Birmingham Library report

This report originally ran on Deutsche Welle.

When a new library opened in the UK city of Birmingham in 2013, many locals embraced it. It was hailed as a source of civic pride and an attraction for international visitors. But eighteen months on, this ambitious architecture project is in line for controversial spending cuts – a prospect faced by many libraries and other public services across the UK.


Building a bird reserve from London earth

Wallasea Island in Essex, England, is Europe’s largest habitat creation project. This reclaimed natural landscape is being built up with spoil excavated from underneath the streets of London, a by-product of the CrossRail engineering project. British builders are carving out lagoons, mudflats and saltmarshes in the hopes of bringing wild birds and other creatures back to the region.

The RSPB's Chris Tyas with a sprig of sea clover.
The RSPB’s Chris Tyas with a sprig of sea clover.

Report by Richard O’Brien.

With thanks to Lori Herber and Saroja Coehlo at Living Planet, where this report initially appeared.

Of Latin and labyrinths – two reports from Helsinki

I spent the last week of March in Helsinki, and put together two reports about the city for ‘Inside Europe‘, a magazine show put together by the German radio station Deutsche Welle. No prizes for spotting the Leonard Cohen reference I’ve awkwardly crammed into one of the intros…


Why the Finns are live on air with a dead language

In 1989 the Finnish broadcaster YLE began producing the world’s first news program in Latin. Nuntii Latini presents modern stories in an ancient language, and gives dead words new life with today’s technology. But how do its presenters find the words? Richard O’Brien has been visiting Helsinki to find out how the programme comes together.



What lies beneath Helsinki

The Finnish capital Helsinki uses subterranean space more comprehensively than almost any other city in the world. In 2011, an Underground Master Plan was introduced to develop the city’s future, below ground as well as above. Trying to map this modern labyrinth has created problems for planners and provided inspiration for artists. Richard O’Brien discovers what’s really going on below the city.



With thanks to Helen Seeney and Emma Wallis at Deutsche Welle.

Music interviews #2

These are a few of my favourite interviews with bands and musicians I was able to produce as a presenter at EURadioNantes.


Richard O’Brien meets prolific musician Darren Hayman to discuss songwriting and the Seventeenth Century

When your most recent album is an instrumental concept piece about open-air swimming pools and your next release is a folk opera set in 17th-century Essex, it’s understandably galling to hear people refer to you as ‘the guy who used to sing in Hefner’. But Darren Hayman isn’t bitter, although his career has evolved enormously since those days ; we talked about his songwriting process, and the challenges he’s set himself on the forthcoming ‘The Violence’ in the name of historical accuracy. With the recent release of ‘Lido’ on London micro-label Clay Pipe Music, Darren also wonders whether instrumental music can truly be ‘about’ anything – even when its author is a well-known and evocative wordsmith.

Richard O’Brien meets Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman.

With his third album, Jens Lekman claims : ‘I Know What Love Isn’t’. It’s a clever title, but here he talks to Richard O’Brien about whether pop music can really teach us anything about love and life. As a Swedish national singing in English, the process of songwriting is already a kind of linguistic experiment, a game he plays with language and persona. But Jens also speaks about something closer to home, as he discusses the effect of shifts in the political climate in Sweden and, more specifically, his home city of Gothenburg, to which he has recently returned after years of living abroad.


Richard O’Brien meets Jean-Louis Brossard, musical director of the TransMusicales.

For 34 years, Jean-Louis Brossard has been visiting festivals from China to Colombia and everywhere in-between, to find the most interesting new artists to play at the TransMusicales, Rennes’s flagship festival of contemporary music. Despite its reputation – Pulp, Nirvana, LCD Soundsystem, all made their first French appearances at Brossard’s event – he no longer feels a pressure for the TransMusicales to be ‘the place you saw them first’; its reputation is assured enough. Instead, he enthuses about this year’s discoveries, and explains how he goes about putting a programme together. Interview in French.


Richard O’Brien meets Franklin Bruno, singer-songwriter and music critic.

With over twenty years of songwriting and a PhD in analytic philosophy behind him, Franklin Bruno has always been pulling in multiple directions. In recent years his interests in music and academia have merged, with a forthcoming work of criticism examining the role and contribution of the bridge, or middle eight, in popular music. The work of the cultural critic Theodor Adorno dismisses the aesthetic value of pop music; although Bruno disagrees with many of his central theses, he points out that his arguments are themselves frequently misunderstood or dismissed without due consideration. Adorno aside, he continues to write and produce his own songs, notably with current project The Human Hearts, whose second album, ‘Another’, was released on October 30th. Here Franklin Bruno speaks to Richard about the relation of form to creativity, and the importance of occasionally putting such concerns aside; even if he points out that the assumption of the musician as free creative spirit, paying no attention to the conventions of genre, is in some ways a convenient myth.


Richard O’Brien meets David Gedge from The Wedding Present

The Wedding Present are one of the most influential bands in the development of British indie-rock; singer and guitarist David Gedge one of its most distinctive voices. As the only constant member since their formation in the 1980s, he acknowledges there’s something unusual about their current project – revisiting their 1991 album, ‘Seamonsters’ in its entirety, on the back of similar tours for their first two releases, with a wholly different group of musicians beside him. But although many bands from the late 80s and 90s are exploring their back catalogue in a live format, Gedge explains that far from nostalgia, it can have a reinvigorating effect on the artist’s current music. In conversation with Richard O’Brien, he identifies the roots of his own songwriting in the crafted conventions of classic Motown, and the immediacy of film dialogue. He also considers the competing claims to our attention of cinema and literature, and reflects on his own artistic development through the prism of ‘growing up’ with, and within, his songs – a development now being chronicled in a new comic book series, ‘Tales of The Wedding Present’.


Richard O’Brien meets Jean-Daniel Beauvallet, editor-in-chief of Les Inrockuptibles, France’s best-known music magazine

Jean-Daniel Beauvallet is passionate about Nantes. For the editor and driving force behind Les Inrocks, it’s a city like no other, constantly moving and changing, which recognises the importance of young artists and gives them a huge financial and cultural headstart. The September 2012 issue of Les Inrocks features a 16-page Nantes special, and Jean-Daniel shares his views with Richard O’Brien about C2C, Jacques Demy, Pulp, and the future of music as we know it.

Books interviews

These interviews focus mostly on books and literary topics, and were produced for EURadioNantes.

Richard O’Brien speaks to Harry Ford in celebration of Roald Dahl Day

Roald Dahl is one of UK’s most famous children’s authors, beloved by the young and the not-so-young for his funny, gruesome and magical tales which take an honest look at human foibles through the distorting lens of childhood. September 13th is Roald Dahl Day, a celebration of his work and life. Richard O’Brien caught up with Harry Ford, a children’s literature connoisseur and Dahl aficionado, to find out what makes the weird and wonderful world of his stories tick, and how this most English of authors can speak to the inner child in grown-ups all across the world.


Richard O’Brien meets Jonathan Beckman, editor of Literary Review, to discuss the Bad Sex Award.

From chrysanthemums to elfin grots and from wubbering springboards to generative jockeys, every year since 1993 the British periodical Literary Review has awarded a prize for the worst use of sexual description in the modern novel. Now in its 19th year, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is never short of (un)worthy contenders, as Senior Editor and head of the jury Jonathan Beckman explains. Jonathan outlines for Richard some of the techniques he wishes today’s novelists would avoid, and speculates on why so many authors feel compelled to indulge in such approaches. He also explains some of the wider implications of the light-hearted trophy for the serious business of literary fiction itself.


Richard O’Brien meets author Andrew Martin to discuss the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.

Abandoned stations; wartime shelters; ghostly presences that haunt the tunnels. The London Underground is rich in mythology, as few know better than Andrew Martin. Last year the novelist published Underground, Overground, a definitive guide to the capital’s subterranean railway network, the oldest in the world, which celebrated its 150th anniversary on January 9th, 2013. Andrew shares with Richard some of his favourite facts and figures about the Tube, a creation of Victorian philanthropy which has remained integral to the image and daily life of London right up to the present day. More of Andrew’s work can be found on his website,


Richard O’Brien meets historical novelist Sarah Dunant

Although she spends much of her time in Renaissance Italy, researching the period that gave us the Borgias for her forthcoming historical novel, Sarah Dunant is a writer who is firmly connected to the contemporary literary landscape. Here she speaks to Richard O’Brien about the current culture of literary prizes in England – why do prizes exist? What do they mean for readers? And how does anyone ever decide one book is better than another? Whatever ‘literary fiction’ might mean, the big awards are no longer confined to this ill-defined genre, and Sarah also talks about how the modern revolution in academic history also spelt a revolution for historical fiction.


Richard O’Brien meets Ugo Bellagamba, artistic director of Les Utopiales, a huge sci-fi festival in Nantes.

Ugo Bellagamba is a sci-fi author with a background in the history of ideas. As the artistic director of this year’s Utopiales festival, he wanted to contrast the approaches offered by science fiction and real science to ideas of the origins of the world; and of its end. He and Richard also discuss the relationship between sci-fi and religion, and fantasy and its medieval forebears.


Richard O’Brien meets French novelist Lionel Davoust.

Although the genre of fantasy is often associated with fictional worlds that reconstruct a pre-industrial, rural society, Lionel Davoust is one of many authors working within the alternative tradition of urban fantasy. In discussion with Richard, he explains how the specific character of each metropolis affects the type of magic that can take place within it; he also reflects upon the place of the Internet in the working habits of the modern writer, and on the relationship between literature and role-playing games.


Richard O’Brien meets Joël Bastenaire, historian of Russian rock music.

On Tuesday 12th February, as part of the Moscowbeat festival in Nantes, Joël Bastenaire spoke at the Trempolino about his book ‘Back in the USSR’ ; a history of rock music in Russia. Joël talks Richard through the various periods of censorship and creative flourishing across the ages of Russian rock, stressing two key factors – its closeness to poetry and its power as protest – which bring us right up to date, with the trial of Pussy Riot.


Richard O’Brien meets Ian Mortimer, author of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

Historian Ian Mortimer has never had much patience with the traditional academic methods of presenting the past. With the Time Traveller’s Guide series, he takes a different route, describing medieval and, more recently, Elizabethan England in the present tense. The books are addressed to a modern visitor discovering the historical landscape with their own eyes – and other senses. One of Ian’s main points is that those senses, too, need to be recalibrated, to experience the world as an Elizabethan person would have done. Here he talks to Richard O’Brien about the curious business of bringing the past to life, explaining how he pieces together vivid and compelling pictures from the small details of household inventories and Latin grammar books. You can find out more about Ian’s radical and ongoing project at his website,


Richard O’Brien meets Danish novelist Josefine Klougart.

Josefine Klougart has been tipped as one of Denmark’s most promising younger novelists. She speaks to Richard about the important role played in her work by her place of origin, and whether or not her writing can be placed within a Modernist tradition, in advance of her reading at the Les Impressions d’Europe festival of Nordic literature. She also discusses the strange experience of hearing her own work in translation.


Richard O’Brien meets Helen Mort, a British poet involved in National Poetry Day

Today is the UK’s National Poetry Day, and Helen Mort is taking part in a celebratory reading at London’s South Bank Centre. A former winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award, she is now herself a judge of the competition, dedicated to discovering young poetic talent – here she talks to Richard O’Brien about the twin feelings of enjoyment and responsibility attendant on her judging role. And for international listeners, she suggests how to participate in the event at home – by finding a beloved poem from childhood, and sharing it with others. Her own choice: Robert Frost’s ‘Fire and Ice’, which you can hear the author reading at this link:

Art and Exhibitions interviews

Here are some interviews about art and museum exhibitions across Europe I conducted for EURadioNantes.

Richard O’Brien meets Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, curator of the Musée de Cluny.

As the curator of France’s national Museum of the Middle Ages, it’s Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye’s task to bring the past to life, and occasionally, to use it to cast a light on the issues of the present day. The museum’s current exhibition, in life in medieval Croatia, illustrates a community of artistic exchange which adds to our understanding of the period’s international culture; particularly relevant when such questions of exchange are back on the table, as the country joins the European community. An upcoming show, on Ancient Near Eastern games, demonstrates the continuity of pastimes in past times. The museum constantly stresses the renovating element of the Middle Ages – so often overlooked – and has itself recently undertaken a renovation of its best-known work, the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries. Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye explains the process of conserving such a crucial historical artefact; but even when cleaning the surface of the tapestry, the life of the past is still at a distance. Here Elisabeth discusses with Richard the historical event she would most like to have been present for, to see the citizens of medieval Paris in all their joyous, leaping life.


Richard O’Brien meets Mar Dixon, organiser of the #AskACurator social media event

Even for those of us who love museums, sometimes it can seem like artefacts are acquired and preserved and exhibitions are organised behind closed doors. As visitors, we all have nagging questions ; how do you really know what dinosaurs looked like ? Whose job is it to reconstruct Ming vases ? How do you clean a Roman coin ? Mar Dixon organised Ask A Curator Day to answer just these questions. Through a Twitter hashtag, museum punters are put in direct contact with the staff who prepare collections and exhibitions for the general public in institutions all around the world. Mar explains how this can be beneficial for curators themselves as well as ordinary museumgoers. The results of her enquiries are available on her website,


Richard O’Brien meets Dr Tobias G Natter, to discuss the exhibition ‘Naked Men’ at Vienna’s Leopold Museum.

Long before Hemingway took Fitzgerald to the Louvre’s Greek sculpture galleries to reassure his fellow writer about the size of his Gatsby, our culture has had a troubled relation to the depiction of the naked male form in art. Now the Leopold Museum in Vienna has assembled an exhibition to rectify the balance, presenting solely images and sculptures of naked men from the Enlightenment to the present day. Richard O’Brien speaks to curator Dr Tobias G Natter, to find out how the public perception of the male anatomy has changed throughout artistic history, and to discuss the attitudes which, among other things, his exhibition is helping to expose.


Richard O’Brien meets Colin Harrison, curator at Oxford’s Ashmolean Musuem

The Ashmolean Museum holds the world’s largest collection of artefacts relating to Edward Lear, the famous 19th century nonsense poet who was also a talented ornithological painter. When curator Colin Harrison realised no other museum had commissioned an exhibition to celebrate the bicentenary of Lear’s birth, he sprang into action, putting together a show at the last minute, mostly from private loans. He spoke to Richard O’Brien about the challenges and pleasures that the task provided. Or in other words:

There was a curator called Colin

Who heard the Oxonian bells tollin’

‘There’s no show about Lear?

Well, we’d best have it here!’

Said that lover of nonsense, old Colin.


Richard O’Brien meets Ian Hunter, from the Littoral Arts Trust

In 1937, the Nazi government of Germany staged an exhibition in Munich. The theme: entartete Kunst, translated as ‘degenerate art’. Ian Hunter, director of British arts charity the Littoral Arts Trust, stresses the importance of the works and the artists the Nazis attempted to suppress for the development of European art; although they were only grouped together by their censors, their shared rejection of the classicist purity of form so valued by a party obsessed by the idea of Aryan perfection was at once deeply troubling and inspirational, depending on where you stood. One artist forced to leave his homeland as a result of a purge that had as much to do with aesthetic as with political concerns was Kurt Schwitters; his final Merzbau installation in Cumbria, in the North of England, already serves, in its fragmentary, isolated nature, as a memorial to the potential artistic future that the Nazis attempted to destroy. But Ian Hunter wants to create a more permanent, and more general, memorial in the beautiful landscape of the Lake District to the generation of artists who, in their iconoclastic originality, showed most clearly the capacity of creativity to resist the forces of evil.


Richard O’Brien meets Andy Ellis, from the Public Catalogue Foundation.

Every British citizen owns over 200,000 oil paintings; but that doesn’t mean you’ll find them hanging in an ordinary home. In museums, libraries, schools and police stations across the UK there is a huge collection of publicly owned art, and over the last decade Andy Ellis has been tirelessly working to photograph and digitise every holding for the ‘Your Paintings’ project. It’s a mammoth undertaking, but the outcome will be a world first; complete online access to an entire national art corpus. Here Andy discusses the project’s genesis, how his team went about their task, and his plans for the future of ‘Your Paintings’. You can look at the paintings here, and if you’re British, you should, because you literally own them:


Theatre interviews

Interviews with figures working in the theatre industry from EURadioNantes.

Richard O’Brien meets Erica Whyman from Northern Stage, a regional theatre based in Newcastle.

At a recent conference in London, Danny Boyle, fresh from the success of his Olympics opening ceremony, delivered a passionate speech against funding cuts for regional theatre. One of the arts organisations dealing with a difficult financial climate is Newcastle’s Northern Stage. Richard O’Brien spoke to Erica Whyman, the institution’s chief executive and artistic director, about the work Northern Stage carries out in her local community, and the symbiotic relationship between the theatre’s location and the worlds it presents onstage. But although these are theatres that operate on a local level, Erica is keen to stress that both their work, and the funding decisions that affect that work, are national in scope.

Richard O’Brien meets David Bobée, director of Rictus Theatre’s production of Roméo et Juliette.

For David Bobée, Romeo and Juliet isn’t just a story of tragic passion; it’s a tale of overheated youth in revolt against the oppression of their ineffective elders, with wide-ranging political resonances. He’s clear that, while for English audiences most Shakespearean productions can’t escape a certain estrangement, French theatre-makers have the option of updating the text for each new context. He explains the interpretive choices made by his translators, Pascal and Antoine Collin, and himself as a director, for the Rictus Theatre company’s performance at the Lieu Unique.

Richard O’Brien meets Lyn Gardner, theatre critic of the Guardian newspaper

Lyn Gardner has years of experience reviewing British theatre, and is concerned that in recent years the rise in West End ticket prices means that it risks becoming an elite institution. As well as discussing the reasons for such hikes, Lyn makes a passionate case for state subsidy, emphasising the social contribution of theatre to a nation’s health and happiness which gives it a value going far beyond the financial. She also talks to Richard O’Brien about what West End theatres can learn from the UK’s subsidised sector, as well as from their own Elizabethan forebears.

Richard O’Brien meets Pepe Pryke, Operations Manager at the Rose Theatre, Bankside

The Rose Theatre is an Elizabethan performance space, the remains of which are conserved in the basement of a modern London office block. It was the site of the first productions of seminal works by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and is currently preparing to re-open archaeological investigations and to make the space available to the public. Here Richard talks to Operations Manager Pepe Pryke about what we can learn from The Rose, and how you can get involved with the long-overdue project to preserve and protect the remains which are so central to English literary history. You can find out more about the Rose at, and in this article Richard wrote in a personal capacity for the Huffington Post:

Music interviews #1

Here are some of the most interesting bands and musicians I originally interviewed for EURadioNantes.


Richard O’Brien speaks to Gareth from Los Campesinos! about the links between music and football.

Los Campesinos! are one of a growing number of British independent bands who write about football, and for their singer Gareth, the polarised idea of sensitive artists and macho sporting cliché is no longer relevant. On the day of a conference at Trempolino about this relationship, featuring speakers from the French magazine ‘So Foot’, Gareth discusses this relationship on both sides of the channel. He points to the resurgence of intelligent football journalism as a major factor, and speculates about what France can learn from its best-known recent British import, the notorious Joey Barton.


Richard O’Brien meets singer-songwriter Eugene McGuinness.

Eugene McGuinness divides his time between London and Ireland, and both form the backdrop to his own songwriting style. He’s enthusiastic about the ‘raw aggression’ of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, but also explains his own desire to his make a ‘slick, Brylcreemed record’ that could only have come out in 2012. The result is The Invitation To The Voyage, his third studio album – its title draws on the work of Baudelaire, but Eugene makes clear the separation between lyrics and poetry in this interview with Richard O’Brien.


Richard O’Brien speaks to Romain Guerret from Aline – interview in French.

As a French indie-pop group singing in their native language, Aline already stand apart from their musical peers. It may seem strange how little musicians in the country of chanson française respect the creative potential of their own language; singer and guitarist Romain Guerret certainly thinks so, though writing chansons was never his intention either. He talks to Richard O’Brien about the evolution of the project’s distinctive lyrical character, and about his ambitions to tour in the English-speaking world.


Richard O’Brien speaks to Nick Waterhouse, playing at the TransMusicales – one of France’s biggest ‘showcase’ festivals.

Although words like ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ are frequently thrown at the surprisingly ancient-sounding music created by Nick Waterhouse, he’s keen to take apart the simplicity of such assumptions. He has a deep and abiding love for the forgotten artists of the 50s and 60s, but for Waterhouse what counts is a specific attachment to each unjustly-unknown talent, rather than a vague sense of a certain aesthetic. He talks about his techniques as a producer, for himself and the Allah-Lahs, and specifically the importance of craftsmanship, which leads him away from Pro Tools and the modern records ‘with sound all over them’, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, into a warmer, more organic world.


Richard O’Brien meets Canadian singer-songwriter Charlotte Cornfield.

Charlotte Cornfield performed last Friday and Saturday in the BarBars festival, as part of a mammoth European tour with Boris Paillard, aka The Keys – a huge, 40-date undertaking which also happens to be her first visit to our shores. She plays three songs in our studio – ‘North of Superior’, ‘Clumsy Love’, and ‘All Of The Pretty Mistakes’ – and discusses the influence of two of the cities she has made her home, Toronto and Montreal, on the direction of her music. She also explores her songwriting process and the inspiration she takes, among other sources, from the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

Film, TV and comedy interviews

Interviews with figures from the worlds of film, TV and comedy, all originally conducted for EURadioNantes.

Richard meets Alice Lowe, co-writer and star of the British black comedy ‘Sightseers’.


The British sense of humour is widely appreciated, if not always understood, in France, and nothing says ‘so British’ like ‘serial slaughter on a caravan holiday’. That’s the subject of ‘Sightseers’, a blacker-than-black film comedy scripted by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who also star. Alice speaks to Richard O’Brien about sadness and violence as sources of comedy, and their place in the tradition of English humour. She also discusses the film’s sweeping shots of the beautiful Northern landscape, and the darkness its quaint and nostalgic locations inevitably contain.

Richard O’Brien meets Claire Allouche, from Les Feux Croisés, to discuss the Festival des 3 Continents, a yearly world cinema event in Nantes.

The Festival des 3 Continents has been running for 34 years; the film website Les Feux Croisés a number of months. Nonetheless, it is fast developing a reputation as one of the best places to read about the big screen on its smaller cousin. Here Richard speaks to contributor Claire Allouche, the webzine’s delegate to this year’s festival, about the elements she has chosen to cover – the Produire au Sud workshop, which helps international filmmakers at an early stage in their career find producers, and the two Argentinian films in this year’s programme. They also review some of the films in the official competition, and discuss ‘The Catch’, projected as part of a retrospective of the work of Japanese director Shinji Somai. More information on
Richard speaks to Grégoire Furrer, founder of the Montreux Comedy Festival.
Grégoire Furrer has spent many years trying to make you laugh; not always in person, but through the comedy events he organises with his company, Productions Illimitées, and most notably at the Montreux Comedy Festival, which he founded in 1989. The recent Comedy International Conference in London raised a number of questions – are today’s young comedians truly international, and is it more important to have a humour which is grounded in the local than a humour which translates? Can the same joke be both? Grégoire shares his views on these questions, as well as on the relationship between TV fame and live stand-up performance, in an interview with Richard O’Brien.
Richard O’Brien meets Amanda Coe, screenwriter for a recent BBC adaptation of John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’

‘Room at the Top’ is a 1950s British novel which has come to stand as a barometer for post-war social change; not least because it now seems considerably less radical than initial audiences assumed. Now Amanda Coe has adapted the story of selfish social climber Joe Lampton for a new generation, and her two-part BBC version is a period piece with a biting modern resonance. Here she speaks to Richard O’Brien about the novel’s individualistic and misogynistic ideology, and the challenges of adaptation.