All posts by darkblue

Alex Zane

Alex Zane


Words & Portraits Kirk Truman


“A little bit of luck, and a little bit of talent. It was the right place and the right time…”

It’s early on a cold December morning in London. “It’s been a while since I’ve walked through Soho at this time. It’s wonderful: you get to walk about and see last night’s decadence splattered all over the pavements. The bottles being collected ring to the sound of the mischief, mayhem and dismay of a rollicking good night out on Dean Street,” says comedian and presenter Alex Zane, toying with his tie and dressed head-to-toe in Joshua Kane Bespoke. We’re sitting in Blacks Private Members Club, switching between talking about the beginnings of his comedy career and the film releases of the past year. Alex started out in Soho, performing stand-up in tiny venues where his fellow performers often outnumbered the audiences. His career may have taken off, with diverse strands in comedy and television, but this corner of London remains close to Alex’s heart.

Born and raised in Leeds, he moved to London to study medicine at UCL in 1998, intending to pursue a career as a doctor. But, finding that he enjoyed the Bohemian lifestyle, he soon decided to drop out of university and embrace a radical change of direction. Telling his parents he was about to begin performing stand-up comedy in Soho clubs and bars for bugger all money wasn’t easy, and it’s probably not surprising that at first they had little faith in his chosen path. “I owe Leeds for a large part of who I am. 2017 is the year that I will have been living in London as long as I lived in Leeds,” says Alex. “I grew up admiring the whimsical monologues of rock-star stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard. I imagined that the words coming out of his mouth simply rolled off his tongue; little did I know that his style of humour was the product of scrupulous writing and planning.”

“Soho was where it all started. At this point, I was living in what was in essence a squat in Camden: a flat where when you took a shower, water streamed down the hallway. I would show up, along with other comedians, at these open-mic nights, which were mostly empty. There would always be that moment where someone would say, “So, shall we perform to each other?” And God, it was fucking awful. That was until one day I was in the right place at the right time…”

It was on Dean Street that Alex found himself an agent, on a night when comedian Ricky Gervais, in his pre-Office years, was in the audience. “It was the first time we’d met, and I just remember coming off stage thinking it had gone alright. I’d been playing around with some half-arsed joke about liking the boy band Five,” he laughs. “Quite often I’d start a joke without knowing where it would go; that was one of those that didn’t really go anywhere. Somehow, Ricky thought it was alright, and so too did the man who’s now my agent, who asked me to come for a meeting after that show.” With his stand-up career on the rise, and on the back of an introduction from Ricky, Alex got the opportunity to be a radio presenter on Xfm. “It was the graveyard shift from 2-5am. If there is ever a time that you don’t want to answer the phone in a radio studio, it’s when you’re doing the graveyard shift. The kind of people that were calling in were not the kind of people you wanted to be speaking to when you were on your own in a radio studio!” he laughs.

In 2002, Alex performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in a three-man show, completely unaware that there was an MTV producer in the audience; after the show he was asked to audition for them back home in London. “A little bit of luck, and a little bit of talent. It was the right place and the right time,” he says. “Back then – this was when video rental stores were still a thing – I was watching films day and night from my local store in Camden. I was trained in how to be a presenter by producer Rob Lewis, and ended up presenting Screenplay. It was a critical movie review show, and remains to this day one of my favourite shows I’ve ever worked on.”

Alex later began work on a pilot entitled Dude, Where’s My Movie Quiz? In essence, it was Never Mind The Buzzcocks, but about film. Sadly, the pilot never went to series, but did lead to Alex being asked by Channel 4 to join a new comedy prank show entitled Balls of Steel. “I was asked to come and do the quiz element of the show, and the rest is history. It was great fun, and a great success. I’m not one for nostalgia, but I am particularly proud of that one. However, in terms of having actual balls of steel, what I did was at the lowest end of the spectrum! It was no way near as terrifying as some of the stuff that people did on that show,” he says. Hosted by Mark Dolan, special guests would perform stunts and try and hold their nerve during hidden camera set-ups in the presence of celebrities or the public.

As well as Balls of Steel, Alex went on to host Popworld with co-host Alexa Chung, and landed a number of acting roles in films including Dawn of the Dead (2004), Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo (2005), Land of the Dead (2005) and The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005). After a magazine interview in which he discussed his love of movies, he was approached by Sky and offered his own show for Sky Cinema, Alex Zane’s Guest List. “We’d begin each interview discussing the film the actor was currently promoting, before moving on to discuss three of their favourite films. It was basically Desert Island Discs with movies! What’s really interesting for me is hearing from these people about the films that have really framed their lives – that’s quite something,” he says. “I feel like what I’m doing right now at Sky Cinema is where I want to be at this point in my career. Getting to fly around the world and interview movie stars for a living isn’t all that bad at all,” he laughs. “I’ve had some fantastic experiences with stars all over the world. From flying in a helicopter with Hugh Jackman, to meeting Hollywood legend Burt Reynolds, and nearly dying whilst standing on top of the BFI Imax cinema with Tom Cruise. I feel very fortunate to do what I do.”

As well as his presenting career with Sky, Alex is a keen scriptwriter and has recently finished work on a new sitcom entitled Friday Night Frights. He expresses both pride and pleasure in having written the script with friend and long-term collaborator Johnny Candon. After 17 years in London, Soho is still at the centre of Alex’s life and career, with his taste for rest and recreation in the neighbourhood bringing him back to Dean Street and its surrounding watering holes on a regular basis. “It’s just been one of those places, from the moment I arrived in London, that I’ve loved spending time in,” he says. “It’s tinged with some sadness, too: the thing about Soho is that it evolves so damn quickly – much quicker than the people that make it what it is.”

Aesop

Aesop


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“Everything is driven by the product itself and the quest for superior quality…”

Even on a crowded London high street, there’s a certain store that stands out from the crowd. There aren’t many brands that have successfully mixed aesthetically pleasing design with high quality skincare products, but Aesop has done exactly that, and much, much more.

It all started in Melbourne in 1987, when hairdresser Dennis Paphitis launched a small range of hair products that formed the basis of the Aesop brand; fast-forward to today, and Aesop has gone on to create some of the most thoughtfully designed and curated concept stores in the world, including one right here in Soho. Aesop’s brief is to formulate skin, hair and body care products of the very finest quality. With this in mind, they look far and wide to source both plant-based and laboratory-made ingredients, using only those with a proven record of safety and efficacy.

Thomas Buisson, Aesop’s General Manager in Europe, tells me about the serious-minded brand with an eye for design. “I was always captivated by the product and concept. I was intrigued, and it led to a meeting through a mutual contact with Aesop founder Dennis Paphitis and CEO Michael O’Keeffe, all the way back in 2008. I was convinced to join the European team and can thankfully say that it has been a rewarding and enlightening journey ever since.” It’s a role that sees him working closely with colleagues in deciding all aspects of new Aesop products, with everyone in the team giving their own local perspective and suggesting specific developments. “We are all involved in new product development. For instance, fragrances are of particular interest to us in Europe while our Asian colleagues are focused on the development of light serums for their hot and humid climate. Every region is able to make an impact, and new products are introduced only if they make absolute sense within the range and we are able to formulate them in a way that meets our standards of excellence on all fronts: sourcing, ingredients, quality and efficacy.”

The striking and highly individual design of Aesop’s retail outlets is the product of a similarly thoughtful approach. Each location first goes through a carefully controlled creative process, led by Thomas and Aesop’s talented design team. “As we go through this process we take into account the local environment, elements of the space itself, and of course our functional requirements. In this capacity, and depending on our inspiration, we work closely with our design team either in collaboration with external or in-house architects,” he says. In each of the brand’s unique spaces, consultants display the Aesop range to guide customers’ selections and decisions, in a setting as carefully crafted and curated as Aesop’s products themselves. Due to the strong cultural ties that Aesop has always had with the Old World, when the decision was made to open spaces outside Australia, Europe was high on the company’s priority list. “The first store in Europe opened in Paris in 2007, closely followed by London in 2008. When we move into a neighbourhood, our idea is to build something for good, both in terms or architecture but also in terms of establishing links with the community and neighbourhood. The first London store opened in Mayfair on Mount Street and was designed by Ilse Crawford. It was a homage to British elegance and savoir vivre that embodied our desire to build stores that celebrate the city and the area where we build them with a light and respectful touch,” Thomas says.

Aesop’s Lexington Street store opened its doors in 2011, in what was at the time a quiet corner of Soho. “The Soho store opened in a location that was previously occupied by a chicken shop and was stripped back so that we would really be able to reveal the simple and beautiful structure of the building. Located in one of the less touristy parts of the neighbourhood, it found its clientele among people working or living in the area, but at the same time it attracted international customers as well. It’s a perfect example of store that really belongs to the area – which means that people are comfortable walking in for a warm cup of herbal tea, a chat or to top up on their favourite skin care product. This is a good summary of what we are aiming to build with our stores: a place of interaction and discovery for the community.”

 

Thomas thinks of the Aesop brand as a set of ideals and beliefs translated into skin, hair and body care. The best ideas, he tells me, are rarely the ones that happen on spreadsheets or via structured brainstorming. “They’re about blood, sweat and many tears. We began with a small range of hair products in 1987. From there we explored the many variables of body care, and by 1991, we were ready to devote ourselves to developing the best skin care possible. Everything is driven by the product itself and the quest for superior quality. It doesn’t matter what you do; the point is to do it well – with sincerity and conviction.”

Looking to the future, Thomas says that the intention is “to continue to open locations where we see the opportunity to focus on strong, meaningful and respectful retail. This takes time and means that we need to remain flexible and agile so that our development is always consistent with who we are. We will continue to develop innovative new products and will build appropriate capabilities to support our business.” In addition to this, Aesop aims to launch more initiatives and partnerships to further enhance its difference from other brands in the beauty industry. Continuing to support the arts is one avenue through which Aesop plans to inspire, learn and communicate; hosting exhibitions and events, collaborating on film projects and publishing new writing online are just some of the ways that Aesop continues to be about much, much more than just its fantastic products.

Lesley Lewis

Lesley Lewis


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


“It’s an institution, but I’ve made it my own institution with time… I do with it what I feel is the right thing to do with it.”

When you walk into 49 Dean Street, it looks as though every inch of the walls is decorated with pictures evoking the memories and characters of the Soho of yesteryear. You soon realise, though, that it’s not just the walls here that tell a story of Soho’s history and spirit; you can feel in the air itself, taste it in the half pints of beer, and find it embodied in the landlady of one of London’s most iconic pubs. The French House is a Soho institution. During World War II it was a meeting place for the Free French, and exiled French leader Charles de Gaulle is said to have written his most famous wartime speech here, while the French’s reputation for playing host to an array of Bohemians – from Brendan Behan to Francis Bacon – is unmatched; for this is the neighbourhood’s ‘village pub’… as well as what is believed to be the biggest seller of Ricard Pastis in Britain. Landlady Lesley Lewis is part of the fabric of The French House; and you’ll find her picture on its walls too.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The French House and modern Soho have grown up hand-in-hand. Although it is believed to be of Victorian origin, it is not known for certain exactly when the building itself was constructed. Back in 1891, one Herr Schmidt, a German national, opened a venue here called The Wine House. With Schmidt deported at the beginning of World War I, the Berlemont family took over, importing barrelled French wine and signing the lease on December 30th 1914, a date still celebrated today. The pub, officially called The York Minster, took on a new lease of life, and quickly became a popular meeting place for Sohoites, among whom it was known, appropriately enough, as ‘the French’ or ‘The French House’.

Lesley arrived in Soho in 1979, in search of work. Her first job was running a strip show on Old Compton Street. “It had been run by my friend Dilly, and she then passed the job on to me. There were a lot of dark times in the strip shows – a lot of the girls got quite badly beaten up. This was the time back when the Maltese ran Soho, and there was a lot of violence and aggression stemming from the rivalry between clubs,” she remembers. “I came to London to study at college. I wanted to be an actress, but my father wouldn’t let me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. It was different back then – much different to today. It was lovely in those days. Nobody wanted to actually live here, so I had my own flat and studio where I choreographed the shows and made the costumes. I’m a Welsh girl, originally from South Wales. I’ve had a long love affair with Soho ever since coming here, and I don’t want to ever leave this place which has become my home.”

After moving on from the strip shows, Lesley worked in a number of different jobs. This included performing as a snake dancer; you can see this for yourself on the first floor of The French House, where she is pictured half-naked, dancing with a fierce snake. She also did a stint as General Manager for Theme Holdings, owners of premises that included Peppermint Park and Coconut Grove. It was all valuable experience. In 1989, Lesley became the new landlady of The French House, and she has happily remained here for just shy of 30 years. “The landlord was retiring, and they needed somebody to take over, and I was very lucky to have The French House handed over to me,” she says. “By this time, the place was very, very loved, almost adored. In the whole history of the pub there had only been two landlords before me. So for me, it was very difficult taking over from the previous landlord, Gaston Berlemont, who was born in the pub in 1914. We had to do some serious work on the place just to keep the licence, keeping it as close to the old place as possible. It took me a couple of years to be accepted by regulars, as I was constantly compared to the previous landlord, but since then it’s been wonderful!” she says, laughing over a glass of wine. “We’ve had such amazing people come through those doors, we really have. I did nearly give up at one time, but I’m glad I didn’t. It’s an institution, but I’ve made it my own institution with time. It will always have its historic connections, but I do with it what I feel is the right thing to do with it.”

As Lesley says, there are ghosts here… ghosts of the past, and perhaps literal ones too. She tells me of the rumours of dead Frenchmen, buried under the cellars decades ago, and the cold air that passes through you in certain corridors. Mostly, though, it’s the spirit of place you feel here – the spirit of old Soho. The French House (officially renamed as such in 1984) remains somehow timeless: despite evolving over the years, it is indeed an institution with its own rules: no music, no machines, no television and no mobile phones – a rare haven in London for conversationalists. As in Gaston’s day, beer is served only in half pints (they have occasionally auctioned off a pint for an astronomical figure). Lesley sees her role as maintaining the continuity of this very special place, keeping a watchful eye on its legacy and its role as a pub for its Soho regulars, not to mention remembering everybody’s usual tipple. By the way, mine’s a glass of pinot noir.

Bao

Bao


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“Initially, we weren’t set on it having any longevity…”

I am anything but patient, but to get into Bao I waited for 20 minutes with a can of Taiwanese lager in my hand. I’ve been watching the ever-expanding queue outside for a year now as I’ve gone up and down Soho’s Lexington Street, and wondering: what makes all these people stand in line for a restaurant that only seats 15 people and sells Taiwanese street food? Well, the answer is in the eating, as more and more people are finding out: Bao crossed the border into Fitzrovia last year, with the still fresh-faced venture opening its doors on Windmill Street to yet more acclaim.

Brother and sister Wai Ting Chung and Shing Tat Chung, and Shing’s wife Erchen Chang, are all under 30 and the idea of starting a restaurant came to them while were travelling together. Journeying through Erchen’s home country of Taiwan, they were inspired by the informal street food culture and culinary traditions they discovered – and that was how Bao came to be born. “We’d all just graduated, so we made the decision to travel around Taiwan together. We ate all over, and from there we were inspired to come back and start our own venture,” says Shing. “We discussed the idea of a market stall whilst travelling back to London. We thought introducing some of my home traditions, including the bao itself, on the stall could be a cool idea. It was much less risky for us to start out as a market stall in the beginning, as opposed to starting our own restaurant right away. Initially, we weren’t set on it having any longevity; we never planned for Bao to grow into what it has done. The initial response and attention it received was fantastic, and it was an organic progression.”

In 2013, Bao started out as a market stall at Netil Market in Hackney, and it remains a permanent fixture there on Saturday afternoons. Taking things to the next level, from stall to restaurant, Bao opened their first permanent premises on Soho’s Lexington Street in 2015. Both their Soho and Fitzrovia restaurants offer a relaxed environment, with charming yet efficient service, and the interiors bring the trio’s background in fine art to life with catchy branding. “When we opened our Soho site, we had a keen following at this point, but even on opening we didn’t know what to expect. We adapted the space to the brand, and the brand to the space. It’s a small space, and it seems as popular as ever, with customers still queuing daily to sample the menu,” says Shing. “With our Fitzrovia opening, we liked the idea of diners watching as drinks are prepared, we wanted people to be engaged with the aesthetic of the brand and feel like they’re at the centre of the restaurant. We wanted the basement to have the exact opposite feeling. We wanted to create a completely different vibe, with a tin-clad and spacey feeling to it as you look into the kitchen and watch the food being prepared,” adds Erchen.

The name Bao itself originates from their signature Chinese steamed bread roll, known as bao, which is served with a filling of meat, fish or vegetables. Their menu itself is split into four sections, focusing not just on bao but also chicken, fish and rice dishes, with special Taiwanese rice sourced from Chi Shiang, and vegetable sides. In both branches, diners order dishes via their menus on a tick-style system. But before that comes the long wait – whether on Lexington Street or Windmill Street – that can sometimes last up to 45 minutes. It’s a stretch by anybody’s standards, but there’s something about Bao that makes it all worthwhile. Of course, the food is the thing: the tantalising menu is fresh and innovative, and while it’s based on Taiwanese street fare, the kitchen pushes far beyond those boundaries. At the same time, I can’t think of many eateries in this area of London that have matched Bao’s innovative aesthetic, and the result is a brand identity that will doubtless continue to thrive and grow. Although the three are typically modest about their baby, I suspect they take a quiet satisfaction in knowing they’ve created something really quite special. Bao has certainly added another fine food destination to the already independent-led Lexington Street; and if you haven’t already been to check it out, I can only suggest that you hurry along and join the queue.

A Soho Squat

A Soho Squat


Words & Photography Bob Aylott


“These are iconic images from this period in London’s history”

By trade, I’m a press photographer. I discovered in my attic some months ago this vintage collection of vintage black and white images, hidden away for some years. It’s unusual to find original wet prints of contemporary historical importance. This project was a labour of love that I’d put on the shelf. I knew I had one set of exhibition prints, but I’d forgotten about the box of extra prints and was amazed to find them. Back in 1972, I explored the seedier, dark and destructive yesteryear of a Soho squat. As a personal project, I spent a year recording life in one of the last squats in this part of London. Due for demolition, the Victorian tenement in Drury Lane was a haven for London’s homeless teenage runaways, junkies, winos and street thieves, including a convicted murderer, and a baby.

These subjects lived in the most squalid of conditions, often surviving on rotten fruit from the famous market. Rape, beatings, robbery, drug overdoses and death were common in a building overrun by rodents and with no running water, sanitation or electricity. These images are particularly special because they are not only iconic images from this period in London’s history, but were also printed shortly after the pictures were made in 1972. Only one or two prints of each subject have survived. The prints are un-retouched and show abrasions that would have been on the original negative, such as dust spots and scratches.