Parson’s Green, SW6. Photo © David Secombe 2002.
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: Where’s that?
DAVIES: Sidcup. He ain’t only got my references down there, he got all my papers down there. I know that place like the back of my hand. I’m going down there anyway, see what I mean, I got to get down there or I’m done.
MICK: So we can always get hold of these references if we want them.
DAVIES: I’ll be down there any day, I tell you. I was going to go down today, but I’m … I’m waiting for the weather to break.
This poignant little exchange from Pinter’s 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. Pinter’s choice of Sidcup as the place of Davies’s 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 choice of the bleak Kent suburb of Sidcup as a land of milk and honey is as cruelly inappropriate as Eric Idle’s appropriation of Purley as a hotbed of vice in Monty Python’s ‘Nudge’ sketch.
“Austin brought a tramp he’d 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.” (Pinter at the BBC)
Royal Avenue, Chelsea; looking south from King’s Road. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
BARRETT: She’s living with a bookie in Wandsworth. Wandsworth!
– from Harold Pinter’s screenplay for Joseph Losey’s The Servant, 1963.
No. 30 Royal Avenue in Chelsea – on the right hand side in the above photo – was used for the location filming of Pinter and Losey’s class psychodrama The Servant (from a novel by Robin Maugham, who seems to have been written out of the picture completely). The plot has BARRETT (Dirk Bogarde) being engaged as a manservant by TONY (James Fox), an ineffectual toff who has just taken ownership of a house in Royal Avenue. BARRETT takes charge of the refurbishment of the house and, bit by bit, the destruction of TONY, whose increasing reliance upon BARRETT reflects the weakness of his personality and the inherent decadence of his class. (Discuss.) The action culminates in a sort of fully-clothed orgy at which Bogarde, Fox, Sarah Miles and Wendy Craig engage in a Mexican stand-off whilst listening to Cleo Laine. This was regarded as ground-breaking cinema when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1963.
The script features some of Pinter’s best lines on film, and showcases Losey’s bravura directorial technique as well as his ambivalent approach to British society (Losey himself lived in Royal Avenue). It also features the glorious black and white cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, including location shooting around Chelsea, which, in and of itself, is a precious document of a lost age: the ‘black and white 60s’, the pre-Beatles 60s.
A few years later, The Chelsea Drugstore opened on the corner of King’s Road and Royal Avenue: an artefact of Swinging London proper, this establishment was used as a location for the filming of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and was hymned by The Rolling Stones in You can’t always get what you want. By that time, James Fox had been bamboozled in a rather more emphatic fashion – the class element reversed – by Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg in Roeg and Cammell’s Performance. This latter, filmed up the road in Notting Hill, was made a mere five years later, yet it makes the Chelsea of The Servant – folk singers (Davey Graham) in wine bars, Sanderson wallpapers, ski-pants, pork pie hats, sheepskin coats over cable-knit jumpers, class warfare over Dubonnet and soda – seem as distant as the Chelsea of Rossetti or Oscar Wilde.
The Servant at IMDB.
According to Paul Barkshire’s caption, this much-loved pub is situated in Holborn; this might be technically true, but Endell Street is more commonly associated with Covent Garden, and the porters’ barrows outside the pub suggest the vegetable market which once dominated the whole area. The fruit and veg moved to Nine Elms in 1974, and in the year this picture was taken the retail fun park familiar to Londoners today opened on the site of the defunct market. Inigo Jones’ gracious 17th Century Piazza – threatened with wholesale redevelopment as recently as the early 1970s – was retained at the cost of its enshrinement as the heart of a remorselessly consumerist zone, much to the dismay of residents who had campaigned so hard for the area’s preservation.
We should be grateful that the area was not flattened, or London would now be saddled with something like ‘Forum des Halles’ in Paris, a deadening, subterranean 1970s shopping arcade where once flourished Les Halles, ‘the belly of Paris’, the city’s market since the middle ages. Les Halles was unceremoniously eviscerated in 1971, the same year Alfred Hitchcock filmed his lurid – and anachronistic – serial killer thriller Frenzy in Covent Garden. Looking at the film now, so much is wrong and fantastically dated, but the location shooting in the market was for real: despite its flaws, it manages to capture an environment that now seems as distant as the coaching inns of Dickens’ youth. Barry Foster may strangle Barbara Leigh-Hunt with an old school tie, (Foster’s unwanted catchphrase “Lovely! Lovely!” – was chanted at him ever after by drunks of all stripes) but the ambience of the market is as vivid as the muscat grapes he gives to Jon Finch.
The Cross Keys was slightly off my own map when I was a regular drinker in WC2 – the Opera Tavern on Catherine Street and the Coach and Horses on Wellington Street were more convenient. But those pubs have been made over into anonymous, tourist-service outlets that might be anywhere. Luckily, the Cross Keys is largely unchanged since Paul Barkshire photographed it thirty+ years ago (although the foliage is more exuberant these days) and remains a very charming spot to lose an afternoon. I am intrigued by the gent looking out of the window: is he waiting for a delivery? A visitor? Inspiration? And those barrows look a bit like props. Maybe he’s waiting for the shade of Hitchcock to shout ‘Action!’ D.S.
Old Wine Shades, Martin Lane. Photo © Paul Barkshire, 1981.
Old Wine Shades is part of the El Vino group, the venerable drinking chain that branches across the City of London. The one on Fleet Street was a legendary haunt of the local hacks in the days when ‘the Street of Shame’ was thronged with them, and El Vino’s continues to trade on its reputation as a City institution. However, an anonymous reviewer (‘A Customer’) on www.allinlondon.co.uk recently (August 2010) described Old Wine Shades thus:
A dreadful place. I work close by and El Vino’s is noted for rude staff and overpriced food and (especially) drink. On one of my few unavoidable visits (guest of others), my dining partner found a lady’s bracelet at the bottom of his coffee cup. A significantly chunky piece of jewellery. Not even an apology offered, much less anything off the bill. Basically, they trade on their historical connections and for that it’s worth a visit, but only on the way to somewhere better.
I have no idea if this is a fair assessment overall, but it poses several questions: what kind of bracelet was it? Did it have precious stones? What was it doing at the bottom of a coffee cup? Had its owner thrown it there as a protest? (surely you’d notice if your bracelet slipped from your wrist and into your cappuccino). Perhaps it was a prop left over from the filming of a romantic comedy, and the scene is easy to picture: a lunch date goes wrong in an historic London location, Kristin Scott-Thomas chucks her bracelet – a gift from Hugh Grant – in his coffee, leaving him embarrassed as she stalks off. We’d then have a quick bit of comic business with the waiter, a star cameo from Ricky Gervais. Hugh would probably pay another visit to Old Wine Shades at the end of the film, this time blissfully entwined with Kate Winslet or Kate Beckinsale, etc., who then finds the bracelet at the bottom of her coffee cup. I am sure I’ve seen this film. D.S.
Backstage, Royal Opera House. Photo © David Secombe 1994.
Edward Mirzoeff writes:
The House was, in many ways, the definitive “fly-on the wall” television documentary series. The six episodes, shot in 1993 and 1994, went behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to reveal the astonishing dedication, talent and sheer hard work put in by singers, dancers, technicians and craftspeople in decaying and unhelpful surroundings. It also revealed the equally astonishing conflicts, confusions and ineptitudes of some members of the management and some grandees on the Boards.
The television audience, and newspapers all over the world, were gripped by the saga from week to week. Some people took it as an allegory of the state of the nation. And after it was over, the series went on to win all the prizes. BAFTA, Banff Festival, Broadcasting Press Guild, International Emmy, Royal Philharmonic Society – The House cleaned up all the statuettes.
Just one puzzle remained. Despite the many awards, despite the publicity and controversy, the series was never shown again. In a culture of endless repeats of mediocre television programmes, such restraint by BBC Controllers was curious.
[Edward Mirzoeff was executive producer of The House for BBC Television.]
Pepys Estate, Deptford, 1970. Photo © Tony Ray-Jones/RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
Edward Mirzoeff writes:
Bird’s-Eye View was a pioneering series of 13 films shot entirely from a helicopter. For the first of these, The Englishman’s Home (BBC2 5 April 1969) John Betjeman wrote in the commentary about the new high-rise blocks. At the time his strongly-felt views were very much against progressive liberal thinking on the subject, and what he wrote was attacked and derided. By now most people have come round to his old-fashioned but humane way of thinking.
Betjeman refused to fly in the helicopter, but wrote his commentary, in verse, over weeks in the cutting room, once the picture-editing had been completed.
[Edward Mirzoeff was the producer of Bird’s Eye View.]
Pepys Estate, Deptford by John Betjeman:
Where can be the heart that sends a family to the 20th floor
In such a slab as this. It can’t be right, however fine the view
Over to Greenwich, and the Isle of Dogs.
It can’t be right, caged halfway up the sky
Not knowing your neighbour, frightened of the lift,
And who’ll be in it, and who’s down below
And are the children safe?
What is housing if it’s not a home?”
[Tony Ray-Jones was one of Britain’s finest photographers, whose early death – at just 30 – in 1972 robbed us of an artist of acute insight and integrity. His book A Day Off is celebrated as one of the definitive post-war photographic studies of British life, and influenced a generation of native photographers, not least Martin Parr whose early work showed an obvious debt to Ray-Jones. Until I went searching for means of contacting the Ray-Jones estate, I was unaware of his work for Architectural Review in 1970: a total of 138 pictures that are now in the RIBA photographic library. These are images of the impact of modern housing, and he responded to the brief with characteristic power; he seems to have been especially engaged with the London subjects – Deptford, Thamesmead, the Old Kent Road, etc. – and some of these pictures are the equal of his better-known work. The London Column will be running a further two images from TRJ’s series on the Pepys Estate later this week. Special thanks to Robert Elwall at RIBA Library Photographs for allowing us to reproduce them here. D.S.]