‘Scala map’ shows
Sophia McDougall and David Cairns discuss the Billy Wilder film.
Former Electric Cinema programmer Peter Howden discusses the legacy of the cinema and the 1975 film which depicts multicultural, bohemian and freak-friendly Notting Hill in sedate decay.
The East End trad jazz scene had some curious overlaps, not only with organised crime and show business via the likes of Joan Littlewood, but also with experimental art (Littlewood being a leading interpreter of Brecht as well as an active Communist). Queenie and Slim ran the Iron Bridge Tavern, 447 East India Dock Road, Bromley E14. 40 minutes away, the TV personality and notorious gay gadabout in Soho, Daniel Farson, opened the Watermans’s Arms, The Great Eastern, 1 Glenaffric Ave, Isle of Dogs, London E14 3BW as a music hall revival venue. This failed to take off but ended up being another important jazz venue. On one occasion William Burroughs visited the Waterman’s Arms in the company of Francis Bacon. Owner Farson also enticed, at different times, Jacques Tati, Clint Eastwood and Judy Garland to the pub.
Built on reclaimed marshland following the ban on the slave trade, in the late 19th century “Draughtboard Alley” – Crown Street, off Victoria Dock Road – in Canning Town in the Royal Docks grew as home to a large population of West African and Caribbean mariners.
African Canning Town almost disappeared overnight on 19th January 1917 when 50 tons of TNT exploded at the nearby Brunner Mond & Co ammunition works in Silvertown. The largest explosion in London’s history, it killed 73 people and seriously damaged 70,000 buildings.
In July of 1917, hysteria in newspapers about the “black peril” led to racist attacks on African sailors in their lodging houses. The Daily Express firmly blamed interracial relationships.(“In consequence of the infatuation of white girls for the Black men in the district some of the inhabitants are greatly incensed against Blacks”).
The intellectual and cultural life of Canning Town in the 1920s and 30s was formative to later struggles for African independence after World War Two. Perhaps there was something the Empire had to fear in Canning Town, after all. (“Make him [black British Barbadian Chris Braithwaite aka ‘Chris Jones’] take you to the docks where he works. A remarkable place. And he will also show you Walker’s Café … unique of its kind” the poet and activist Nancy Cunard advised Nnamdi Azikiwe, future President of Nigeria, in 1934).
Since then, the Blitz took out more of docklands and there have been numerous redevelopments in which Crown Street and adjacent multi-ethnic streets were progressively demolished, so that this part of black London has slowly disappeared from memory. Yet despite redevelopment and Canning Town’s proximity to now-opulent parts of London’s former docks, transport closer to the docks than Canning Town station was poor until the additional Royal Victoria DLR station was built in 1994. Canning Town remains in the 5 percent of the most deprived parts of the UK.
Prone to frequent fires and demolition, an earlier attempt to drag this part of Docklands up by its bootstraps was the Essoldo, or New Imperial Cinema. The theatre building was built on the corner of Barking Road and Victoria Dock Road. It occupied the same footprint as Relf’s Music Hall built in 1876 which became the Royal Albert Music Hall. Rebuilt again in 1909 as the Imperial Palace of Varieties, the building had been transferred brick by brick from the demolished Royal Aquarium Theatre (later Imperial Theatre), Westminster. Screening films from 1912, the Canning Town incarnation was renamed the Imperial Cinema. It burnt down on 16th March 1931.
Rebuilt a third time in 1934 as an Art Deco picture palace, it was taken over by the Essoldo Cinemas chain from Newcastle in January 1955 and re-named ‘Essoldo’. The Essoldo closed on 22nd September 1963 due to the r&b explosion, as Britain’s youth stopped going to the pictures so much and took to the dance floor instead. The last films to be shown were the re-issue of Boris Karloff’s ‘The Black Room‘ (1935) and the film version of Nigel Kneale’s BBC TV serial ‘The Quatermass Xperiment‘, both released 8 years earlier in 1955, the year the Essoldo took over the building. (Had the prints been lying around since 1955?) The Essoldo was run as a bingo club till it was demolished in 1967 to build the Canning Town flyover road.
The spirits of African Canning town have hung around as ghosts of electricity, fused with its undiluted working class soul. From 1975 to 1982, wedged between Glam and Punk, The Bridge House music venue was the parlous thread linking the British Blues phenomenon to Iron Maiden, and Chas & Dave. More low key than Dingwalls in Camden, the Bridge House was somewhere that rock stars and celebrities could hang out in the audience without getting hassled. The “pub rock” scene is now mostly overlooked in histories of the Seventies but it’s depicted throughout the first series of Howard Schuman’s glorious ‘Rock Follies’. In 1980, landlord Terence Murphy told Jagger to stop dancing as his license didn’t cover it. The Stones were at the Bridge House to see British Blues legend Alexis Korner’s new band with Ian Stewart, Rocket 88. Four years earlier, Korner had made a methodical, captivating BBC series on the roots of the Blues ‘The Devil in Music‘. It was produced by Maddalena Faganini, also an electronic music composer, including for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Nigel Kneale had been enthusiastic about his ‘Quatermass’ series being made into a film by Hammer, but the film and TV versions are as different as Dylan before and after he went electric. In the 1953 TV version, Bernard Quatermass appeals to the spirits of the three astronauts trapped in the alien entity that’s about to destroy London. Communing with the stranded space mariners through folk process, he petitions, placates and persuades them to volunteer their lives. In the 1955 film he electrocutes them inside Westminster Abbey. (“Judas”.) Trapped on a strip of celluloid for 8 years, ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ was a reliquary for the last ghosts in the machine to haunt the screen inside the old Art Deco Essoldo building. Many of the bricks in the walls of the cinema were from the Imperial Theatre which had stood only 3 minutes walk from Westminster Abbey.
In Derek Jarman’s film about the impacts of war on the dissolution of English culture in the 1980s he drew on his feelings about his WWII RAF bomber pilot father’s depression and anger as impetus for his artistic output.
The Millennium Mills, a derelict Edwardian flour mill in West Silvertown, provided a key backdrop for the film which had one week of shooting. In one scene, characters dance on the roof of the Mills. Jarman described the Royal Docks as “miles of desolation with the odd post-modern office building”. The Millennium Mills are the last part of London dockland to escape both Luftwaffe bombs and property developers, though in April 2015 work began which will place a rooftop bar and grill where Tilda Swinton once danced overlooking the barren and battered post-industrial commons.
Nearer to West Ham Tube station, which takes its name from the football ground and the park, an older Tudor London persists in the Spotted Dog Inn, Forest Gate, both probably named after Henry VIIIth’s hunting lodge. The Inn – which is derelict but which locals are petitioning to be brought into community ownership and re-opened – has accumulated it’s own folklore about desolation. There’s a spurious story about a secret tunnel connecting the Spotted Dog to the Black Lion Inn in Plaistow, supposedly used by Dick Turpin and other smuggler’s and highwaymen when the area was mostly marshland.
It is true, though, that during one of London’s plague outbreaks recorded by Daniel Defoe, the Spotted Dog became the City of London’s Exchequer briefly. A large painting was said to hang on the west wall of the public bar, with the arms of the City Corporation and the date of 1603, a “memorial of the meetings of merchant princes for eight years continuously while an earlier plague carried off thirty thousand souls.”
Surprisingly, the films made of Defoe’s many works are almost all of Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders. One film based on ‘Journal of a Plague Year’ was made in Mexico, moving the outbreak to 1979. ‘El año de la peste‘ has a bleak, contemporary ‘Andromeda Strain’-esque script by Gabriel García Márquez, who said Defoe’s book was one of his favourites. Marquez was fascinated by how the desolation of plague led to excess. “They make people want to live more. It’s that almost metaphysical dimension that interests me.”
Made as part of the Haringey Borough Plan of 1974, (Bounds Green being the nearest Tube station) this short film shot on 16mm is a postcard from an era of Mott the Hoople, brass bands, Jackie comic and jumpers for goal posts.
Not a gentler age: now the exuberant displays of unplanned community spirit seem like the glimmerings of a working class revolution. In fact, everyone was excited at the prospect of Christopher Lee playing Scaramanga, the new Bond villain in ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’.
Official UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed that income inequality in Britain narrowed slightly in 2017, following the trend from the previous year. However, according to a 2015 Institute for Fiscal Studies report, UK households when measured by net wealth – property, pensions, investments – are more unequal than when measured solely by income, the methodology used by ONS primarily. The poorest 1% has negative wealth – minus-£16,000 due to accumulated debts – whereas the top 1% of households has more than £2.4m in assets. Most of these assets which are property in the UK are in London, which also accounts for 77% of overseas holdings in bricks and mortar.
UK government figures from ONS for 2013 – 2014 point to an underlying trend, that despite having higher than average incomes, London boroughs are some of the most unequal in the UK. The north east borough of Haringey has one of the greatest disparities of wealth, with the poorer eastern part – around Tottenham, scene of the protest over the shooting of Mark Duggan by police which sparked the 2011 London riots – having average incomes of less than £680 per week during the period covered by the ONS figures.
In February 2018, London overtook New York’s death toll from violent crime, with 15 murders in that month compared with New York’s 14. The majority of the violent deaths in London from shootings and stabbings in 2018 were in the area of Haringey bounded by the High Road in Wood Green, which runs from Turnpike Lane, and the High Road in Tottenham.
The local MP, David Lammy, told London’s ‘Evening Standard‘:
“we’ve had this vicious spike in knife and gun crime in Haringey, fuelled by a turf war between two rival gangs in Tottenham and Wood Green.” Lammy said the violence was being exacerbated by battles over vast quantities of cocaine passing through London. “What lies behind the gun violence and the knife crime is a serious drug market that is being driven big time by gangsters and McMafia bosses. That is absolutely clear.”
A 2017 Transparency International UK report ‘Faulty Towers: Understanding the impact of overseas corruption on the London property market’ identified £4.2 billion worth of buildings purchased by politicians and public officials with dubious sources of money. Transparency International UK’s Director Duncan Hames said in a press release:
“demand for London property is fueled by the corruption that robs public services of vital funds all around the world. Others feel the need to move their legitimate wealth here out of fear of what might happen to it in countries where corruption is endemic or has brought instability in times of crisis.”
A map in the 2017 Transparency International UK report of homes in London boroughs with “abnormally low levels of electricity use” shows the concentration of houses with the most economical power consumption – at 5% of the average, or less – as being a clean sweep of eight central London boroughs, starting in the west in Hammersmith and Fulham, taking in Kensington and Chelsea (where the Electric Cinema is) and ending in the North East in Haringey, home of Alexandra Palace.
London’s reputation as the ‘no questions asked’ centre for money-laundering for the world’s drug trade, terrorism, business fraud and the pilfering of nation state’s exchequers, is an open secret. In 2015, the author and organised crime analyst Roberto Saviano told ‘The Independent‘:
“The British treat it as not their problem because there aren’t corpses on the street.”
The one film outing of former Ladbroke Grove resident Michael Moorock’s literary SF creation Jerry Cornelius, a Seventies hipster spy of polyamorous and polymorphous sexual proclivities. The area of Notting Hill, Ladbroke Grove and Latimer Road feature prominently in the Jerry Cornelius stories. Moorcock is a former Ladbroke Grove resident and collaborator with Hawkwind, who were prime movers in the Westway art scene in the early 70s.
This beautiful map was produced by Tom Vague for the 2006 Portobello film festival.
The historian W J Loftie in his 1815 ‘Kensington: picturesque and historical‘ took the view that ‘Notting Hill or Notting Barnes, so called,’ took its name ‘it can hardly be doubted, from the nut trees with which it abounded’. Loftie says elsewhere in the book that ‘St John’s, Notting Hill, is one of the best situated and best designed churches in the parish, and is a very conspicuous object, standing as it does on a high knoll, where Notting Hill farmhouse stood’. Built by the major landowner – James Weller Ladbroke – as a new suburb of London, before the 1840s ‘Notting Hill’ was a promontory grassy knoll, and nutty. By the 1960s, it was the ideal place for conspiracies to form, under anyone’s radar.
In his novel ‘Mother London’, Moorcock said of Notting Hill Gate:
‘the wind always howls through new white towers, housing professional people of the better type who, like cultivated Danes set between Saxons and sea-raiders, occupy the border; those towers raised on the ruins of 18th-century grog-shops and haberdasheries somehow manage to channel air, and send a typhoon with enormous force along Notting Hill’s high street when all else is calm. Architectural magazines the world over now refer generally to this phenomenon as the Notting Hill wind trap.’
In 2018, the idea was floated of renaming Latimer Road tube station ‘Grenfell‘ in memory of the 70 people who died in the 17th June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. The shoddy housing in the area around Notting Hill is a product of the abrogation of successive governments of any policy that could produce affordable homes for Londoners from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
As well as the Westway art scene and Hawkwind, and the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road, Latimer Road station is also close to where the squatter’s republic of Frestonia was founded in 1977. A self-declared country, Frestonia was modeled on the micro-nation of Burgundy in Ealing studio’s 1949 comedy ‘Passport to Pimlico’. Frestonia had David Rappaport (who stars in Terry Gilliam’s film ‘Time Bandits’) as Foreign Minister, and playwright Heathcote Williams (Prospero in Derek Jarman’s ‘The Tempest’) as Ambassador to Great Britain.
Frestonia’s ‘Car Breaker Gallery’ mutated into the ‘Mad Max’ and ‘2000AD’ comic-influenced, circus-and-sculpture artist’s collective The Mutoid Waste Company, which subsequently moved around Europe for many years, eventually settling in Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy where its members live in a scrap village called Mutonia. Mutoid Waste’s trademark vehicle sculptures were a show stopper in the closing ceremony to London’s 2012 Paralympics.
Improvising a new country out of scrappy streets adjacent to Latimer Road in 1977 was a response of artists, musicians, poets, actors and other people leading alternative lifestyles at the time to an aggressive campaign by property owners and the Greater London Council to demolish cheap housing and so keep riff raff and trouble makers out of the area. In 1977, Notting Hill landlords destroyed the roofs of old buildings to keep poor people from living in them. In 2018, they dig warrens of sub-basements under their properties so that only Russian oligarchs, Arab and Chinese businessmen can ever afford them.
Farewell to free-wheeling Frestonia, to Hawkwind, and to Moorcock’s Notting Dale. For everything else there’s plastic cladding.
The Eel Pie Island Hotel nearby to Hounslow Central station, on an island with 120 inhabitants was – in the mid-60s – host to gigs and raves in the hinterland between London’s Mod scene and the beginnings of psychedelia. The hotel’s 19th century ballroom and dusty bar was frequented by Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones. Owner Arthur Chisnell recycled profits from the club to assist hard-up young hipsters. He issued ‘passports’ in the 50’s and 60’s. One read ‘WE require and request in the presence of His Excellency PRINCE PAN all those it may concern to give the bearer of this passport [______] any assistance he / she may require is his / her lawful business of of jiving and generally cutting a rug.’
When the club became too expensive to maintain, the hotel was squatted and became a hippie commune in the Seventies. It’s now gone the way of most artist’s communes in England: gentrified – if pleasant – where crafts like ceramics and boat building are much in evidence, though property prices are out of the reach of most artists and crafts people. Bowie’s last home was a sleek glass and steel pod on top of a brownstone on Lafayette Street, near the Bowery in Manhattan.
One of several films based on the novel ‘Hell House’ by Richard Matheson, ‘Legend of Hell House‘ is notable for its striking experimental electronic soundtrack by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson – famed composers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – recorded at Hodgson’s Electrophon studios in Convent Garden.
In the film, psychic-investigator-with-a-past Roddy McDowall is picked up – to be delivered to Hell House – at Roydon Station, High Street, alongside the River Stort, west of Harlow in Essex, and an hour’s train ride from Buckhurst Hill station.
‘What did he do to make this house so evil?’
Roddy McDowall: ‘Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism. Not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?’
This would be a site visit to Dagenham Heathway where Mary Wolstonecraft – Mary Shelly’s mum – went on her “reveries”, long walks to get away from a violent, angry father. In the studio we’d talk to Geoff Ryman about “unflappables”, not only Mary W and Mary S, but two women connected to the film: Elsa Lanchester – from Deptford originally, who moved to Hollwyood with Charles Laughton and was part of the Turnabout Theatre where she sang her lewd music hall songs and performed with puppets satirising Hollywood celebrities, run by the gay truple the the Yale Puppeteers – and Valerie Hobson, who later married John Profumo and stood by her man after the great scandal.
The front of the George Inn – near the Resonance studio – is the remaining bit of Elizabethan London. This one is a placeholder for a conversation with Simon Callow about the significance of physical theatre and the legacy of the Elizabethan theatre boom to acting and story-telling.
This would be a “part two” discussion with Simon Callow about “lost” Welles and his overlooked collaborators (like Ron Moody, also great in Mel Brook’s unjustly forgotten ‘The Twelve Chairs’, who went to school in Southgate.
This will be a discussion about Christopher Logue, who wrote the screenplay and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery where one scene is filmed, of Gaudier-Brzeska and his wife stealing marble. (My great grandfather’s there too).
This one is ear-marked as a walk round Playhouse Yard and Farringdon Road with Pat Mills and Chris Gidlow.
This one is a placeholder if we get to talk to Edgar Wright.
In July 1977, seven years after making Meyer’s one movie for a mainstream studio ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls‘ (a film which is in rare in that it truly deserves to be called a “cult classic”) director Russ Meyer and his friend, collaborator, and fellow fan of women with massive breasts – film-reviewer and occasional film-writer Roger Ebert – flew to London. The aim was to make ‘Anarchy in the UK’ aka ‘Who Killed Bambi?‘ The film was envisioned as ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, but cashing in on the Sex Pistol’s success in 1978. Only a few minutes of footage were shot and the project fell apart in the usual storm of egos and broken promises which swirled around Malcolm McLaren throughout his life.
While the Pistols short popularity has inspired several documentaries and features, ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ presents a “What If?” of British Seventies cinema that would have bridged the subversive, gaudy and beguiling American aesthetics of Meyer’s cartoonish and dreamlike cinema with the very English calculated outrage of McClaren’s theatrical machinations. While there are many British exploitation films featuring pop bands, sexy ladies, and “radical” political messages (before ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ the Fabs were almost in the sexploitation ‘B’ picture ‘The Yellow Teddy Bears‘) all of these Brit films put together aren’t as cool as a single frame in any Russ Meyer film, in which only two subjects are ever addressed: his berserk Life/Death dual obsessions of tits and unmasking Nazis.
In 2018, Ebert’s style of sex-positive and literate writing about, and of, films is in ignominious retreat. In the town where most English-language films are made, LA Weekly, once the city’s counter-culture guide, has been acquired by shady Putin and Trump-aligned trust fund brats, who having acquired the title imedeiately hired as their film critic the author of such works as ‘Boobs Boobs Boobs’ and the provocative ‘Fuck Or You’re Fired’. It’s not even subtext.
McLaren’s “gofer” in 1977, Sue Steward, has written of ‘Who Killed Bambi?’:
‘Some days, I escaped the office to Chelsea – to collect Sid and Nancy’s methadone from a Doctor Robert character, and when Malcolm was testing out Holllywood’s godfather of porn, Russ Meyer, as a candidate to direct the Pistols movie, I delivered wads of cash to his rented apartment. Meyer occasionally came to Glitterbest: elegant as a Fifties movie star with camel coat and Clark Gable moustache. His footage for a film putatively called ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ was never used; Julien got the gig instead, referencing Bambi in Tenpole Tudor’s marvellously insane song.’
Locating its cultural energy in a similar part of London to ‘Blow-Up’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ as well as McLaren and Westwood’s shop on the King’s Road, ‘Sex’, Ebert recalled:
‘Russ had rented lodgings on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, close by the scenes of McLaren’s triumphs on King’s Road. I stayed not far away on Sloane Street, at the Cadogan Hotel, scene of Oscar Wilde’s downfall.’
(Ebert posted his entire script for the movie online, towards the end of his life). Despite its well-heeled status, Chelsea is notorious for being “off the grid” in terms of underground and train stations. Some of Chelsea & Fulham railway station’s platform nosings remains, but it’s got a block of flats on it having been bomb damaged in the Blitz.
Compared favourably by critics with ‘Alfie’ and ‘The Knack’, ‘All Neat In Black Stockings‘ was filmed around East Putney and Wandsworth, Christopher Morahan directs and Victor Henry, Susan George and Jack Shepherd star in a Swinging London film about the sexual exploits of an amoral window cleaner. Produced by Leon Clore who also made ‘Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment’ this is the only cinematic treatment of a book by Jane Gaskell, who was disappointed with the film.
Gaskell is one of the great, lost writers of the Sixities. With a career spanning newspaper journalism and astrology, an extraordinary first book ‘Strange Evil’ published when she was 14, a sword and sorcery series that was at one time being adapted to star Marlon Brando, vampire and “kitchen sink” novels, Gaskell was admired by her friends and contemporaries like Tanith Lee, and as a young author stayed with C S Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman in Oxford. A 20 minute interview with Jane Gaskell conducted by Canadian broadcaster with Bernard Braden filmed in 1968 – about the future for the hippie movement and for London’s greenbelt – has recently been added to the BFI Player.
This show would be a personal journey around Putney and Wandsworth, where much of the film was shot, with my mum Deirdre Counihan, who was one of Gaskell’s best friends.