London Airs

Denmark St., with Centre Point looming behind, in 2015.

I have written about old St Giles before: as a dreadful ancient slum, Victorian London’s most fearful rookery, a festering warren inhabited by the poor, according to Charles Dickens, ‘like maggots in a cheese’. Did I mention that there was once a gallows roughly where Centre Point stands now? Seems fitting, especially as the phrase ‘one for the road’ derives from the custom of halting at St Giles to give a final drink to doomed convicts en route from Newgate to execution at Tyburn. (The Bowl and The Angel are both mentioned as pubs known for this charity.) In the 1660s St Giles became notorious as point of origin for the Great Plague, and the areas woes went on and on. Crumbling, fragile Denmark St., laid out in the 1680s, still survives, squeezed by the towering 1960s bombast of Centre Point and an assortment of wind- swept plazas that form an inner-city desert. You would be hard pressed to realize it now but this bit of town was once a mecca for British popular music. The Astoria Theatre, at the northern end of the Charing Cross Rd., was one of the most important clubs for breaking rock bands until it was sacrificed on the altar of Crossrail. A few yards to the north, on the southern reaches of the Tottenham Court Road, in an Irish dancehall (The Blarney, long since bulldozed), you would once have found the pioneer psychedelic club UFO, a short-lived temple to progressive music and expanded consciousness. For a few months in 1967 you could go there on a Friday night to lose your mind to the sounds of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd or Soft Machine, who were the resident bands, and the hallucinatory light shows (pioneered by Mark Boyle, amongst others) that constituted a new form of art installation.

Billy Fury and manager Larry Parnes.

And you hardly need me to tell you that Denmark St. (‘London’s own Tin Pan Alley!’) used to be London’s music business quarter. In the fifties, this was the fiefdom of Larry Parnes, impresario and Svengali-figure, manager of Tommy Steele, Georgie Fame, and improbably-named singers like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle (these latter supposedly – urban myth alert – re-named by Parnes according to sexual type). Parnes was so risible that he was mocked by Muir and Norden in a famous Peter Sellers sketch, and the 1958 musical Expresso Bongo by Wolf Mankowitz (father of music photographer Gered) satirised Parnes’s domination of the contemporary pop scene. Expresso Bongo was promptly made into a film, wherein the satire was largely ditched in order to make it a star vehicle for Cliff Richard; this seems, somehow, entirely appropriate. Other local fixtures included songwriter Lionel Bart, the jingle genius Johnny Johnston (Softness is a Thing Called Comfort, Beanz Meanz Heinz, and five thousand other commercial ditties), and all the other personalities of the pre-Beatles universe. In the later sixties, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Bowie, Hendrix all came here to record, in studios (e.g. Regent Sound, at no.4) carved out of 17th-century basements. The likes of David Bowie and Paul Simon came to schmooze publishers and hang out at the Giaconda coffee bar. Ten years later it was the turn of the phlegm-flecked protégés of Malcolm McLaren (the seventies version of Larry Parnes, plus value-added Situationist bullshit) The Sex Pistols, who rehearsed and lived here for a while. And, whilst he is unlikely to get a blue plaque, the mass-murderer Dennis Nilsen spent the early 1980s working in a jobcentre that used to be on the corner of Denmark St. and the Charing Cross Road (where, at one year’s Christmas staff party, Nilsen served his colleagues punch in a large pot he brought from his home, the same pan he used for boiling his victims’ heads).

Barbara Windsor and Lionel Bart during dress rehearsals for ‘Twang!!’

Wandering a bit further east from Denmark St., past Renzo Piano’s aggressively bright St. Giles Central development, you find Shaftesbury Avenue, St.Giles High St., and Bloomsbury St. converging in an unlovely funnel of tarmac. On the other side of the churning traffic lies the Shaftesbury Theatre, a crumbling Edwardian edifice stranded amidst the one-way system. The Shaftesbury is a survivor, narrowly escaping demolition in the 1970s, during the interminable run of the hippie operetta Hair, which ran from September 1968 until July 1973, when the theatre’s ceiling caved in. The owners, EMI, wanted to redevelop the site but the actor’s union Equity managed to get the building Grade 2 listed and it has since established itself as a successfully venue in a blighted location. The Shaftesbury also played a role in the downfall of local hero Lionel Bart. After rising to prominence as a writer of hits for Larry Parnes’s stable, Bart’s zenith was the celebrated musical Oliver! which opened at the New Theatre (now the Noel Coward theatre) on St Martin’s Lane in June 1960. A few years later, hubris struck as his under-prepared Robin Hood satire Twang!! – that’s two exclamation marks – had its chaotic London premiere at The Shaftesbury in December 1965. Reviews were terrible and the show closed after five weeks. Ignoring the wisdom that one should never invest your own money in your own show, Bart threw his fortune at the mess to try to keep it running and lost just about everything. At one point he sold his Oliver! copyrights to Max Bygraves for something like loose change. (As some of Oliver!‘s numbers were re-workings of old London street cries, this is another eventuality that has a pleasing inevitability about it.)

If 1840s St Giles was the ultimate in city squalor, its 21st century incarnation is the very model of a modern townscape: a sterile concrete tundra, safely contemporary, safely cheerless. Around 1900, London suffered the destruction of Wych St. and environs to create ‘new’ Aldwych and Kingsway, the loss of which it is hard to overstate. That particular act of civic philistinism didn’t just obliterate some of the prettiest streets in the capital, it cauterized life on the streets – which is exactly what it was intended to do, removing ‘unwholesome’ theatres and booksellers and erasing one of London’s cultural centres. The destruction of the area around Denmark Street is the contemporary equivalent. How do we characterise it? A few years ago, I saw chalked graffiti on the hoarding in front of the remains of the 12 Bar club that summed it up …

(Speaking of the Shaftesbury Theatre, there used to be a strange wine bar beneath it, The Grapes, which boasted an Escher-drawing of an interior and small, inadequate tables. It is now another branch of the London Cocktail Club. Some years ago I got into trouble there in a memorable episode which I describe here. A cautionary tale of sorts.)

An Evening With Harold Pinter

The Long Bar, National Theatre, 2010. Photo: Tamburlaine Pickles.

A Fragment of Bar Life 

by Charles Jennings

The main bar in the Olivier foyer. Late 1970’s. The start of the evening shift. Things are quiet. Three part-time bar staff fumble with peanut packets and bottles of mixers. GARY, the head barman, comes in carrying a crate of soft drinks, which he bangs down on the floor. He is 27 years old; wears tattoos.

PART-TIMER ONE (looking at GARY’s face, which sports a glowering black eye): What happened to your eye, Gary?

GARY says nothing, goes to fetch another crate. The PART-TIMERS shrug. GARY returns and crashes the fresh crate down.

GARY: Pinter.

PART-TIMER TWO: Harold Pinter?

GARY: Fucking stuck one on me.

Pause

PART-TIMER ONE: He stuck one on you?

GARY: I hate that fucking bloke.

Pause

PART-TIMER TWO: Why?

GARY: What?

PART-TIMER TWO: You hate him?

GARY: He can stick one on me, I can’t hit him back. Cause he’s Pinter.

Pause

PART-TIMER THREE: Why’d he stick one on you?

Pause

GARY: I was making too much noise with the crates. He was in the theatre, listening. He said he could hear the crates out here during all those fucking pauses. Fucking Betrayal.

Pause

He came out and smacked me.

Pause

I could have fucking killed him. I’d have fucking laid him out. He’s a cunt, Pinter.

The PART-TIMERS affect a keen interest in their work. GARY stands in the centre of the bar, looking out into the empty foyer.

Harold Pinter in avuncular mood, circa 1980. (Getty.)

Charles Jennings is a writer based in London. His non-fiction titles include ‘Them And Us’, ‘The Fast Set’, ‘Up North’, etc. He was also one half of the bibulous blog ‘Sediment (I’ve Bought It So I’ll Drink It)’, now available in book form.

Chez Mick, Aston, Davies and Harold

Cast and author of The Caretaker on set: Alan Bates (Mick), Harold Pinter, Robert Shaw (Aston) and Donald Pleasance (Davies), front. Photo by the great Bill Brandt.

From The Caretaker by Harold Pinter:

DAVIES: I got plenty of references. All I got to do is to go down to Sidcup tomorrow. I got all the references I want down there.

MICK: Whereʼs that?

DAVIES: Sidcup. He ainʼt only got my references down there, he got all my papers down there. I know that place like the back of my hand. Iʼm going down there anyway, see what I mean, I got to get down there or Iʼm done.

MICK: So we can always get hold of these references if we want them.

DAVIES: Iʼll be down there any day, I tell you. I was going to go down today, but Iʼm … Iʼm waiting for the weather to break.

This poignant little exchange from Pinterʼs play has become so familiar that Sidcup has forever after been associated with surreal suburban promise; a place of deliverance for the pitiful tramp Davies. Pinterʼs choice of Sidcup as the place of Daviesʼs dreams was not random: it was the HQ of the Royal Artillery during the post-war period, so Pinter is implicitly giving Davies a military history. Not that it matters: the notion of the dreary Kent suburb of Sidcup as a land of milk and honey is as cruelly inappropriate as Eric Idleʼs appropriation of Purley as a hotbed of vice in Monty Pythonʼs ʻNudgeʼ sketch.

According to Michael Billington, Pinter based the play on scenes he witnessed at a house in Chiswick where the author and his young family were living in the late 1950s. The landlordʼs brother – Austin, who became ‘Aston’ in the play – was the caretaker of the flat the Pinters were renting, and one day: ʻAustin brought a tramp heʼd met in a cafe back to the house and the tramp stayed for two or three weeks. Pinter knew the tramp very slightly and then one day he looked through an open door and saw Austin with his back to the tramp gazing out into the garden and the tramp busy putting stuff back into some kind of grubby hold-all, obviously being given his marching orders. All this matters because it then becomes the bones of the plot of The Caretaker.ʼ (Pinter at the BBC.) Elsewhere Pinter said that a man who lived in a house in Worthing, where Pinter and his wife Vivien Merchant briefly lived circa 1960, was another inspiration: a man who had suffered a medical ʻinterventionʼ to cure his mental disturbances, and whose pristine purpose in life was the construction of a shed in the garden, which is Astonʼs firmly-stated goal in The Caretaker. However, there seems to be some evidence that the real-world inspiration for Aston achieved his aim, whereas the dream shed of Pinterʼs character inhabits the same realm of fantasy as Daviesʼs plan to go to Sidcup.

Pinterʼs play has a timeless and universal quality, as evidenced by the extent and variety of its productions worldwide. But Pinter was a quintessentially London writer and when the play was filmed, in the early ’60s, when it was fresh, they opted for locations on Pinterʼs home turf: the shabby purlieus of Hackney, where Pinter had spent his childhood. The resulting film is a little masterpiece in itself, low-budget independent filmmaking of the highest order. An incongruous title card gives the game away: over a nocturnal shot of the house where the action takes place, the producers thank the individuals who made the production possible, including Noel Coward, Peter Sellers, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They filmed in a large Victorian house, number 31 Downs Rd., a street slated for demolition that formed the northern side of Hackney Downs. The superb cast – Robert Shaw, Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance as Davies – had performed the play in the West End and on Broadway and knew those characters inside out; and the cinematography was by the great Nic Roeg, whose black and white visions were faithful to Pinterʼs wintry world (it helped that the film was shot early in 1963, during the bitterest winter for many years). Someone coined the phrase ʻthe black and white sixtiesʼ to define the pre- Beatles era, and this film is a quintessential product of that moment. (Two years later the director, Richard Donner, celebrated the sixties in full bloom by bringing What’s New Pussycat? to the screen, before a long, slow, retreat back to television.)

Aston and Davies with the inscrutable, symbolic (of what?) Buddha.

Looking at the film now, the location shooting gives it a documentary quality entirely separate from the dramatic material, yet perfectly in tune with it. Davies and Aston are glimpsed walking past the Hackney Empire on Mare Street, Mick drives his tatty van and stops to pick up Davies who is shivering on a bench by Clapton Common, taunting him with the promise of a lift to Sidcup (an addition to the play this, a bit of ‘opening out’). Because we know, nearly sixty years later, that Hackney would be one of the most sought-after places to live in London, these glimpses of a desolate, post-war suburb are weirdly dislocating. The play deals in the gulf between the charactersʼ delusions and a bleak attic room, and the film makes this contrast concrete. One of best speeches in the play occurs when Mick, Astonʼs younger and much sharper brother, an aspiring entrepreneur, looks around the dilapidated attic and describes the House and Garden vision of domestic luxe for 1963:

I could turn this place into a penthouse. For instance . . . this room. This room you could have as the kitchen. Right size, nice window, sun comes in. Iʼd have . . . Iʼd have teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares. Iʼd have those colours re-echoed in the walls. Iʼd offset the kitchen units with charcoal grey worktops. […] You could put the dining room cross the landing, see? Yes. Venetian blinds on the window, cork floor, cork tiles. You could have an off-white pile linen rug, a table in . . . in afromosia teak veneer, sideboard with matt black drawers, curved chairs with cushioned seats, armchairs in oatmeal tweed, a beech-frame settee with a woven sea-grass seat, white topped heat- resistant coffee table, white tile surround. Yes. Then the bedroom. Whatʼs a bedroom? Itʼs a retreat. Itʼs a place to go for light and peace.

Mick goes on to detail a vision of roses on soft furnishings, and all the while Roegʼs roving camera clinically describes the awfulness of the room in the eaves. At other times in his career Pinter wrote plays where Mickʼs description of his dream flat might be the playwrightʼs description of the set. The phrase ʻthe weasel under the cocktail cabinetʼ is often used to describe those Pinter plays that take place in a well-heeled milieu, a phrase that begs the questions: (a) Do you actually know anyone who owns a cocktail cabinet?, and (b) Who brought that bloody animal into the house? For this reason alone, Iʼd say that The Caretaker has aged better than, say, The Collection.

Ironically, if that big and unloved house at 31 Downs Rd. had been spared demolition, it might now be decorated in a fashion similar to the one that Mick lovingly described. Hackney has been occupied by a new generation of thrusting young professionals with a taste for mid-century modern furnishings and an elderly Mick would have delighted in their company, no doubt purveying his Pinteresque small-talk over beers at The Star By Hackney Downs. And, what with the A102M, the Blackwall Tunnel and the A20 bypass, itʼs now a doddle to get to Sidcup from Hackney; although I donʼt fancy Daviesʼs chances of ever hitching a lift. As Mick comments when he gives him his marching orders, ‘to put the old tin lid on it, you stink from arsehole to breakfast time’.

At time of writing, you can see The Caretaker on YouTube, so allow me …