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.