dream, the events of 1972 were to prove a fatal blow to Edinburgh’s dreams of a custom-built opera venue at the Castle Terrace site. Indeed, that site was to lie derelict for almost another 20 years and become notorious as the Edinburgh’s own hole in the ground - an all too visible sign of failed ambition.

The papers show possibly one of the quickest disintegrations of Scottish Office policy ever seen - and the desperate desire of officialdom to extricate itself from a political pledge.

Throughout the 1960s the aspirations of Edinburgh’s city leaders to build Scotland’s first opera house - a building which would live up to the Capital’s growing worldwide status as the home of the International Festival - had already taken on the air of a tragi-comedy. For years, visiting opera companies, lured by the prospect of performing at the ever-growing Festival, had put up with the only other barely appropriate venue, the King’s. It was even labelled by one German company boss as "the worst theatre in the world for opera."

Sir William Kinninmonth, one of Scotland’s most accomplished architects and President of the Royal Scottish Academy, had been taken on by city leaders as early as 1963 to work up plans for a suitable alternative in line with Edinburgh’s growing status as a cultural mecca.

The opera house would be the first in Scotland, and the first in Britain in more than 50 years, and a site at Castle Terrace was finally pinpointed, close to the Usher Hall and Royal Lyceum Theatre.

Lord Provost Duncan Weatherstone thought he had reached an agreement with the government for its redevelopment in the late 1960s. The Synod Hall was demolished to make way for the Opera House, but still the deal never materialised.

Designs had been drawn and re-drawn and successive governments made positive noises over financial backing without actually formally pledging themselves to anything. In 1968, the then Labour arts minister Jennie Lee had given moral - if not financial - support.

But the intervening change of government spelled even more uncertainty.

It was after years of lobbying that Ted Heath’s Scottish Secretary Gordon Campbell finally confirmed on the eve of the 25th International Festival in August 1971 that the government would "go halves" with Edinburgh Corporation in the 4.5m project for a 1400-seat venue.

The new opera house, to be followed by 1m revamp of the neighbouring Lyceum, was, said Provost of the time Sir James Mackay, "the finest birthday present that could have been given to the city".

But the secret papers reveal that just three months after the government had pledged to hand 2.25m to fund Sir William’s design, voices of dissent were already emerging. Experts at the Scottish Office believed the scheme was already out of date and in danger of becoming a white elephant - while still on the drawing board.

In a harshly-worded joint memo dated November 12, 1971, both Bruce Beckett, chief architect at the Scottish Development Agency and BE Drake, chief surveyor at the Scottish Education Department, warned senior civil service colleagues of impending disaster.

"It is evident that Mr Kinninmonth has no knowledge of modern approaches to cost control and it is also clear that this difficult and complicated project lacks any system of project management whatsoever," they claimed.

"We are concerned that if the present policies are pursued there is every prospect of an expensive fiasco. Quite certainly the design which Mr Kinninmonth has produced is poorly planned, dull, pedestrian and totally unworthy of such a prestigious building and site.

"This view is also held by influential members of the lay and technical press who will ensure a great deal of embarrassment for the Secretary of State unless an alternative approach is adopted."

Not only did they believe Sir William’s blueprints were hopelessly dated, but they feared his city-based firm Rowand, Anderson, Kinninmonth and Paul did not have enough staff for such a major undertaking.

Their view was privately backed by the city corporation’s own official architect, Brian Annable, who briefed them continually on the progress of the scheme.

They advised getting rid of Sir William and opening up the whole scheme to a competition as well as appointing a project manager. But senior Scottish Office colleagues warned that it would cause severe embarrassment for everybody concerned if the government was to drop Sir William so quickly after the announcement.

Over the winter of 1971/72 various schemes to gently sideline Sir William were discussed, but still some experts counselled his complete removal.

In a gently worded letter to Lord Provost Sir James Mackay, the Scottish Office admitted the government "would welcome improvements and modifications" on Sir William’s plans.

Meanwhile because of steadily mounting costs, the corporation decided to change the brief and instigate a fresh project amalgamating the Opera House and the Lyceum refurbishment. Whether this was simply a ruse to make sure there needed to be fresh architects’ plans - and thus clear the way to get rid of Sir William - is not clear.

But the crunch came on August 11, 1972, when there was a meeting between the Scottish Office, city leaders and Sir William.

Mr Drake writes: "The Lord Provost invited Mr Kinninmonth to express any views he wished on the question of the selection of an architect for the [new and revised] project. There followed a lengthy whine punctuated by dark references to plots. I said that we had been surprised that Mr Kinninmonth had found it possible to produce drawings and models for a project for which a brief did not exist, and that furthermore informed opinion seemed almost unanimously to condemn the design offered as far below the standards required of such an important project."

But Sir William was not willing to leave the lucrative and prestigious contract without a fight.

Another memo dated August 17, 1972, penned by an un-named official states: "It seems plain enough that he [Sir William] is not willing to contemplate any voluntary withdrawal from the project."

The memo adds: "They [Edinburgh Corporation] cannot hope to escape criticism because they chose Sir William in the first place and they allowed him to proceed for a long time without a proper brief."

By August 28 the records were showing that Scottish Secretary Gordon Campbell was now recording his own misgivings. One memo between officials said that even then he had decided it would be better to face the adverse publicity of getting rid of Sir William than allowing him to continue. In the event no such hard political decision had to be made.

The real death knell for the opera house plans came in October when Mr Annable and colleagues within the Corporation’s architects department reviewed the costs and discovered the price had been vastly underestimated.

Instead of a 4.5m opera house, they were looking at a bill for 12m. The revised cost of more than 6m for the opera house alone was 64 per cent higher than Sir William had estimated. The revised figure for architects fees was 1.2m - three times Sir William’s first quoted figure. The architect responded immediately and very publicly.

On October 21 a bombshell letter from Sir William to the new Lord Provost Jack Kane was copied to grateful Scottish newspapers. In it, he complained he had been the victim of a "clever and unscrupulous" plot to have him ousted.

"I believe that under the cloak of anonymity and knowing that the final responsibility for appointment lies with the corporation, this reprehensible scheme originated in St Andrew’s house," he wrote. "Although very considerable fees are at stake, the principles involved are more important. There is limit of professional humiliation beyond which neither I nor my partners are willing to go."

The combination of the massive rise in figures, combined with the suggestion of behind-the-scenes skullduggery proved to be the final act in the saga of Edinburgh’s Opera House and Sir William’s scheme was shelved. Later years saw limp attempts to have the dream revived but in 1976 the idea was finally put out of its misery when a 20m alternative was booted out.

Sir William Kinninmonth died in 1988, still hurt, says his son-in-law Richard Ewing, by the episode. "He always said there was a lot more to it than any of us knew at the time," he says.

As for the Castle Terrace hole in the ground, it remained there until the site was eventually put on the market in 1987 and developed by Scottish Metropolitan as Saltire Court office complex. The gap in the city’s arts facilities was eventually filled by the Festival Theatre and Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

But Edinburgh’s dream of a custom-built opera house, the jewel in the city’s International Festival crown remains just that - a dream, that for some of those involved became a nightmare.

History in the making

THOUSANDS of documents and confidential minutes kept secret for 30 years and only now released reveal a fascinating snapshot of behind the scenes debate and discussions at the highest level.

And they cast light on official thinking over burning issues of the day - from British entry into the Common Market and its effect on Scottish fishermen to Scottish Office ministers’ caution over the funding of Scotland’s national football stadium at Hampden Park.

Even the right of Scottish sporting teams to fly the Saltire and play Scotland The Brave at international events was fought out between civil servants.

The records show Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath ran into fierce Cabinet resistance when he floated the idea of the Scottish economy benefiting directly from North Sea oil wealth.

Similar documents released to the Public Record Office in England reveal plans to forcibly expel hundreds of thousands of Catholics from Northern Ireland and redraw the border to create a Protestant-only province. Up to half a million people would have been forced to leave their homes in the establishment of what officials described as an "avowedly sectarian statelet".

Rally

Yet another paper reveals that Gerry Adams, the future Sinn Fein leader, made a surprisingly favourable impression when he met representatives of the government for the first time. He was polite, respectful and when he spoke to British government officials he addressed them as "sir".

Other documents show officials’ concern over the Queen’s visit to Nairobi in 1972 in which the royal motorcade resemembed a "nightmarish motor rally" with cars racing three abreast jockeying for positions.

Meanwhile, as Heath was being warned by police that his Tory government would face "great violence" and even deaths if it tried to use force to break the picket lines in the 1972 miners strike, other records shows that the Queen’s private fortune was giving cause for concern.

"It is quite clear that, far from being "the richest woman in the world", the Queen is not, in terms of disposable assets, even the richest person in the UK," say the papers.

"Her ‘private wealth’ would form only a fraction of that disclosed recently in the courts as the collective assets of the Beatles."

 
 
 

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