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.)

At Home With The Drinker

The Drinker puts his Roger Whittaker LP on the radiogram and hopes she’ll be impressed … (photo by the late, great, Julius Shulman, used with abject apologies, etc.)

I recently visited some neighbours down on the second floor of Drinker’s Towers for some tips on the management of space. (The flats are nice but they aren’t huge.) This particular couple are a pair of architects and whilst the layout of their flat is in almost all respects identical to mine, the effect on entering is totally different. For a start, every time of furniture, every objet, has obviously been the subject of considerable thought and discussion, as opposed to being rescued at the last minute from a skip. My £5.99 bottle of Aldi Pinot Grigio seemed to shrivel in my hand as I surveyed a pristine vision of luxe living in an unlikely south London postcode, like a meticulously styled spread in The Modern House brochure sprung to life (fortunately without the pretentious, soft-sell copy). Why doesn’t my flat look like this?, I asked myself, then immediately provided the answer: because my flat is stuffed full of crap. Nick Drake’s evocative phrase about the illusory security of ‘all the books and all the records of your lifetime‘ sounds more resonant and mournful as the years wear on. I have over a thousand books and at least as many LPs, CDs, cassettes, minidiscs, DVDs and VHS videos. I even have some 8mm home movies, not to mention my personal archive of a lifetime’s photography (a trunk in my living room contains the corpse of my photographic career). The other night I watched a video tape of Double indemnity that I had taped off BBC2 in 1990; before the film started I glimpsed a youthful Jeremy Paxman wrapping up Newsnight with a characteristically trenchant analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s position following the challenge to her leadership of the Tory party. Nostalgia, eh?

My sister correctly diagnosed the problem: ‘You are trying to recreate the certainties of adolescence.’ She’s right, of course. And whilst I am well aware of the problem, I still perpetuate it. The other day I treated myself to a new turntable and promptly dug out records that I bought when I was young and culturally ambitious. It was a terrible mistake. Do I really derive any pleasure, any enjoyment at all, from listening to that (unaccountably worn) LP of Le Marteau Sans Maitre? Can I really be arsed to clear those 1970s photographic magazines off the armchair and sit through an entire Mahler symphony, or, for that matter, John Coltrane’s Ascension: is that really something I want to sample over a glass of corner shop red wine? Wouldn’t I rather watch Dr. Pimple Popper instead? Yet still I hang on to these things. An even bigger problem is all the stuff that I have inherited: an African tribal shield fashioned from a giraffe’s neck, something my father picked up in Africa in the late fifties. An entire cabinet of decorative glassware; a prop sword; my mother’s set of willow-pattern serving platters and unidentifiable kitchen equipment; a variety of imposing Thames And Hudson coffee table volumes (e.g. Great Cities, The Cradle of Civilisation, The Renaissance, etc., with introductions by the ubiquitous Arnold Toynbee and ‘tipped-in’ colour plates that have all since tipped out) … the list goes on and on. The problem is that my flat is like the inside of my head: crammed with partially-digested cultural influences, too many ties to the past, and a style of presentation which is as au courant as the House And Garden Annual, 1963.

I suppose that the psychology of collecting or, God help me, hoarding, is connected in some sense to the need to build a bulwark against death. In that sense, my flat is a bit like a Roman general’s campaign tent, pitched in some wet field in Provincia Britannia but arrayed with reminders of Rome and the spoils of victory: tokens of luck against a nasty fate at the hands of some gnarly Pict or Celt. And when the time comes to move house, I suspect that many of these things will simply be abandoned, like the family heirlooms jettisoned by desperate 19th century American settlers heading west across the Sierras. Seeing treasured (or just familiar) family possessions out in the street is genuinely disturbing; but, ultimately, it is all just stuff. Yet there are few things more depressing than walking into someone’s home (especially if the occasion happens to be a date) and encountering a default modern interior. Plantation shutters, recessed downlighters, beech laminate flooring, a flat screen TV over a cold function-free fireplace, repro posters from IKEA, ‘inspirational’ quotes plastered over lemon/beige walls in peel-off acrylic letters (‘Live, love, laugh’, ‘No dancing – except on tables’, etc.), an occasional, unsurprising book – a Booker Prize winner or a Nigella tome – and an overall sensation that life’s essentials have been carefully subtracted from the space. It isn’t just a question of taste; it seems to me that it is a fear of introspection, an aggressive wish to live a modern life as a modern person, which is just as much a denial of mortality as, say, owning the complete Laurel and Hardy on DVD. (I have it, I never watch it.) The socially approved, tastefully furnished yet numbing interiors on show in Francois Truffaut’s underrated 1968 film of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (filmed in Britain) seem prophetic: comfortable spaces where thought and memory are prohibited.

As it happens, I am currently away from Drinker’s Towers, dog-sitting in distant Metro-Land whilst a friend is out of the country. Here, where the Metropolitan Line trains still toot their toy-like horns as they pass, it is sad to see Deco houses being made-over into identikit modern homes, with front gardens grubbed up to make way for dual car ports with recessed floor lighting, sashes replaced with steel black-framed windows, and fitted with those weird front doors that look like entrances to public toilets in small hotels. But I can’t worry too much about that, I am faced with yet another stash of things, as I promised my absent friend that I would try to straighten out her place whilst she was away. This has proved to be a daunting task. The volume of her possessions has grown, exponentially, to fill the available space, which happens to be a three-storey Edwardian house. Impressive collections of books, furniture, china, paintings and drawings, photographs, shoes, etc., fight a losing battle against five cats, two dogs of excitable temperament, dead Amazon packages, out-of-date food, chewed slippers, and a sea of laundry, paperwork, turds, and balls of fluff. The gardeners are due soon and I have to clear the lawn of dozens of doggy jobbies before they arrive. Pets, like small children, are a great leveller when it comes to aspirational decor. That Eames recliner looked great before the French bulldog pup sank its chops into the plywood shell (which now looks like a chunk of reclaimed driftwood). The carved apron on that astral glazed bookcase was exquisite until he bit right through it. And I’m not going to touch that lumpy yellow stain on the rug, I don’t know what it is or how long it’s been there. I haven’t spilled anything; but if I stick to white wine and spill that, she will think it was cat piss, so I’m in the clear either way. Cheers.

Lush life in Metro-Land …

A Drunk at the Flicks

Margaret Rutherford and Stanley Holloway in ‘Passport To Pimlico’. (No, not really.)

The recent and untimely death of the director Roger Michell seems to mark the end of an era. In a career that straddled theatre, television and film, Michell specialised in mature, mainstream dramas about the problems of grown-up folk written by the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Joe Penhall, Ian McEwan, not to mention his grounding in Osborne, Beckett, Pinter, etc.. Such dramas look increasingly out of place both on screen and in the theatre: a bit lacking in adrenaline, perhaps, or not socially committed enough maybe; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Michell generally catered to a thoughtful, greying audience that is quietly dying off. But one item on Roger Michell’s CV stands out, anomalously, from the rest: Notting Hill, his 1999 international smash-hit from Richard Curtis’s script. 

You don’t need me to tell you about the crushing success of Mr. Curtis’s brand of light comedy; nor do you need me to tell you that Notting Hill features an unlikely romance between Hugh Grant’s bookseller and Julia Roberts’s Hollywood star, played out in an atmosphere of self-deprecating privilege. My chief memory of this film is inextricably linked with a personal one. One evening, nearly twenty years ago, my sister and I returned from a visit to the pub to find my sister’s lodger watching Notting Hill on television. My sister’s lodger was a young woman in her twenties, a good fifteen or twenty years younger than myself or my sibling, and she was watching the film with touchingly rapt enthusiasm. Our interruption was ill-timed. We walked in at the end of the dinner party scene (the bit that aficionados refer to as the ‘brownie scene‘), just before the moment when Gina McKee’s wheelchair-bound character confesses that she and her partner will never be able to have a baby. At this point, I am afraid that my sister and myself erupted in booze-fuelled laughter, grotesque, immoderate, hysterical laughter, to the genuine distress of the poor girl who had been enjoying the film. She said that the pair of us were ‘evil‘ and went up to bed. I would not wish anyone reading this to think that I come from a family of ghouls: our reaction was a simple and honest (albeit slightly pissed) response to a shabbily manipulative bit of screenwriting. The only reason that character was disabled was so her physical impairment would act as a counterweight to the unexamined entitlement that constituted the entire project: un-earned gravitas tossed onto the prevailing frivolity like olives on a pizza. (Curtis also used a deaf character as a ‘heartwarming’ prop in Four Weddings And A Funeral, so one wonders what other long-term medical conditions he might employ in future projects. Psoriasis perhaps? Lots of jokes there. Tourette’s? Trigeminal Neuralgia? Piles?) But plenty of people loved it, so what do I know? I’m just an old soak who shouts at the TV. And who only writes film criticism when drunk. 

In 2008 Mike Leigh’s film Happy Go Lucky was released, to a decidedly mixed response. There was a lot of rapturous press about it but there were also murmurings of disquiet. Was the film really that good? There was a sense of critics having to get in line to support it: Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review read as if it had been written at gunpoint. Prompted by the gnashingly furious reaction of a friend who had endured it, I decided to see it for myself. However, I made the mistake of taking my girlfriend and my daughter along with me to the Curzon Soho, so I was forty quid out of pocket before we’d bought any popcorn or hard liquor. That was obviously a bad move, so I was not in the best of moods before the film had even started. The film is a love letter to Sally Hawkins, who plays a London teacher of such artless goodness – to the extent of suggesting actual cognitive impairment – that one dearly wishes to strangle her and everyone else in it (except Eddie Marsan, who essays a terrific turn as a bitter driving instructor). We emerged slightly stupefied, rational thought dispelled as if we had been subjected to a Stasi-sponsored hymn to the state. A few days later I tried to express my thoughts on Happy-Go-Lucky in an email to Sight and Sound. I had been reading that venerable organ of record whilst sitting on the toilet, and its lavish and obsequious coverage of Leigh and his film unleashed a wellspring of rage. Fired up by more than just a few drinks, I sat at my laptop and wrote my magisterial take-down of the country’s most successful auteur in a state of gin-soaked certainty. Dilys Powell I was not. Drunk in charge of the Internet – what could possibly go wrong? Well, they printed the damn thing, with my name attached (my real name, that is), as Letter Of The Week in the following issue, prompting quite a flurry of replies. One correspondent – who turned out to be the then-chair of BAFTA – said, in response to my letter, ‘Let me leap to the defence of Mike Leigh – he is our Almodovar, he is our Bunuel.’ (Yes, he really said that.) Drunk or not, I had obviously hit a nerve: Sight and Sound itself reported that box office for Happy-Go-Lucky, initially buoyant, tailed off as word-of-mouth on the film spread. I just wish I had used another name when signing that email: ‘Stephen Poliakoff’ perhaps. Anyway, it followed me around for quite a while; I was even cited in university theses on British cinema. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

With sober hindsight, both films seem weirdly ominous in their complacency. The films of both Curtis and Leigh have exported well, purveying a set of British stereotypes to an international public. This is hardly new – look at the beloved output of Ealing Studios in the forties and fifties – but, post-Brexit, both Notting Hill and Happy-Go-Lucky seem loaded with hubris, in much the same way as Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics now seems painfully ill-judged. In their differing ways, both films evince blithe faith in the idea of British level-headedness, a notion that has since been demonstrated to be utterly false. The Ealing films were made at a time of national reckoning – post-war impoverishment, loss of empire, the struggle to adapt to the modern world, etc. – so films like The Titfield Thunderbolt or Passport to Pimlico may be seen as attempts to put on a brave face against the onslaught of disorienting change (whereas Dead Of Night, The Ladykillers, or Kind Hearts And Coronets have their own, more insidious, purposes). If films inform a nation’s sense of identity – and, drunk or not, I would say that they do – then it is not too much of a stretch to wonder how a persistent (and persistently successful) glibness of tone contributes to national exceptionalism. Richard Curtis’s confections of entitlement and Mike Leigh’s caricatures of working class life feed the same beast. We muddle through. Upper or lower class, we know we’re the best, really. After all, we’re so funny.  

So what now for Richard Curtis and Mike Leigh? I read somewhere that Curtis wants to do a post-Brexit, post-Trump sequel to Love, Actually. Good luck with that. That film, which Curtis directed himself, was the moment the wheels started to come off his project. Mike Leigh seems to have gone quiet after his 2018 film about the Peterloo massacre. But, diminished or not, they remain looming, windswept monuments on the cinematic landscape. To pursue another dodgy metaphor, are they still the twin popes of British cinema? (With Michael Winterbottom as The Archbishop of Canterbury?) Discuss.