News

Tuesday 19 June 2007

The White Room - Transcript

Simon Schama explains the origin of Downing Street and looks at the White Room in the company of Tony Blair.

Read the transcript for the film below:

Simon Schama:

When all is said and done, as you can see, this is just a street. It’s just a row of terraced houses, not much more remarkable and certainly not bigger than something you might find in Hampstead or, for that matter, in Hoxton. It’s where it is that makes all the difference. That’s what Sir George Downing, who gave his name to it, knew. Downing was an amazing person. He was born in America, became Oliver Cromwell’s head of intelligence, knew when to turn his coat, signed on with Charles II, wanted to buy a little property in the middle of town near to where the action was. And the action was in the Treasury, which was going to be built close by. And the action was also going to be in Whitehall Palace on the other side of Whitehall. So it was inevitable, in some ways, in the early 18th century that this house, actually, should be the seat of what’s called the First Lord of the Treasury. Can still see that brass plaque has that inscription on it.

Politics in the early 1700s is all about money. It’s about taxes. You’ll tell me it’s all about money now, but it was especially about money then. Money to fight the wars, which was going to turn Britain from being just Britain into the British Empire. Money to oil the machinery of graft and political power. Sir Robert Walpole, who was the First Lord of the Treasury to move in here in 1735, knew all about that, and the amazing thing was that he decided, in effect, to give this house to the nation. At that point this street would have been full of pubs, even houses of ill repute. It was just another London street, but it was another London street at the heart of what made things tick in what was going to become the most important empire in the world. Over the years, Number 10 Downing Street has been rebuilt and altered dozens of times. This painting of Horse Guards Parade from the middle of the 18th century shows you that mix of the grandiose and the modest that still stamps the personality of the area.

The White Room is one of three state drawing rooms used for entertaining guests. It owes its present appearance to Margaret Thatcher, who hired an architect, Quinlan Terry, to give it the look of an 18th-century aristocratic drawing room, elegant and sumptuous.

Tony Blair:

This room, of all the rooms in Downing Street, is my favourite room, and occasionally what I do is… I won’t work up here, but if I have a meeting, I will often have it here rather than in what’s called my den, which is my little study downstairs. These are also used as reception rooms. We do all the main receptions, this room, the room next to it. I’ll see a lot of the foreign leaders in here. I don’t quite know what it is about its atmosphere, but I find it, as I say, the most pleasing room in the building to work in. And I find it the most congenial in terms of its atmosphere. It’s grand but somewhat relaxing.

Simon Schama:

It’s a little cube of light, really. But it’s a relaxing and not a concentrating room. So if you’ve got a really, really tough decision, you wouldn’t bring a notebook here, or you might?

Tony Blair:

No.

Simon Schama:

You would do that downstairs. In the room next to the Cabinet Room.

Tony Blair:

In the room next to the Cabinet Room.

Simon Schama:

It’s a fine line, that.

Tony Blair:

Sometimes I go and sit in the garden.

Simon Schama:

Isn’t that interesting?

Tony Blair:

I’ve always liked… If the sun is shining, I go and sit in the garden.

Simon Schama:

How poetic. One of the best things about this room are two paintings by Turner, one of them anecdotal and Victorian, the other a frothy, creamy, late masterpiece. Ramsay MacDonald, when he moved in, there was very little, apparently, furnishing in this room, and he brought the Turners in from the government art collection. Interesting how Labour prime ministers, Attlee was the same, loved the house as house, worked solo, as did Harold Wilson, in the Cabinet Room, and clearly wanted there to be sort of things that would visually relax or stimulate. It’s a tricky thing, I wonder if you’ve found that, because with the flat, it’s part of domestic life. I suppose that’s more of a reason to have the actual work space be exactly tickety-boo, how you want it. I can tell from your sighing, it hasn’t been. It’s really…

Tony Blair:

The trouble is now… I think I’m right in saying that Gladstone, when he was prime minister…

Simon Schama:

He lived somewhere else.

Tony Blair:

Yes, and also he would do his own correspondence from time to time. And he might have a few secretaries that would help him. But the concept would have been completely alien to him of having a couple of hundred people.

Simon Schama:

Yes.

Tony Blair:

However, that is the modern business of being a prime minister, and therefore the trouble is, Downing Street at the moment, I think, is perched a little uneasily between being the formal, state, visible outward expression of Britain, and the place where you receive people and so forth, and a functioning workplace.

¼/p>

Newsletter

Around the Web

Flickr Logo Flickr RSS Feed

History and Tour