More Sex, Death and Fruit

Jon Finch in ‘Frenzy’, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1972.

‘Are you deaf? I distinctly said a large brandy, there’s scarcely enough in that to cover the bottom. Actually, you can make it a triple.’ (Jon Finch gives a barman a hard time in Frenzy.)

August 2020. The tedium of London on a Sunday has a sort of time-warped quality, as if we are transported back to Tony Hancock’s room in East Cheam circa 1958. Many of us are bored to distraction, resorting to the Netflix menu, unwatched DVD boxed sets, VHS tapes, wax cylinders, etc.. This weekend your correspondent watched a double bill of London-set thrillers: Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, wherein Woody tries and fails to essay a working-class melodrama with a Mike Leigh cast, and Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film: Frenzy. This last is a solid fifty years old now and is interesting as Hitchcock’s homage to the London of his youth; Hitch was the son of a wholesale greengrocer and the action of the film centres on Covent Garden’s fruit and veg market, then in its final years of operation. Frenzy also offers a very troubling insight into the great director’s id.

The film opens with a nostalgic helicopter shot of London from the river, the camera passing under Tower Bridge to the sounds of Ron Goodwin’s travelogue-style theme music. (Ron Goodwin was chosen after Henry Mancini’s score had been scrapped by Hitch, Goodwin supposedly getting the nod because Hitch liked his music for the Peter Sellers sketch Balham: Gateway to the South). Frenzy was based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern, which was inspired by the ‘Jack the Stripper’ murders of the 1960s. Hitchcock’s treatment of the subject is a queasy admixture of anachronistic Britishness and up-to- date sexual violence, the permissive climate of early ’70s cinema allowing him to indulge his obsessions to an upsetting degree. The film’s anti-hero is Blaney, a surly ex-RAF officer down on his luck, played by Jon Finch. Finch had just played Macbeth for Polanski and he is very good at projecting the uncontrolled resentment of Blaney: divorced, homeless, jobless, he reeks of booze and rage, at one point crushing a brandy balloon in his hand. But Blaney isn’t the killer: he has the misfortune of being another of Hitchcock’s ‘wrong men’, as the real murderer is a greengrocer in a double-breasted suit, played with jaunty menace by Barry Foster. (Hitch’s first choice was Michael Caine, but he thought the project was revolting.)

Finch and Barry Foster. Never accept grapes from a man in a double-breasted suit.

A fair bit of the action takes place in well-known Covent Garden pubs, although the interiors are Pinewood sets. There is The Globe on Bow Street, where Blaney and his girlfriend Anna Massey work behind the bar; but the start of the film sees Blaney sacked by landlord Bernard Cribbins for drinking the pub’s stock. Later on, Blaney drinks in Nell of Old Drury on Catherine St.. Blaney is in the Nell when a lawyer and a doctor from the courts discuss the latest killing with the barmaid: ‘We were just talking about the ‘tie murderer’ Maisie, you’d better watch out!’ and cheerfully note that the killings are good for the tourist trade. This kind of banter could have come out of one of Hitch’s pre-War British films (the screenplay is by Anthony Shaffer and is not one of his best); but if the dialogue is dated, the film’s sadism is very ‘70s. It is hard to stomach the repugnant scene that graphically depicts the rape and murder of Barbara Leigh Hunt’s character. It took three gruelling days to shoot and although both principals are brilliant the result is indefensible. Ms Hunt joined the select band of tortured Hitchcock women, but none of her illustrious predecessors (not even Janet Leigh) were ever shown in such a disgusting ‘post-mortem’ close-up. For his part, Barry Foster was forever after plagued by drunks accosting him with shouts of ‘Lovely! Lovely!’

However, the film does contain a first-rate slice of Hitchcock ‘cake’: this is the masterly sequence that foreshadows the fate of Anna Massey at the hands of Barry Foster. We’ve already seen what happened to Barbara Leigh Hunt, so we know that Anna shouldn’t be hanging out with the natty grocer, but there she is going back to his place. (The address is no. 3 Henrietta St., above the premises of Duckworth’s the publisher: I wonder what the firm thought about that?) This time Hitchcock doesn’t show the murder; instead, the scene ends with a famous bit of cinematic invention, as Hitch’s camera retreats downstairs after following Foster and Massey into the upstairs flat, finally moving into the bustling street, where life carries on regardless. An assistant in a bookshop in Stoke Newington recently told me that he was the extra carrying the sack of potatoes who walks past the doorway, his entrance covering the cut between the interior – studio – take and the exterior sequence. He was quite proud of this fact, although the sack he carries completely hides his face.

That one scene aside, I’m not sure that Frenzy really does much for Hitchcock’s reputation, beyond offering irrefutable proof of his own pathology. But it is fascinating as a kind of lament for a way of life that was disappearing: its Covent Garden seems almost as remote as that of Hogarth’s time. It’s also a reminder of how good Barry Foster and Jon Finch could be. The latter, in particular, now seems like one of British cinema’s lost talents. What happened? He appeared in some of the most important films of the era but he seems to have turned down a lot of promising offers. Ill-health forced him to withdraw from Alien, replaced at 24-hours’ notice by John Hurt, cinema history made without him. If he hadn’t been invalided out of that illustrious project his star would surely have risen again. Instead, he drifted into obscure European productions, was sighted here and there in unusual places (e.g. playing the titular role in Ken Hill’s entertaining version of The Invisible Man at Stratford East), before dying in a flat in Hastings at the age of 70.

NB: Miles Richardson has offered some of his own memories of Jon Finch in the comments section.

‘Where did it go wrong love?’ Finch and Anna Massey outside The Globe.

Dirk and Dennis at The Salisbury

Dirk Bogarde (as ‘Melville Farr’) in St. Martin’s Court, outside The Salisbury, in ‘Victim’.

Halfway up St. Martin’s Lane is The Salisbury: a crystal and mahogany Victorian confection, a gleaming temple to the conviviality of drinking. The Salisbury was one of Ian Nairn’s favourite pubs and gets lovingly referenced in Nairn’s London: ‘as much sparkle as a brandy and soda’. (Sadly, one imagines that The Salisbury might have glimpsed the great architectural critic’s alcoholic decline, a process managed with a sea of pub Guinness.) It was once a well-known gay pub, extensively referenced as such in the 1961 Dirk Bogarde film Victim – a dated but enjoyable thriller wherein Dirk, coiffed and clenched in Savile Row threads, tackles insolent, Vespa-riding, leather-clad blackmailer Derren Nesbitt. (Whatever happened to him? Did his fleshy lips wither and go out of fashion?)

Victim is a landmark in British cinema, as it was the first film to tackle male homosexuality in a sympathetic manner in a contemporary setting. Attitudes were changing: the previous year, saw the release of not one but two British films about the fall of Oscar Wilde (one starred Robert Morley, but Peter Finch’s Oscar is the clear winner). In Victim, Bogarde’s smooth, successful but uptight barrister stumbles across an extortion racket targeting gay men; in the process he has to face awkward truths about his own closeted sexuality, and the tragic consequences of his rejection of romantic rough trade Peter McEnery. On its own terms it remains very entertaining and was seen as highly daring at a time when homosexual acts between males was against the law, a law that wasn’t repealed until 1967. Bogarde took a big risk with his matinee idol image to make this film. A gay man adored by straight women, Victim suggested that he would be prepared to come out when the time was right; but for some reason he never did.

Dirk assisting some implausibly sympathetic policemen.

Some moments in the film retain real power, especially an excellent scene when Bogarde admits the truth about himself to his wife; but it betrays its age at the end, when it’s clear that Dirk and the lovely Sylvia Sims are going to stick it out together. By this point, Dirk has succeeded in exposing the blackmail ring, which operated out of a bookshop in nearby Cecil Court. (Incidentally, a Cecil Court bookshop is also used for furtive purposes in The Human Factor, wherein a spy uses a book-based system to communicate with his Soviet handler.) It’s hugely enjoyable on many levels: as social history, for its London locations, and – for this viewer – those moments where the film-makers’ good intentions collide with bathetic camp: I particularly like the bluff, burly detective who seems to want to ask Dirk out on a date. But it is sobering to reflect that it was protesting against the same law that sent Oscar Wilde to prison.

Not Oscar Wilde … Dennis Nilsen has his day in court.

The Salisbury also features in a dark episode in the life of gay London: as a cruising spot for the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. An authentic urban bogeyman, Nilsen’s grim story is well know and has been much picked over by writers (notably Brian Masters in Killing for Company) seeking to examine the nature of evil and the way London, like any big city, swallows the vulnerable. The police hadn’t been looking for a serial killer until Dennis’s neighbours in Muswell Hill called in Dyno-Rod to investigate a blocked drain – and found human remains. He’d been killing pick-ups in his attic flat but had had trouble getting rid of the bodies; so he tried boiling body parts on his stove and flushing the residue down the toilet. The official body count was twelve, all men, mostly runaways and vagrants that he encountered in the West End, four of whom remain unidentified. Nielsen is currency in a good many bar-room stories. Nilsen’s work colleagues at the job centre in Denmark Street – he was popular – mention helping him move house between Cricklewood and Muswell Hill (‘What have you got in here, Dennis? Bodies!’ ‘Yeah’). A man living adjacent to Nilsen’s Cricklewood house who was plagued by ghoulish treasure hunters. The woman who went to look at an ‘amazingly cheap’ flat in Muswell Hill and was about to make an offer when a work colleague asked if it was a top floor flat in Cranley Gardens? The flat finally sold to a foreign couple who moved out when they discovered its history … I have met people who have given me these accounts – although they didn’t actually happen to them, but someone they knew. Nilsen has become as much a part of London folklore as Sweeney Todd – except that we know that the latter never existed as anything other than a Penny Dreadful ballad. Nilsen was the real thing: Death as a friendly chap propping the bar, buying a stranger a drink and offering him a bed for the night.

Postscript: I feel obliged to note here that in 1963 a woman who worked in an antique shop at 23 Cecil Court was stabbed in a botched robbery. Her killer was caught after his Identikit profile was circulated, the first time the technique is credited with catching a criminal of any kind.

a further postscript: the estimable Miles Richardson has pointed out (see his comment below) that the pub was a favourite with Sir John Gielgud, who might well have availed himself of all its facilities. (In Victim one of the blackmailed is a noted theatrical star, played by Dennis Price.) Here is a nice photo, taken by the great portrait photographer Arnold Newman, of Gielgud in the Salisbury; he is talking, I think, to Kenneth Tynan. Also in the comments, Dale Rapley’s poignant anecdote about working with Dirk Bogarde in the twilight of Dirk’s career is worth a moment of anyone’s time.

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.)