Derelict psychiatric hospital gives asylum to film festival

st clements hospital mile end

St Clement’s Hospital is a former Victorian workhouse and 20th century psychiatric unit

Arriving at the gates of the old St Clement’s Hospital – a former mental institution on Mile End Road – I am, to be honest, a little nervous.  The lawn at the front of the imposing Victorian building is scattered with bizarre-looking sculptures including a life-size horse adorned with sequins.  In a deck chair an elderly gentleman wearing a dressing gown and trainers keeps a watchful eye on the gate.  Have I come to the right place?  And, more importantly, has the building really left its history behind it?

I’m here to meet Kate MacTiernan, a 28 year-old entrepreneur who has turned the six-acre site into the venue for Shuffle, a film festival curated by director Danny Boyle.  I find her in a shed at the back of the sprawling complex of buildings and we sit down for a chat on an old sofa just outside the main screening room – formerly the patients’ social club.

MacTiernan, an Australian who studied architecture in London before working for several architectural practices, seems relaxed about being in charge of such a big project, but she clearly has an intimate knowledge of the site and what’s required to prepare for the evening’s entertainment.  As we talk, she has to keep breaking off to give instructions to some of the volunteers who help run the festival.  It all seems pleasantly anarchic – more like a group of mates organising a party, than a slick corporate event.

But as MacTiernan explains, this project is about more than just a film festival.  The building and its grounds are also Britain’s first ever urban Community Land Trust.  The plan is for more than 200 new homes to be built on the site over a third of which will be linked in price to wages in the local area rather than to the market price (there will also be some social housing).  In practice buyers should pay about a quarter of the property market price for one of these homes, which they would sell back to the trust when they move on, so future generations can also benefit.  The scheme has been endorsed by London mayor Boris Johnson, who called it “an example of how in tough financial times we can release public land to increase housing supply”.

“In the beginning it’s the housing aspect of this [project] that’s most interesting,” says MacTiernan.  “That’s why everyone is here, because we all believe in the idea of buildings homes that are linked in price to what local people actually earn.”

MacTiernan fell in Love with St Clement’s five years ago, when a friend showed her round the site; she then joined the board of trustees of the one-thousand-strong membership of local community leaders and residents and helped persuade Boris Johnson to commit to the project.  The idea for staging a film festival came later, when she was looking for something to do with the site before development began.

Shuffle, as you’d expect from an event linked to Danny Boyle, is proving a huge success.

From 4pm each day the site comes alive as hundreds of people come to enjoy films of Boyle’s including Shallow Grave as well as cult classics such as Withnail and I and, most aptly, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There’s also a bar, puppet shows and art exhibitions.  Most of the activities, including screenings of short films, are free, though there is a charge for the feature-length firms – “just because it cost us quite a lot to get the grounds up and running”, says MacTiernan.

She met Boyle – himself a local resident who once lived in a low-rise bock overlooking St Clement’s – through a mutual friend who had worked with the director on his triumphant staging of the Olympic opening ceremony.

Boyle came to visit, and he was impressed by the old social club, which had been founded in the hospital’s lifetime by two pioneering occupational therapists, Myra Garrett and Holocaust survivor Lotte Tendler, both of whom are still alive.

“My friend rang him and asked him if he’d like to come down,” says MacTiernan.  “We took him into the old patients social club and it had been left with all the old poetry books and all the sets and props and there was a little post-it note with the word ‘hope’ written on it on the door.  Danny saw it and said, ‘we could do something really cool in here. Let’s do a film festival.’  So that’s what we did.”

Shuffle is on at St Clement’s, Mile End Road, E3, until August 18.

Leave a Reply