London's weirdest tourist attraction is a gravestone for the 90s.
(Photo by Nick Hilton, all other photos by Mark Duffy unless stated)
If I were a school-aged German tourist, visiting London with a gaggle of equally back-packed and rat-tailed children, some joyless dickhead would advise me to make a trip to the West End. Or so I assume from the volume of continental youngsters who teem down Piccadilly and occupy Leicester Square like track-suited protesters against modern fashion and personal space.
The beating heart of this part of London isn’t Eros, or Chinatown, or the flagship Waterstones, or any of the other high-profile TripAdvisor-friendly attractions. It’s the palatial white building that sits between the freakshow at Ripley’s and the freakshow at the Leicester Square KFC: The London Trocadero.
In his 1968 poem "For the Union Dead", Robert Lowell describes the derelict South Boston Aquarium as standing "in a Sahara of snow". The Trocadero stands in a Kalahari of krap. The Baroque restaurant, opened at the turn of the 20th century, is now the home of invasive souvenir hawkers and chain gift shops displaying a level of bad taste that borders on satirical performance art.
People climb towards the entrance of SegaWorld via the "rocket escalator" in 1998 (Photo by Jane Schumin)
It wasn't always this way. In the 1990s, the historic building was salvaged for the purpose of creating the biggest "leisure space" in London, packed with a Nickelodeon studios, Pepsi IMAX and its crowning glory, SegaWorld, which was essentially just loads of arcade games and a giant statue of Sonic. It was a feat of uniquely poor planning, and almost immediately developed a rust of crapness. By the Millennium the Trocadero dream was dead: Sega withdrew their sponsorship and SegaWorld was relegated to something called "Funland", the IMAX vanished, and the escalators stopped moving, never to be effectively repaired. As a final insult, the place was used as a location for the video of Madonna’s 2005 single, "Hung Up".
Yet, despite the inexorability of this decline, a couple of years ago, the ground floor of the complex was fighting bravely against its inevitable destruction. An apparently salaried attendant was employed to supervise the bungee trampoline. There were public toilets that charged a full £1 and must’ve made a fortune catching the frosted urine of slush-puppied children. There was even a time-warp underground connection to Piccadilly Circus tube station, which was populated, at all times, by a silent Japanese breakdancing troupe. They head-span to their terrible J-Pop while the scent of cinnamon wafted down from the fresh bun store (which shared its premises with a shop that, obviously, sold scuba diving equipment).
Today, a lone Starbucks stands by the doors, like a pisspants kid surrounded by mute bullies. Visitors who have travelled from all over the planet to come to London are invited to enter "Tokyo Toys", while others will elect to have their photo taken, in costume as Henry VIII, at History Studies. It’s surreal to have a man shout at me for photographing his row of New York Yankees snapbacks, while a woman floats around in an evening gown, looking like a Victorian ghost trapped in hell's video games arcade.
The Baskin Robbins, Cool Britannia and guy who sold portraits of you lasered into crystal have all now been hidden behind an MDF barricade. In a last show of defiance, even the hoardings that hide some sort of building work look painfully cheap. Meanwhile, the LED banner on the façade of the building still advertises "5D World", though, if such a place still exists behind the boarded-up walls, the staff must be long dead. "Can you handle the 5D Simulator Ride?" they ask. No, you literally can’t, so get back to your terrible 3D life.
The Trocadero, as it is now, is more full of broken promises than it ever was of humans. A sign for the place still proudly announces that there are "Shops", "Night Clubs", "Bars", "Restaurants", a "Cinema", "Games" and "Tenpin Bowling". In their defence, there is still a cinema. But the closest thing to a "Night Club" is Platinum Lounge, the Gentlemen’s club which abuts the entry. The closest thing to a restaurant is the Cineworld concession stand. There is also a shisha café with a Clip Art logo so shit that it makes me assume their rent must be free.
The "Games" themselves, for which Funland was built as a showcase, have all but disappeared. There are a handful of arcade machines – ranging from a thing that lets you test your strength against the mannequin of a saggy-titted man, to a Star Wars shooter which was probably last played around the time of Attack of the Clones – but the whole thing feels like Tron’s graveyard. There are no gamers. There are one or two accidental tourists who will probably be trapped there for the remainder of eternity, but, otherwise, the games are deserted.
“I used to love the Aliens ride there when the 'aliens' grabbed your feet at the end to scare you but my friend fought back and punched the guy in the suit and we were evicted,” says Cory, one of a group of early Trocadero enthusiasts I managed to track down. The tie-in game for the 1986 James Cameron movie has gone, but the available arcades are still a charnel house for 90s movie franchises, desperate to ensnare and further rinse their avid viewers.
(Photo by Nick Hilton)
When I was 13, a friend and I raced to Funland with the £20 we’d earned by helping to pour glasses of wine at a party, and blew it on the arcades. It was as close as you could get to reckless gambling at that age, and the odds were very much on the side of the House with those 10p machines. Even then, Funland was kitschier and emptier than it should’ve been on a Saturday night. We should’ve read the signs; we should’ve known it could never last…
And yet, even a couple of years ago, I took an ex-girlfriend to a deserted Funland. To do so now would be to walk into a serial killer storyline from Whitechapel. If there’s anything romantic about derelict buildings, that sensation is absent from the sight of corrugated steel, which holds back the pawing hands of children from the gates of Funland. You can’t see in, so you can’t know whether the arcades are still there, or whether the place has been gutted. How do you even recycle Dodgems?
Above: the most 90s thing of all time
“I went on the Pepsi Max Drop with my cousin, which I loved,” reflects Jamie, “but in more recent years they changed the entrance from the station to an urban dance area where you felt really awkward walking through.” Jamie’s not alone in his impressions of the place, as Vince too observes, “I came to the bright lights all Dick Wittington-y expecting edgy street culture. It weren't there. Might have had me map upside down.”
Memories of the place aren’t universally negative. Vern tells me, “They had a good pizza place outside, Mr Pumpernickel, where you could get a massive slice for a quid.” Likewise, Mike says that his “lasting memory was seeing Frank Bruno at the bottom of the escalator on the way out”. Cheap pizza and Frank Bruno aren’t the experience that the Trocadero was designed to provide, but I guess it’s all part of the happy-go-lucky charm of the place.
London is not, to the best of my knowledge, a city in rapid economic decline, and yet the Trocadero stands like a mausoleum to the bile-inducing tastes of the 90s. It is due to be replaced, poetically, by a TK Maxx, and one of the people I spoke to told me that he “cheered when I heard it had been closed down.”
The entrance to the Trocadero is now a static escalator; while, round the back, a working escalator delivers you back onto Shaftesbury Avenue. There’s a beautiful asymmetry to the place that makes it easier to get out than it is to get in. The Trocadero had been frozen in time but now stands as melted slush. It’s hard to believe that it has no future – especially given the enraptured crowds who watch the Hare Krishna men on the street outside – but the evidence of its demise, its final whispered breaths, makes for a compelling attraction in itself.