All posts by darkblue

Mercedes Grower

Mercedes Grower

Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Joseph Lynn

“You’re feeling stuff which is enormous – it’s like being hit with a double-edged sword…”

If you knew where it would end, would you ever begin? Breakups. They’re a pain in the ass, and have a habit of being weird, powerful and at times life-changing – sometimes all three. For Mercedes Grower, how we slam the brakes on in a relationship became the inspiration behind her first independent film project. The fiercely inventive North London-based actress and filmmaker tells me about her new London-based film Brakes (2016) and the dark twist it gives to the traditional romantic comedy.

Mercedes grew up in London – Soho was her stomping ground for many years – although these days you’re just as likely to find her in Ireland or New York. She has worked as an actor in film and television for more than a decade, appearing in everything from Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005) to Rob Brown’s Sixteen (2013). She’s a writer, too, and has been working on ideas for comedy shows for some time. On the back of an ongoing production, she began to develop the concept for what eventually became Brakes.

“I always thought Brakes would be a good idea for a film. When you’re breaking up with somebody, you always feel like that’s so unique to you and so universal,” she says. “You’re feeling stuff which is enormous – it’s like being hit with a double-edged sword; it’s so much at the same time. It can mean so much to one person, and so little to the other.”

Her idea was that the film would be both an experiment and an opportunity to explore the variety of different ways in which people fall in and out of love, lust and companionship. Filmed over a period of four years and premiering at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2016, where it won the special mention for the Michael Powell award, Brakes is a raw, dark comedy about endings and beginnings, brilliantly evoking the joys and regrets that relationships can bring. It does so by tracking the relationships of nine couples, but exploring their stories in reverse order. As we’re plunged directly into the break-ups of ‘Part 2’, we first witness the raw and brutal face of rejection, and all the pain, black humour and disappointment that goes with it; then, in the ‘Part 1’ that follows, we see a series of parallel episodes showing how these now dysfunctional couples first came together.

Produced on a micro-budget and limited permission (often none) to film throughout the capital, shooting had to proceed guerrilla-style. What Mercedes could rely on, though, was a fantastic ensemble cast of acting and comedy talent to portray her collection of dissolving couples, including Paul McGann, Julia Davis, Steve Oram, Kate Hardie and many more, all giving their time when and where they could. The results are often memorable, from Julian Barrett serenading a married man portrayed by Oliver Maltman, to Noel Fielding kicking a football around in a snowy Soho opposite Mercedes herself.

“If you’re lucky, we all fall in and out of love. The situations I created for the couples are comic and desperately sad at times,” says Mercedes. “They’re meant to resonate with real relationships, scenarios and our own experiences, and to warp reality in some ways.” With its punkish aesthetic and impressive improv chops, Brakes manages to be entertaining, funny, charming and dark-edged. The film’s mix of sometimes surreal comedy and raw emotion overcomes its financial limitations, and despite its low-budget origins, Brakes is now set for a well-deserved general release later this year, appearing on selected screens from November 24th in the UK. This may be Mercedes’ first film production, but I must stress that this is just the beginning of her transition into filmmaking – and she already has a new project in the pipeline.

Wild at Heart

Wild at Heart

Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan

With its fantasy Tudor architecture and majestic doors flanked by two Imperial Guardian lions crouched among baskets of geranium, sweet pea and red roses, Liberty’s entrance always makes me think of the set of some silent Hollywood epic. It’s somehow rendered even more cinematic by the stylish female figure tending the blooms of this grand store’s floral emporium, Wild at Heart.

You can’t miss Astrid Haynez, the store manager, and you certainly wouldn’t want to! I’ve come to photograph the flowers, but she’s just as beguiling as they are, a statuesque figure with a Louise Brooks bob and a very French air of quiet expertise that quickly convinces you that Wild at Heart has the answers to all your floral dilemmas.

Founded by famed florist and entrepreneur Nikki Tibbles in 1993, Wild at Heart is in perfect symbiosis with its parent store, offering a wonderfully scented introduction to Liberty’s courtly charms. This hugely successful business, with a wealth of A list clients to match its luxurious setting, is the product of Nikki’s intuition and talent – a talent she discovered 25 years ago when, unhappy with her job in advertising, she jumped at the chance to design flower arrangements for a friend’s wedding. Nikki’s muse had blossomed.

Astrid, whose childhood dream was to be a taxidermist, trained under Nikki and has been with Wild at Heart since 2007. Her wry sense of humour and taste for the extraordinary has brought her a legion of loyal admirers.

“I’ve worked for many other florists but Liberty is where I feel I belong! There is nowhere like it… the neighbourhood, the clients, the Soho community. And what a building! I pinch myself when I have to open those two iconic black doors! It’s one of a kind.”

And amidst the crowds and constant tumult of Soho, she feels there’s something therapeutic about working with flowers. “The beauty of flowers never ceases to amaze me. Handling them calms me, brings me so much joy. I really love what I do.”

And who wouldn’t love the challenges posed by Wild at heart’s clients when they include having to create arrangements for film sets, fashion shoots and advertising. For designer Solange Azagury Partridge, Wild at Heart created incredible wilted bouquets. “We kept the flowers for days on end in the shop. It looked great – there is something so romantic in wilted flowers. All the colours fade… the petals fall… like a Dutch painting. Beautiful!”. Creating bouquets based around paintings has proven a popular request, with the Dutch still life style being the most popular. “But I’ve had requests for flowers like in Douanier Rousseau’s works, with lush exotic foliage and Birds of Paradise, as well as more Gainsborough influenced arrangements, with meadow-like flowers.”

A recent commission veered more towards pop art than fine art when Wild at Heart had to make some bouquets for Lady Gaga, who was guesting on a well-known TV chat show. “We sprayed the flowers black, added some orange glitter and finished it off with dolls heads among the flowers – that was a little out there!”

What Astrid loves most is to pair her buyer with their perfect flowers: “I always engage with the customer. It can be a small token like a posy or an engagement bouquet – whatever the size or budget, I will choose the right flower, the right colour. I know so many secrets!” She laughs, and carrying a huge bouquet of Geraniums to the front desk reveals her dream arrangement. “I would like to recreate the Morticia Adams moment when she cuts all the heads of a large bouquet of Black Baccara roses… so red they appear black… all the roses heads cut with only the stems in the vase. That would be perfect to tell someone: I don’t love you anymore!” But for her spiritual home of Soho she has a far sweeter bouquet in mind. “I would create a nose-gay full of fresh herbs, mint, lavender and so on, tied with a big rainbow ribbon!”

Daniel Lismore

Daniel Lismore

Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Joseph Lynn

“Soho became a playground to me. I’d walk around the area in awe…”

It is mid-afternoon in Dean Street’s Groucho Club when Daniel strides up to the first floor to meet me. Strikingly tall, with impossibly long wavy brown hair, he’s draped in a long grey coat and insists that, today, he is dressed down. I suspect, though, that no day is really a dress-down day for the inimitable Mr Lismore. It’s evident when you meet him that dressing well is second nature, and that clothes, with all their nuance and detail, are at the centre of his life. Every ring, broach and thread of his attire tells a story as rich and vibrant as Soho itself. Daniel Lismore could be from a different era, almost another world, but when it comes down to it, he’s a Sohoite at heart.

Daniel’s work as a fashion designer, stylist and creative director has received international recognition. Self-modelling his own outfits and creations, from Masai tribal masks to baubles and chain mail, he has established himself as Britain’s most flamboyant dresser and a well-known face on London’s club scene. He first visited the capital in 2003 to join the protest against the war in Iraq, and it was then that the city first captured his imagination. Born in Bournemouth, he was raised in the Midlands, close to Coventry. He studied photography and fashion, moving to London to work as a model aged just 17. “I was scouted, so I moved here. It lasted about five years, all in all. I was young, and at 17 my first job was with Vogue,” he says. “Soho became a playground to me. I’d walk around the area in awe. The drug dealers, transsexual prostitutes and street urchins; I was instantly fascinated. A lot of my work was here, and the nightlife too. There was this Eastern European lady I would always see who had knitted her entire outfit. Every time I’d see her, it’d get bigger and bigger. Like a great many faces, she disappeared one day.”

Daniel found himself immersed in London’s noughties party scene, spending his evenings moving between Mayfair and Soho. “I met Jodie Harsh somewhere in the ghetto… she was starting a night called Circus and asked me to host it with her. At this point, Mayfair and Soho were a big part of my life. Agents were sending me all over the place, and that’s how it all started,” he recalls. “When Jodie started her night with me, we had everybody joining, from Amy Winehouse to Steve McQueen – everybody would turn up. It was a monthly night, moving from Soho Revue Bar, to Café de Paris and Paramount, which used to be at the top of Centre Point. It was the place. The scene was big back then, but it was also dying. It was my job to go out, find people and bring them to the club. I would meet people in the street who I admired, and truly thought were amazing, and bring them along to the night. Still, today, I don’t see my life as work: it’s living!” he grins.

Hand-in-hand with his endeavours as a scenester, Daniel had developed a unique taste in clothing and an eccentric sense of style. “I met designer Levi Palmer (now one half of Palmer Harding) and he began to dress me up. This became my introduction to, and education in, subculture and style. He took me to the club night Kashpoint, and it was really the start of my interest in nightlife” says Daniel, “We shared a flat together, and at the time I was beginning to try to make it as a fashion photographer. He and I would spend a whole week getting ready to go out on the weekend… of course, at this point I was already working with Jodie at Circus.” Daniel would search the streets for almost anything that was wearable and create the most flamboyant of looks – as he still does to this this day.

Daniel wears his astonishing, intricately detailed armour-like creations day-in and day-out: fearlessly individual, he’s always dressed for war. Standing six feet four inches tall, he was never able to avoid the stares of passers-by, so he’s made a point of giving them something to really stare at.

Now Daniel’s work has been presented in the aptly entitled book Be Yourself; Everyone Else Is Already Taken. From cheeky self-portraits to an array of brilliant and outrageous characters all played by Daniel, the book documents his vision of elaborate and extravagant ensembles. Retro accessories, ethnic jewellery, chain mail and shells: it somehow all comes together in a burst of creative energy, every detail working as part of whole that’s greater than its parts. Many would describe his style as eccentric. My take: it’s positively indefinable. “I’ve been attacked and had abuse hailed at me for being who I am. Everybody has an opinion, and I walk into danger constantly. Everybody has a view, which is great. Whichever view they take is their own assumption, and I can’t change that,” says Lismore. “What is art really? I don’t know myself. I don’t think anything about what I do is art. I am me. Who knows? It’s just a concept isn’t it? I know what I do. I love to create, and my art is myself. I’m a critic just as much as anybody else is when it comes to myself.”

Daniel continues to be one of the most recognisable faces on London’s fashion and lifestyle circuits. His talents have led him from the streets of Soho to becoming the creative director of ultra-couture label Sorapol. Whether he really has dressed down today, as he continues to insist, there’s certainly a kind of modesty about him that I admire. His mask of eccentricity could easily be interpreted as vanity, when in fact it is simply self-expression: the man behind the mask is anything but vain. And behind the mask and the mane of long brown hair, beyond the extravagant, armoured appearance, he communicates a simple, bold message: be yourself, everyone else is already taken. For this particular Sohoite, life is too short to be anyone other than Daniel Lismore.

Teddy Ondo Ella

Teddy Ondo Ella

Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan

“For me, it was about creating a beautiful label with the right clothes to help tell the story of my Gabonese culture…”

We first meet at Marylebone’s Ivy Cafe, going on to wander through the backstreets of the neighbourhood, crossing the border into Fitzrovia. We pass window after window, discussing London’s high streets, men’s and women’s fashion, Paris, New York and the eternal, magnetic pull of the metropolis. Teddy Ondo Ella is witty and smart, with an eye for design. He has a keen eye for Soho, too, as he makes his way around the neighbourhood on a visit from New York. His trip is the perfect mix of business and pleasure as he gets ready to launch his eponymous brand, Teddy Ondo Ella, while exploring the area’s rich and dynamic culture.

When we first meet, Teddy is dressed mostly in black: a bomber jacket, denim and sneakers. Less than 24 hours later, across town at the Rosewood Hotel off Chancery Lane, he looks fresh out of a Savile Row fitting, sporting a two-piece turquoise suit. Teddy grew up between continents, living in Gabon and France, and has developed a distinctive style of his own, mixing formalwear with streetwear in his day-to-day life. He draws inspiration from French fashion, but with a distinctively African sensibility. He remains passionate about his youth in Gabon and his original muse – his mother.

“More or less, the creativity in my work has come from the experience I’ve had in my life,” he says. “When I was younger, I never knew I was about to be in the fashion industry. The clothes came into my life, because my mother was running a clothing store. I was working with her in the store, which she named Teddy after me, and learning the ways of the business. I’ve lived in three different continents in my life. And when you only live in one place, you can only understand one side. You have to live on the other side to understand how the other half live, and learn from their culture. This is how my brand has come to be born; through the learnings of culture and people.”

Teddy Ondo Ella wants to create something that’s expressive of the wider world around us, a label that incorporates traditional Gabonese culture and the contemporary fashion world. Produced with only the finest fabrics available, TOE is a balance of luxury and craft, with each garment incorporating a subtle reference to Gabonese culture and Teddy’s own heritage. “These clothes are for the people. For me, it was about creating a beautiful label with the right clothes to help tell the story of my Gabonese culture. The signature piece of the brand will be the abacos, which means ‘against the suit’, Teddy explains. “It was created by Africans in the 1970s as a symbol of anti-colonialism. The Abacos is worn without a tie and with short sleeves. It was a peaceful way for them to show Europeans that they weren’t down with what they were doing. I revisited this piece by making it more modern and more fitted. Teddy Ondo Ella will have an urban line, and a ready-to-wear line. The urban line is called ‘Only Made in Gabon’. This is how I feel men should be dressing – mixing things up, and breaking the barriers of formality and informality,” he says.

Always looking to develop his brand and broaden his own cultural influences, Teddy recently visited Soho on a business trip. Meeting many of the creatives who work in the neighbourhood, he got a first-hand taste of Soho’s traditional flair for fashion. “I want to bring something to my brand and products, and English elegance has come to have an influence over this. Soho has an energy at every turn, which is just as rich during the night as it is during the day. It is magnetic, and the spirit of artists such as Bradley Theodore and Robi Walters, and Exposure PR Founder Raoul Shah, make up the bricks of this place. That energy, and their energy, is something which I want to be at the centre of my brand. Soho feels to me like home; after all, it’s an international village filled with eccentricity and creativity at every corner.”

Teddy is obviously drawn to Soho and feels that, if his business continues to expand, it would be a likely location for a new TOE store. After all, the new Teddy Ondo Ella line – simple, graphic and stylish – perfectly expresses the creative spirit of neighbourhoods like Soho, and the many villages which make up each metropolis Teddy has lived in. Teddy is already a true Sohoite in spirit.



Words Pippa Brooks

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan

“…I get a kick out of the journey, the challenge and all that makes me tick.”

Betsy strides into the room in silver platform heels, photo-ready with immaculate hair and make-up, and immediately launches into a major anecdote about her recent experiences during Paris Fashion Week. ”There was Karl Lagerfeld, Mario Testino, Nicki Minaj, Pharrell… the most eccentric, glamorous people EVER! So we had dinner and I sang for them afterwards,” she says in her gorgeous Welsh lilt.

I’m lurking in the basement at Cahoots – the quirkily retro, Blitz-themed cocktail bar hidden away just off Carnaby Street – where singer Betsy is being shot for Soho Journal, showing off her hair, lips and legs but, most importantly, strength in every frame. Having already having signed UK and US record deals, once heard, she’s hard to forget. Betsy’s voice is a real surprise – especially if the first time you hear it is when watching one of her videos. “She doesn’t sound how she looks,” her manager says. And it’s true. One obvious stab at describing her vocal sound would be “very Cher”. And it really is – especially 90s-era, anthemic, big-production Cher. And like Cher, Betsy definitely isn’t afraid of glamour: “Coming from such a rural place in Wales, I’ve always liked glamour, because for me that’s the opposite of being born on a farm in the middle of nowhere.” But it’s a very particular glamour that she exudes, evocative of the 1970s, of Jerry Hall, Studio 54, dining at Mr Chow with Andy Warhol by night and being shot by Helmut Newton by day – glossy, Amazonian and assertive.

I wonder when Betsy first found her singing voice, since it’s hard to imagine a child sounding the way she does. “I remember when I was eight and in a school play, a friend said to me that I sounded like Snow White because my voice was ‘all wobbly’, and I think that’s the first time I realised that I had this kind of vibrato-y thing. It’s always been quite strong as well.”

One of Betsy’s earliest memories was sitting around a campfire on the farm where she grew up, while her Dad and Uncle, who were in a band, sang. “Also, Wales is quite a songy place, you know, with church and at school, and there’s a big history of these kinds of massive voices like Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey.” Betsy loves Bassey, who reminds her of her own great grandmother, who was still living large in diamante and velour well into her 90s. “She was that type of woman from the valleys, who’s so glamorous but hard, you know? It’s like, ‘Here I am – have it!!” It’s definitely in the genes.

Rural Wales is a world away from Soho, and Betsy’s teenage dreams came true when she landed a place at St Martin’s to study fashion. “I remember being a sixth former and my teacher asking me what I wanted to do in the next year or so, and I was like, ‘I want to sing and make clothes and go to parties with men in high heels and wigs!’ – and that’s exactly what I did, and more! Soho was my introduction to London, and being around the corner from St Martins, Old Compton Street was the centre of our lives. All my mates were gay blokes and we lived in G.A.Y. We used to get hammered in there – I remember one time being passed out under the stage while naked Porn Idol was going on! For a girl from a farm in Wales it was a culture shock, but I kind of jumped in and it was everything that I had wanted and more.”

Soho also proved to be the perfect place to be studying fashion. “Obviously, the other thing about it was Berwick Street, where we used to go and get all our fabrics. We used to go down to the Cloth House a lot and they would always give us little samples that we could use.”

There was some hard work amid all the partying, then; and it paid off when Betsy landed a job in Paris at high-end fashion house Balenciaga. The singing part of the dream was temporarily shelved as she was thrown in to the fashion business full-time, working weekends and long days. But the desire to give music her all began to consume her and, despite being at the centre of fashion’s elite bubble, she decided to jack it all in, move back to Wales, ensconce herself in her brother’s caravan and only come out when she’d written an album’s worth of songs. “I’d left my job in Paris and gone back to Wales and I thought I had to do it on my own. I sat down and made this demo, created the songs myself on Garage Band.”

By the time she met her manager, Betsy already had a pretty complete idea of what she was after, with a whole bunch of songs already written, and a vision – literally mood boards – for each one. It meant that rather than being moulded to someone else’s idea of what she should be, the two of them could work collaboratively to create the “timeless” sound she had always wanted, for example by recording them with real strings. Betsy’s love of the whole process is infectious, her ambitions are global and she absolutely loves what she does: “With music, my main aim and ambition is to write that one song that will last forever,” she says. Perhaps that will be her upcoming single, ‘Little White Lies’, but she’s already thinking way beyond that. “I think that drives me really. I’ve always been incredibly ambitious and I get a kick out of the journey, the challenge and all that makes me tick.”

Fenella Fielding

Fenella Fielding

Words Robert Chilcott

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan

“Of course, being dressed as a prostitute meant that everybody was terribly interested to have a word with you and so forth…”

The husky, seductive voice is unmistakeable after all these years: no one else sounds like Fenella Fielding, who remains a unique and much-loved figure of British stage and screen. You can hear for yourself: she’s currently reading her memoirs at a Saturday matinee residency at the Phoenix Artist Club on Charing Cross Road.

Fenella’s first credited television role was as a lady of the night in a BBC Sunday Night Theatre in 1957, ‘The Magnificent Egotist’, now missing and the tape presumably wiped. “I didn’t have very much to do, but I had a lot of hanging round. Of course, being dressed as a prostitute meant that everybody was terribly interested to have a word with you and so forth… It was a very distinguished director… I can’t remember his name. Everybody in it was terribly important, except for people like me who were totally unknown. Rupert Davies – he was the leading man – swept me up in his arms and carried me across the room. As he got to the door he banged my head on the frame. But I thought it doesn’t matter. I was still in one piece, and I had a lovely time!” That same year Fenella had a part in three episodes of a TV police show called Destination Downing Street. “I can’t remember anything about it at all,” she confesses.

Her first memories of Soho date back to her time at drama school in the 1950s. “It was like going abroad. It was wonderful! All these different shops – all foreign, with huge cheeses and racks of clothes – every different thing you could think of to buy, all pushed together. Of course, it’s a bit like that now – but not really.” She remembers The 2i’s coffee bar on Old Compton Street – where Tommy Steele was launching his career as Britain’s first teen idol in the basement – but she didn’t dare go in. “There were all kinds of naughty ladies walking around in Soho, which I thought was very thrilling”.

“There was a lovely eating place that’s still there called Mildred’s. Oh, and I liked Ronnie Scott’s, very much! I remember doing the first night of a revue. I was with my agent who said, ‘Oh, don’t let’s go to a restaurant to go over your performance. Let’s go to Ronnie Scott’s and have a lovely time.’ And so we did!” On another occasion Fenella met Jeffrey Bernard at a party, “and we started trotting about”, although she insists that their relationship was not really much of an affair, “because he was always so pissed”. Bernard, of course, took her to Soho drinking club the Colony Room. “Muriel Belcher was terrifying. I kept my mouth shut,” Fenella recalls, although she still has a memento of the Colony – she got the upright piano when it closed down.

I ask Fenella if it was Ron Moody who gave her her first break? “No, no, it wasn’t. Did he say so? Balls!” In 1954, Moody was putting on an amateur revue at the London School of Economics, where he was a student, and Fenella got a part in it, replacing a girl who had fallen ill. Soon after that, though, she decided that going on the stage was ridiculous and that she needed a job that would bring in regular money every week – so she answered an ad for an apprenticeship at Robert Fielding on Regent Street. “I came down from Edgware. It was deepest winter, bitterly cold on the tube. I came out into the snow, which was all over Leicester Square, and there was Ron. And he said, ‘You’re just the person I want to see. Remember those guys who came to the London School of Economics? Well, you can come with me now to the new Lindsay Theatre club in Notting Hill and I’ll do some sketches with you for them – the ones we did then. So I said ‘I’m ever so sorry darling, but I’ve got an appointment for an interview to work at a hairdressers shop, so I’m afraid I can’t come.’ But in the end I thought, ‘Oh what the hell, manicurist be bothered!’ So I went with him.“

In 1958, Fenella became an instant star in the Sandy Wilson musical Valmouth, and by the following year was appearing with Kenneth Williams in Pieces of Eight, a comedy revue written by Peter Cook and Harold Pinter. She was an habitué of Cook’s Establishment Club on Greek Street, where she recalls rehearsing for a show and seeing rather thickset men in belted overcoats and squashed hats walking around. “There was a gang that was quite famous at the time, the Nash Brothers, and these chaps were walking round the foyer. I don’t know if they were the Nash Brothers or if they were some other brothers, but that’s why we were a bit worried about going to do our show there. Anyway, we went on rehearsing, and the thing was that Nicholas Luard, Cook’s business partner, spoke terribly ‘like that’, very high society; and the Nash Brothers, or the something-or-other brothers, spoke very ‘like that’, very cockney. It turned out that the only place in Greek Street that didn’t have to pay protection money was The Establishment, and that was because Nicholas couldn’t understand a word these brothers were saying. And in the end the man who was trying to get the money went away in despair!”

Her film career also took off in tandem with her stage work, with notable appearances opposite Dirk Bogarde in the Doctor films. If there’s one screen role with which Fenella will forever be associated it’s that of the vampish Valeria in the 1966 Carry on Screaming, where she appears reclining on a chaise-longue and asking “Do you mind if I smoke?” as clouds of dry ice billow around her velvet-clad bust. The Carry On films – she’d earlier appeared in Carry on Regardless – were made quickly, and budgets were tight. For Screaming, she even had to pay £9 for her own ring.

Other appearances in the sixties and seventies, none of them exactly conventional ones for such a talented stage actress, cemented her cult status. She was the voice of Caroline the Cow in Anthony Newley’s television masterpiece The Strange World of Gurney Slade, and the voice of the Blue Queen in Dougal and the Blue Cat. Perhaps her most memorable, if uncredited, voice role, though, was as the Village announcer in The Prisoner. “Patrick McGoohan was simply lovely. On the day, he just came into the sound room and said ‘Don’t make it too sexy’. So I didn’t, and that was it. The mere fact of being in it was like getting a medal.” There were numerous other television appearances, including several on The Morecambe and Wise Show. “When you worked with somebody who did comedy, what they usually wanted was for you to support them but not to be funny yourself. But I found with them that they definitely wanted you to be funny – they didn’t want you to be dreary, just hanging about being a famous presence. They wanted you to be part of it.”

Fenella has also done plenty of serious theatre, from Shakespeare to Sheridan, and most notably a performance in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler that was described by the Times as “the experience of a lifetime”. “The writing in the play is so incredible, and the fact of it is that she is such a cow, such a beast, but she’s riveting. And the audience, when everything goes wrong for her at the end, they are very upset. It’s so unusual, and marvellous.”

While film roles may have been rare in recent years, Fenella has kept busy with stage, radio and recording work – including readings of JG Ballard’s Crash and T. S. Eliot’s poems. Among her more recent roles, in 2012, was a return to television in Channel 4’s Skins. “If only I hadn’t died in that episode – I would have loved to have gone on and on doing it. But they can’t bring back the dead, and that’s that!” she observes philosophically.
Fenella’s memoirs ‘Do You Mind If I Smoke?’ will be released as an audio book in May and will be available from Fenella will be reading chapters live at The Phoenix Artist Club every Saturday afternoon in June, and there’s an evening show at Crazy Coqs on 11 July.

Vulgar Tongues

Vulgar Tongues

Words Cathi Unsworth

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan

“Cant – thieves’ slang – is the oldest slang we have, and Soho in the past was never short of characters who were living on the far side of the law…”

Soho and its environs, with its hostelries, clubs, ‘vaulting academies’ and nefarious street trades, can be credited as one of the greatest sources of slang. Through its ‘rookeries’, teeming with ‘jades’, ‘footpads’ and ‘mollies’, once strolled a venerable gentleman named Captain Francis Grose. Despite the dangers around him, the Captain was on a mission – to compile a dictionary of the cant of criminals that would arm the unwary with a guide against being fleeced. His resultant Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published in 1785, is the inspiration for Max Décharné’s wonderful new book, Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang.

Pictured in the frontispiece, the Captain (1731-1791) appears an avuncular cove, whose impressive girth would preclude sudden flight from menace. Which is what makes his achievement all the more impressive to the svelte and dapper Décharné, an author whose previous work includes Straight From The Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary of Hipster Slang, and a musician who fronts the cinematically noir Flaming Stars. “An artist, antiquary, ex-military man, and most of all, the kind of man you’d want to prop up a bar with, he spent many a late night on the wilder shores – and he didn’t need the protection of a detachment of soldiers, unlike Dickens half a century later,” Max says with a smile. “Two thirds of the world’s trade was coming through the Port of London in his day, and Covent Garden and Soho specialised in parting all those sailors from their money. Imagine the language that accompanied that!”

The result of years of research, Vulgar Tongues has its roots in Soho and the area’s proximity to those two pillars of justice, The Old Bailey – in Grose’s day, Newgate Prison – and Tyburn Tree. “Cant – thieves’ slang – is the oldest slang we have, and Soho in the past was never short of characters who were living on the far side of the law. If you hung around the late-night hostelries, this would have been a large part of the way that people talked.”

Max’s evident delight in his material stems in part from how many of these phrases have survived. “It’s incredible how 17th and 18th century London slang has spread around the world,” he says. “They were already calling a stomach your ‘bread basket’ and illicit brandy was known as ‘moonshine,’ because it was smuggled by night. My favourites are ‘fly’, (knowing, aware), which rappers are still using, and ‘shag’, which then, as now, was a slang term for a bout of horizontal athletics.”

Another form associated with Soho is Polari, the secret language of homosexuals. “It started out as showmen’s and carnival slang, with no particular gay focus,” says Max. “The Punch & Judy men in Covent Garden are quoted using it in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour & The London Poor (1851), but it only starts to be closely associated with the gay scene after World War II. Indeed, the majority of gay slang of any kind dates from after 1900, though gay men referred to each other as ‘mollies’ in the early 18th century. The high point of Polari was undoubtedly the 1960s, thanks to Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick’s radio characters Julian and Sandy and the final legalisation of homosexuality towards the end of their run in 1967.”

Kenneth Williams was a good source – “All his diaries should be required reading,” Max considers – as was another Soho face, Derek Raymond, who augmented his debut 1962 novel, The Crust On It’s Uppers, with a glossary of slang. Interestingly, some of his terms – ‘screwing’ and ‘having it off’ – had a different meaning only a few decades previously, while ‘charvering’ meant the same. “In that other fine London novel, James Curtis’s The Gilt Kid (1936), ‘having it off’ was pulling a robbery, and ‘screwing’ specifically meant burglary,” Max explains. “‘Charvering’ (having sex), however, goes back at least as far as the classic Victorian The Swell’s Night Guide (1846).”

And what of today’s Soho – will it go on providing new expressions that will be heard centuries from now? Or will it all be buried under concrete? “Very hard to say. There’s still a hell of a lot of life in Soho, but it’s heart-breaking to see how the local authorities are allowing significant sections to be bulldozed and redeveloped. Whoever’s signing off on these deals should be made to ride a foal sired by an acorn – and yes, that’s some more slang that 18th century Soho residents would have known. To give you a clue, the way to take such a ride was down the western end of Oxford Street, when pushed off a cart at Tyburn by the hangman, Jack Ketch.”

Max Décharné’s Vulgar Tongues is published by Serpent’s Tail, as is Derek Raymond’s The Crust on its Uppers. James Curtis’ The Gilt Kid is published by London Books.

Joe and Co.

Joe and Co.

Words Matthew Ross

Photography Kirk Truman

It was 1997, and Soho was down to the roach of its truly gritty days. Joe Mills bought the lease on a debt-ridden Peter Street cobblers and opened The Lounge, his first hair salon. The door was kept locked, and female clients were chaperoned to the salon from Wardour Street. DJs, Maltese gangsters, working girls and celebrities: Joe worked his craft on all comers. Two decades later, the neon sex-shop signs may be flickering out as the sanitising hands of investors sweep old Soho away, but Joe’s light shines more strongly than ever.

With its concrete floors, chilled beer, and Playstations for the clients, The Lounge blazed a trail that others would follow, with iPads replacing consoles as the digital revolution exploded. But after twelve years of styling at the same chair, and with women gazumping men for the lion’s share of his scissor-time, Joe struck out again in 2010 with a new, dedicated barbers. Joe and Co. was born. While the mainstream renaissance in men’s barbering wove its ubiquitous tweedy pastiche, Joe and Co. cut a distinctive cloth of its own. Right down to its logo and signage, Joe and Co. riffs in a graphic, geometric style on the traditional idea of a barbershop.

It’s a riff with pedigree. After a three-year apprenticeship under Dutch New Zealander Gert Renzenbrink, Joe took a job in the oldest barbershop in the City of London, perfecting traditional barbering skills as the only young buck in a company of retired Jewish barbers. Come the early 90s, it was time for change. Joe blagged an interview with Paul Burfoot at Fish on D’Arblay Street, and turned his craft to the punky energy of the salon that gave the decade many of its eponymous cuts. It’s no surprise that the openings of The Lounge and Joe and Co. were quickly lauded by the likes of Vogue, GQ and Monocle.

An inimitable pedigree runs through Joe the man too. He claims everyday dressing is his comfort zone, but Joe’s everyday is another man’s envy. From the peppery temples and close-clipped beard to the selvedge denim and vintage Vans, he inhabits a style somewhere between Walker Evans Americana and GQ urbanity. Vintage cars, motorbikes, a touch of rockabilly that belies the 1980s Margate of his teens: they’re all layered through Joe like multiple exposures on old celluloid film.

Jamie Dornan, Russell Tovey, Zayn Malik: icons for many but a day’s work for Joe. Surprisingly, for a man with a talent for making the handsomest even handsomer, and with two legendary salons, Joe is humility itself. “If this work teaches you anything, it’s that people are people. You see people at their best, and you see them at their lowest, whoever they are. Famous or not, barbering is about working with a person, finding a mirror to their personality. A friend once described me as being a facilitator, a gentleman’s gentleman. That captures it exactly.” Visit Joe and Co. and you might find yourself seated in one of their classic Japanese barber’s chairs next to a well-known actor or the hottest young band getting spruced up ready for a tour. When the Journal photographed Martin Freeman for our third issue, he arrived freshly coiffed from Joe’s chair. It’s a democratic style that comes from Joe himself.

It’s also evident that the ‘and Co.’ is as important as Joe. “It’s the hardest thing to take creative people and help them to gel. It starts right at the beginning. It’s not about how cool you are. I want inquisitive, questioning people. And it doesn’t stop here in Peter Street. It’s great that barbers who spent time cutting and learning here at Joe & Co. have gone on to become main players at new salons like Taylor Taylor and The Lion & The Fox. The ‘and Co.’ is far bigger than me.” Speaking of ‘Co.’, Lead Barber Hayley comes over between cuts to tell us about The Spiderman. “He’s this well-known Soho character, must be in his late 40s, comes in wearing a full Spiderman outfit.” Is he some kind of performance artist? “Nah, I think he just likes the slinky feel against his skin or something. It takes all sorts.”

Does Joe think Soho is losing these characters and its own special identity as the area changes? “I have an issue with not embracing change and being blinkered about the future. No one wants the crack dens back again. Soho has to be forward-thinking and diverse. Look at Paris and its mix of old and new architecture. Great cities change. Soho is changing. Joe and Co. is part of that. When everyone went east, we stayed in Soho. We had to weather the exodus and it took a while to regrow, but we’re here for the long term. The beauty of Soho is that it will always be an interesting place. We want to bring something to the area, not take it out.”

And Soho remains a constant inspiration. “I still cut hair at every opportunity. It’s what I love. And there’s an arsenal of knowledge in everything I do. Now, it seems like everyone wants to be a barber, but it takes so much more than twelve weeks of training. Behind the technique, barbering draws in culture, film, fashion, history, street style. Soho has all these things.”

“It takes more than twelve weeks” could be Joe and Co.’s mantra. Step through the door and the salon is simple and functional in the best way. But behind each cut there are decades of history populated by gangsters, ladies of the night and latter-day matinée idols. Stories to tell the grandkids for most of us. For Soho’s finest men’s stylist? A day’s work.

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.”



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.