Summers In The Dark

David Hemmings, Nikon in hand, prowls Maryon Park in search of … what? ‘Blow Up’, 1966.

The abrupt blooming of London after a November-like May has produced a palpable frisson of excitement in the city, all that pent-up energy seeking release from Covid morbidity. Suddenly, London is beautiful again. It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to put on a pair of white strides, grab a Nikon and a velvet jacket, jump into a vintage Rolls, and drive around town in search of nothing in particular.

Directed by the austere Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (a man who didn’t do jokes), Blow Up features David Hemmings playing fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ abstractedly investigating a murder he may or may not have photographed. Thomas is a composite figure, a confection drawing on contemporary fashion photographers John French and John Cowan (whose studio doubles as Thomas’s in the film), as well as more obvious models like Donovan and Bailey. The film is a remarkable time capsule of London in 1965. Unlikely spots in Peckham, Woolwich, Stockwell, and the bomb-scarred City are rendered significant and hypnotic, whilst groovy goings on ‘up West’ look deeply silly. The piazza of the Economist Building on St James’s St., a prime example of 1960s Brutalism, is buzzed by a Land Rover full of mimes, who then proceed to drive across London in a vastly irritating form of ‘happening’ (a distant echo of the Bright Young Things who capered so pointlessly in the West End of the 1920s). Or that scene in ‘Ricky Tick’s club (a real club but the interior is a sound stage at Elstree) wherein The Yardbirds pretend to be The Who – Jeff Beck smashing his guitar on film as he never did on stage – before a zombified crowd. This vignette is only slightly more comic when you discover that the lone female dancer in the stripy leggings is the young Janet Street Porter. 

Hemmings/Thomas at the wheel of a Silver Cloud Mk.III. According to IMDb, this vehicle once belonged to Jimmy Savile. I prefer to think that this is not true.

Blow Up is often considered an indigenous product but this is false. Like many key films of the 1960s, it was a result of Britain’s sudden contemporary resonance and shitloads of American money. This is a point worth emphasising. An Italian director and production team, backed by MGM, chose London as an emblem of an international cultural moment. And their other choices were shrewd. A Spanish literary source, a story by Julio Cortazar, was adapted by Edward Bond; they commissioned a jazz score from the young Herbie Hancock; and Don McCullin supplied Thomas’s photographs. (McCullin is as British as they come, but he specialised in global warfare, not fashion.) The Yardbirds onscreen line-up included both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, but the band weren’t first choice. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground, before they even had a record deal, because he’d seen them in New York as house band for Warhol’s Factory. (The Velvets couldn’t get UK work permits.)

Blow Up was a touchstone for generations of photographers who wanted the lifestyle shown in the film. Hemmings floats around London in his achingly beautiful Silver Cloud convertible, occasionally retrieving his Nikon from the glove box to photograph tramps and strangers in parks, returning to his period-perfect studio on Pottery Lane, W11, for a fashion shoot with Veruschka and erotic encounters with the likes of Jane Birkin and Vanessa Redgrave. That side of it has been comprehensively sent-up (Austin Powers etc.), but the best thing about Blow-Up is its luminous depiction of odd, forgotten corners of London and its feeling for the atmosphere of the city. I can’t think of another film that conveys the sound of London in the summer: the soughing of trees in a park, of footsteps in city streets. It took an Italian auteur with no local knowledge to make a film with such an authentic sense of place. Nearly sixty years on, the film’s London locations have acquired their own folklore: the red houses Thomas drives past in Stockwell, the calm and green of Maryon Park in permanently unfashionable Charlton (Antonioni ordered that park grass be painted green), the dawn over Chelsea Embankment as Thomas leaves a Cheyne Walk party, and so on. (Ian Sinclair devoted a fair bit of Lights Out For The Territory to Antonioni’s treatment of south London.) And the fascination of seeing – or not seeing.  The centrepiece of the film is a 45-minute sequence shadowing Thomas in his studio, obsessively, silently, poring over huge prints, before returning to the darkroom to make yet another ‘blow-up’ to explain what he saw in Maryon Park.  Any photographer will tell you that the level of detail he pulls out of that negative is impossible, but it doesn’t matter: this scene captures better than any other the romance of working in a darkroom, of taking a tiny slice of time and making it something you can hold in your hand. What you make of it after that is up to you.

I suppose I had this image in mind when I got my first job, at 17, working as a press photographer’s darkroom assistant. I remember 1979 as a beautiful summer, which sat oddly with the fact that I was spending most of it in the dark. Also, my employer was based in dusty, unlovely Streatham, not Notting Hill. And the romance of working in a darkroom is contingent on being in control of your working hours – like Thomas in Blow-Up, it’s best to work at night if you can – and choosing what it is you want to print. As a press hack’s dogsbody, I was entrusted with printing indifferent photographs of celebrities at events. (I once spent an entire day printing photographs of John Inman, a task with no attendant glamour whatsoever.) As luck would have it, my older brother lived in Balham, just a couple of stops away from Streatham, so I availed myself of his hospitality more than was really good for me. My brother was a loosely-employed actor in his mid-20s, using his free time to experiment with various kinds of home-brewing. Some of his preparations would have challenged the most grizzled of Fleet Street paps, so my virgin liver didn’t stand a chance. One hot evening saw us drinking lukewarm Holsten Pils in a ratty local pub, before heading back to his maisonette to attack whatever he had left in the flat: dregs of red wine, Pernod and, finally, fatally, his home-brewed mead. The next morning I gamely dragged myself to work and was immediately ordered to run off a dozen snaps of Joanna Lumley, looking radiant at some VIP do or other. Bravely, I stepped into the dark and turned on the red light. Despite the throbbing chaos in my head, I made a good start and got out a few prints; but before long the acrid smell of the fixing solution got to me and I was sick into the wash tray, all over the divine Ms Lumley, who didn’t deserve such an indignity. I was let go soon after that. David Hemmings I was not.

All Yesterday’s Parties

Bright Young Things and the proletariat: Elizabeth Ponsonby fourth from left, Cecil Beaton with pneumatic drill, next to Cyril Connolly.

‘It was an age of ‘parties’. There were ‘white’ parties in which we shot down to the country in fleets of cars, dressed in white from head to foot, and danced on a white floor lid in the orchard, with the moonlight turning all the apples to silver, and then – in a pale pink dawn – playing races with champagne corks on the surface of the stream. There were Mozart parties in which, powdered and peruked,  we danced by candlelight and then – suddenly bored – rushed out into the street to join a gang excavating the gas mains at Hyde Park Corner. There were swimming parties where, at midnight, we descended on some municipal baths, hired for the occasion, and disported ourselves with an abandon that was all the fiercer because we knew that the press was watching – and watching with a very disapproving eye.’ Beverley Nichols, All I Could Never Be (1949)

The Bright Young People were a phenomenon of the 1920s: well-connected if not actually aristocratic, sometimes rich, usually spoilt and occasionally stupid, they came to characterise the frivolity of the decade and have the capacity to irritate even at this distance. Treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, elaborate dressing up, themed parties, the affected speech (‘too sick-making’, etc.) were guaranteed to invoke the displeasure of their elders in proportion to the number of newspaper columns they filled. In many ways, their behaviour was an understandable reaction to the black-edged aftermath of the 1st World War, the assertion by a generation too young to have experienced hostilities that there was more to life than endless grief. And their coverage in the popular press was mostly indulgent – to begin with at any rate. They were good copy. They are also credited with inventing an important social innovation: the bottle party. (This is said to have been introduced by Loelia Ponsonby in 1926, the novelist Michael Arlen duly turning up with twelve bottles of pink champagne.)

The group are remembered mainly because their ‘antics’ fed into the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, and also those by Anthony Powell and Henry Green – none of whom were members of the set but detached, ironic observers. Other associated with the group included the historian Robert Byron and the artist Rex Whistler; and some in their orbit achieved success and social advancement by association. Cecil Beaton and William Walton both benefited by having their names on certain invitation lists. But the core ‘Brights’ seem to have been full-time party-goers. These include Brian Howard, acid wit, alcoholic and under-achiever; Stephen Tennant, aesthete, would-be novelist and lover of Siegfred Sassoon; and, of course, the fabled Mitford sisters, chiefly Nancy, who occasionally wrote novels, and the breathtakingly beautiful Diana, who ended up married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley. All of these individuals turn up as characters in Waugh’s novels, the exotic Stephen Tennant cited as one of several models for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited

The Impersonation Party, 1927: the Right Hon. Stephen Tennant as Queen Mary of Romania, seated left, Brian Howard in drag, standing next to Elizabeth Ponsonby and Cecil Beaton, Harold Acton kneeling below, Tallulah Bankhead in tennis gear front, etc.

One of the the most significant of the multitude of parties was David Tennant’s Mozart party, 29 April 1930, a do that was reckoned to have cost £3,000. David Tennant, brother of Stephen and son of the first Lord Glenconner, would now be described as a ‘scenester’, a man who had a feel for the times derived from impeccable connections and a fair bit of old money. Tennant was married to the young ‘queen of revue’, Hermione Gingold, and was founder and proprietor of the Gargoyle Club, a nightclub and cultural hothouse that lasted in Soho from the early twenties to the mid-fifties. Tennant  co-opted the defiance and costume of Don Giovanni by giving himself a lavish birthday party after returning from Canada in the wake of a business failure. Taking place just a few months after the Wall Street Crash, this entertainment was held within a chamber adorned with antique furniture and accessories, with music played by an orchestra decked out, like the five hundred attendees, in formal 18th century get-up (and conducted by the young John Barbirolli, no less). While the host appeared as Mozart’s dark anti-hero, another guest masqueraded as Beau Brummel with the original Brummel’s own cane as a prop. The climax of the evening was a surreal and ominous encounter as a group of party-goers emerged into Piccadilly and were photographed next to a group of workmen digging up the street. Amongst the revellers in the costume of the ancien regime posing next to bemused labourers were Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton and the most quintessentially bright of all the bright young people, Elizabeth Ponsonby.

Elizabeth Ponsonby, daughter of the Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby seems to have been the group’s lynchpin in their 1920s heyday. She was one of the sponsors of the famous ‘Bath and Bottle’ party in July 1928, at St.George’s Baths, Buckingham Palace Rd., where guests were instructed to wear a bathing suit and bring a bottle and a towel. Unlike some of the set, Elizabeth never wanted to do anything other than go drinking and partying; but she lacked the financial reserves to truly sustain a life of aristocratic frivolity. She was always good copy, turns up as ‘Agatha Runcible’ in Vile Bodies, lived cheerfully beyond her means – also the means of both her baffled husband and her long-suffering father. Elizabeth achieved apotheosis in tragedy, an event that also marked the end of the Bright Young era. This was a ‘White Party’ (everything painted white, white dress, etc.) held at a country house in Faversham, Kent, on a Saturday night in July 1931. Elizabeth went on her own, her increasingly exasperated husband Denis refusing to attend. At the party, Elizabeth found herself the object of affection of two men, both of whom seem to have had long-standing designs on her. A dance- floor quarrel ensued and events quickly escalated. Some time around 5 a.m., Elizabeth and one of her admirers drove off in a car that belonged to her other admirer, who then gave furious chase in a commandeered lorry. Unsurprisingly, this chase through Kentish lanes ended in disaster, as Elizabeth’s car skidded and overturned. Elizabeth was able to crawl out of the window, but her companion was crushed beneath the vehicle and died at the scene, whilst her pursuer was arrested for drink driving. In his book on ‘the set’, D.J. Taylor pinpoints the coverage of the ensuing inquest as the end of the media phenomenon of the ‘ Brights’.

Elizabeth Ponsonby died of the effects of alcoholism in 1940, at the age of forty, in her rented flat in Jermyn Street, a few doors from the Cavendish Hotel, scene of so many twenties’ parties. A respectful obituary appeared in The Times: D.J. Taylor suggests that her grieving father wrote it himself. Evelyn Waugh died, successful but disillusioned and prematurely old, in 1964. David Tennant died in 1968, in Spain, where he had lived for many years; the same year, Hermione Gingold was in Hollywood and Cecil Beaton was photographing Mick Jagger on the set of Performance. (The National Portrait Gallery held a Beaton exhibition last year, centred on his early career, but this major show was cruelly curtailed by Covid-19.) Stephen Tennant became a recluse on his family’s estate and lived long enough to watch a version of himself being played on television by Anthony Andrews in the famous eighties ITV Brideshead (which must be a bit like being embalmed whilst still alive).

Further reading: Bright Young People, D.J. Taylor, Children of the Sun, Martin Green.

Spies and Queens at The Gargoyle Club

Brian Howard gazes thoughtfully at the camera. Photo taken sometime in the 1930s by noted portrait photographer Howard Coster (not at The Gargoyle: this is The 500 Club.)

‘At least, my dear, I am a has-been. That’s something you can never be.’
Brian Howard in The Gargoyle Club, circa 1940s.

The Gargoyle Club was located at 69 Meard Street, just off Wardour Street. The club was located on the top three floors of a Lutyens-adapted Georgian townhouse and was founded in 1925 by the young aristocrat David Tennant as a place where he could go dancing with his girlfriend, the actress Hermione Baddeley. (In the 1970s, her sister Angela Baddeley achieved a kind of immortality as the plain-spoken cook Mrs Bridges in the 1970s Edwardian soap Upstairs, Downstairs.) By day the club was a straight-up venue for business lunches, but it came alive in the evenings, when the livelier members of London’s intelligentsia gathered to talk, drink and occasionally dance; no-one thought the resident band was any good but no-one seemed to care. The décor was especially noteworthy, having been supervised by none other than Henri Matisse: the ballroom was panelled with fragments cut from 18th century mirrors salvaged from a French chateau, and a pair of Matisse canvases completed the look. The Gargoyle immediately established itself as a very important cultural and social venue, even if Constant Lambert described the dance floor on Saturday night as being ‘packed with the two hundred nastiest people in Chiswick.’

Matisse’s Red Studio. The club also housed his Studio, Quai St Michel – both were sold in the early days of the war to pay club debts. The former is now in MOMA, New York, the latter in the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

The club’s members’ list is an impressive inventory of the great and the good, but this entry concerns itself with some of the sleazier regulars. The louche diplomat and traitor Guy Burgess became a member in 1943 and found the ambience particularly to his liking. At this time Burgess was working for the BBC and, covertly, the KGB, for whom he had already recruited sometime lover and occasional Gargoyle visitor, Donald MacLean. Their fellow Soviet spy in MI6, Kim Philby, was also a member of the Gargoyle but largely avoided the club during the war, possibly to keep Burgess’s conspicuous recklessness at arm’s length. Burgess was also close to another flamboyant Gargoyle fixture: Brian Howard, poet, professional failure, and one of the models for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Howard was, like Burgess, an old Etonian and a member of the gilded 1920s Oxford generation, which is where he encountered Evelyn Waugh. Later, he became associated with the party set beloved of twenties’ gossip columns. Unfortunately, Howard’s precocious poetic achievements petered out early and his youthful promise remained forever unfulfilled. Howard’s war time career was ignominious: thrown out of MI5 because he couldn’t keep a secret, he ended up in the public relations department of Bomber Command, a job title worthy of a Waugh novel. (Even in that post Brian Howard remained incorrigible. According to D.J. Taylor, in his book Bright Young People, Howard’s mother once interceded with her son’s RAF squadron leader concerning a uniform Brian had left in a pub toilet.)

Eaten up with bitterness, Howard functioned as the Gargoyle’s gargoyle, a sinister, mincing barfly who would assail people entering from the lobby with queeny insults (e.g.:‘Who do we think we are, dear, Noel Coward?’). Burgess, meanwhile, used the club as a pick-up joint, making passes at anyone who took his fancy, with mixed results. On one occasion he succeeded in luring an interior decorator back to his flat, whereupon he assailed him with coat hangers, but his approach to a young painter was less successful: ‘Would you like to come back to my flat? Would you like to be whipped? A wild thrashing? Wine thrown in?’ Howard and Burgess were occasional lovers, Howard indulging Burgess’s masochistic tendencies with enthusiastic firmness. There is also an intriguing episode in the summer of 1945, when Burgess and Howard went with their respective boyfriends to visit the ageing Lord Alfred Douglas at home in Brighton, thus squaring the circle: the louche gay spy and the Bright Young Person paying homage to Oscar’s beloved Bosie. Burgess wanted to show off his new boyfriend, who he believed was even more beautiful than Douglas had been in his fabled youth.

Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. Burgess found MacLean sexually unappealing, ‘white and flabby’, in sharp contrast to the rough trade he preferred.

The Gargoyle celebrated its silver jubilee in 1950: later that year Donald MacLean was made a full member of the club. The troubled bisexual diplomat had recently returned from a calamitous posting to Cairo and was proposed for membership by a friend who thought it might cheer him up. Unfortunately, Maclean was deeply unstable: unhinged by drink, his confused sexuality and the pressure of his own treachery. He was by now head of the American desk at the Foreign Office but his behaviour in the club seemed designed to bring about his own unmasking. Club regulars were subjected to the unedifying spectacle of Maclean slurringly announcing that he worked for ‘Uncle Joe’ (Stalin). But they thought it was a joke. In the end, Burgess and MacLean were tipped off by Kim Philby and fled before they were exposed. They defected to Moscow in 1951, living miserable self-pitying, and booze-addled lives thereafter. As for Brian Howard, he went even more to seed, and lived a peripatetic life bouncing cheques across Europe, before dying of an overdose of sleeping pills at 52. By the time all this happened the Gargoyle was in terminal decline, and by the end of the fifties it was a strip club. It remained a club of sorts until the 1980s, and for a while was the home of The Comedy Store, that notorious bear-pit where anyone could try telling jokes in front of a baying audience and the demonic emcee, Alexei Sayle. (What does this tell us? Anything? Discuss.)