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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.

The Smoking Guns

The Smoking Guns


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan

 

“We started something together that we were wholly in control of – it was the beginning of a new adventure.”

A transatlantic duo blazing their way through Soho’s music venues, clubs and bars, spinning Northern Soul, 60s rhythm & blues and old school rock-n-roll, Iraina Mancini and Samantha Michelle are an unlikely success story in an often male-dominated world. I talked to them about how The Smoking Guns got started, their Soho roots and the reasons behind their DJ venture.

Growing up in West London, Iraina Mancini has spent her life in the company of music. “My Dad was in a band with David Bowie,” she explains, “so I’ve always had something of a musical upbringing. He raised me on soul, and its been ingrained in me since I was a kid.” When she was just 18 she approached a band after a gig, telling them that their singer wasn’t the best and that she would make a better vocalist for the group. “I think I was very confident in those days for an 18 year old girl,” she says. “They turned around and invited me in for an audition. After that, I started a band called Mancini and toured around for a number of years, made an album and went on the road. I’ve been doing music ever since. As I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve become more of a songwriter for other artists. At the moment I’m recording an EP.”

Samantha Michelle, the other half of the duo, grew up in Toronto, spending much of her youth in Canada and the US, eventually settling in New York for sometime before moving to London. “Mine and Irania’s upbringings are polar opposites,” says Sam. “I didn’t grow up in a musical household at all. My father is a businessman, and my mother is a doctor. A creative life as an artist or musician was definitely not something that my family expected of me – it wasn’t a viable option. As a kid, I was always very artistically inclined. I would often paint, and I was a competitive dancer, but these were merely hobbies. I didn’t like the options that were presented to me in the world that I grew up in, so I wanted to build a new life for myself. The gateway into that for me was university. I worked hard to get into a good school, eventually studying in New York. My whole world became an incredibly different place for me as I explored the nightlife of the city, which had a strong influence over my taste in music. I felt like some of the music I was listening to was part of some kind of unspoken tribe. When I moved to London, I was instantly fascinated. It’s strange for me really, as I have no ties to the place at all, yet I’ve adopted it as my home.”

Sam and Iraina first met in Soho nearly five years ago at Dean Street’s Groucho Club. They quickly became friends, and their friendship became centred on their careers, with both of them working as actresses and DJing separately. One evening they discussed the possibility of starting their own project together. With their combined love of soul, rock and roll, and the music of the 60s and 70s, the two of them decided to pool their talents, forming The Smoking Guns late last year. “We thought maybe we could do something that we could be in control of, something fun,” says Iraina, “so we decided to DJ together. We made a pact: this time next year we’ll have really made this thing take off.”

“We were so fearless, and we believed in ourselves wholeheartedly,” says Sam. “In life, shit doesn’t go your way for whatever reason. At first it builds this distrust and lack of faith in yourself, and then something comes to you to make you realise your true potential. So together Iraina and I turned a new leaf – we started something together that we were wholly in control of. It was the beginning of a new adventure. We wanted to get to a point in our lives of primitive artistic pursuit.” And so The Smoking Guns was born. Once they’d decided to work together, Iraina and Sam wasted no time: in fact, they managed to land their first booking within five minutes. With their easy and approachable manner, perhaps it’s no surprise that the two quickly began to work with dozens of venues, particularly around Soho; and given their taste in music, The Smoking Guns carved out their own specialised niche. A female duo spinning Northern Soul, 60s rhythm & blues and old school rock-n-roll? Unheard of!

What might have been seen as a handicap in a musical scene that’s always been heavily male-dominated actually proved pivotal to their success, helping them to begin working alongside some of the most exclusive nightspots in the Soho neighbourhood, such as The Groucho Club, Soho House and Lights of Soho, with a number of weekly residencies all over London. “We were very lucky that we already had a core group of people that we’d already worked with in the past, so we had a good starting point. So much of my life has been spent here on the streets of the neighbourhood. It’s an incredibly important place to me. Its a personal experience, DJing for people we’ve grown up around and who are part of our lives,” says Iraina. “At the start, many of the people that we began working with or being booked by were people we already knew pretty well – it was a success on the back of our connection to Soho. The neighbourhood is dear to our hearts, and The Smoking Guns is a lovechild of Soho!”

What Sam and Iraina have created is refreshing and original, a shot in the arm for a music scene that has been losing some of its momentum in recent years. In just over 12 months, their friendship has blossomed into a successful musical collaboration covering all corners of Soho. Standing tall in their Joshua Kane bespoke men’s suits they give off an image of confidence and beauty that defies both expectations and odds, even in an ever changing and diversifying neighbourhood. The Smoking Guns have already begun to gain a strong following, creating a positive and uplifting atmosphere that echoes the neighbourhood’s yesteryear: crowds revel in the basement of Lights of Soho to the sounds of Bob Dylan and the Small Faces, while at the Groucho they scream with joy to the sound of The Doors and The Rolling Stones. Perhaps these two talented young ladies were destined to meet and combine to spread their musical message. As they continue to go from strength to strength, Sam and Iraina are two young guns to watch closely.

A Soho Office

A Soho Office


Words Griff Rhys Jones

Photography Archives


Some time ago, in the very early Eighties, Melvyn Kenneth Smith and I decided to go into business together. We had no idea what we were doing. Or what business to go into. We liked the idea of an office. Not the Nine O’Clock News had, I think, an audience of 18 million in one set of repeats. It was a pop phenomenon, like being a band. We were certainly arrogant, opinionated and ignorant enough to assume we could run anything. Mel and I had been producers and directors before we became performers. We were plucked from those jobs to do our party pieces on TV. This was our affinity. It bound us together. The late Harry Thompson paid us the compliment of saying, later, “you were the only ones who weren’t c*nts in the entire operation.” But then he didn’t really know us.

We were also pragmatic. I started producing commercials for the Not spin-off of records and tapes (this was before DVD). We decided we might make more, so we decided to make radio productions and we called it “Talkback”. We were starting a sketch show of our own sometime in 1982, working in the old Television Centre (the one they recently sold). The nearest place for lunch apart from a dispiriting staff canteen full of men with pints of beer was half way back to Notting Hill.

It was a round building. Once, trying to find a cup of coffee, I walked around three times before I realised it was a circle. The hutches faced out onto the central atrium. The only view out of the window was other offices full of people working. It didn’t inspire. I wanted to get back to the West End. I craved the glamour of a pub. Friends from university had a theatre promotions business with an office in the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. I suspect they needed to offset the costs so they gave us a desk and we started making commercials and pieces for Soho-based companies like Saatchi and Saatchi. After a while and a couple of jobs we moved and settled into Brewer Street.

I probably still walk past the entrance to that office every week or so. It was on the north side, down the Aquascutum end, opposite the Stone Island shop where I sometimes buy Italian football supporter’s clothing to wear on TV shows. But which walk-up was it? I can’t recall. I have forgotten to even try to remember. We took two rooms or maybe more. People joined us to write commercials. Vicki my old secretary left the BBC. We pitched to agencies and recorded in Angel Sound or sometimes on the barge in Little Venice that belonged to Richard Branson.

It was up there, on the canal, we recorded about six scripts I had written for Tim Delaney of Leagas Delaney. We were busy so we had to suggest to Tim that he joined us at around 11 at night while we “knocked ideas around”. One was a simple but alarmingly racist shop sketch. I offered the customer, Mel, who wanted a Japanese “videocaster” a “Phirrips”. Like most successful commercials it was popular with advertising people so it won a lot of awards.

But here we were in Soho. We went out to eat in Greek restaurants and could take walks peering into shops. This was before the Groucho Club had been invented. We went to basement dives called “the Marie Lloyd” to get drinks when the pubs closed. You could buy smoked eels at Hamburger Products down the other end of Brewer Street. It wasn’t White City. There were strip clubs all over the shop then, instead of just corralled down the corner of Brewer and Wardour. Meard Street was still shit street. Late at night, it was possible to walk your mother through there, trying to get to some restaurant or other, and find yourself passing several blokes pissing in the gutter and another getting a knee-trembler in the shadows. (Mothers are more experienced in life than you think though.) The French Pub was a stand-up, fall-down boozer rather than a fascinating part-gourmet eatery. The inmates turned to stare if a stranger had the temerity to march himself in. You had to sidle up to the bar.

We had a Soho philosophy. You needed nothing more than a tea chest, a cardboard box to sit on and a phone. Make money and you took home a share. It generally worked. Not everybody paid us. Our manager, PBJ, pointed out that our first big contract was not paid, six months after the job was done. I went and sat in the office of a major advertising company until I got a cheque off the boss, a now world famous PR Lord. I was pretty drunk. That seemed to help. But we moved. When? I don’t know. We went to Berwick Street. We got some sort of pokey offices out of a deal with Warner Brothers. I know we were in that street, because I recall I was once waiting for Mel. We were supposed to be back in White City, but he hadn’t shown up so I decided to get in the cab and go without him. The cabbie said he knew my voice from somewhere. “You’re Jeremy Pascal, off the radio aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Well you sound just like him.”

We drove off, turned right towards Oxford Street and passed the underground car park there. The cabbie said, “Look, look there! There’s that Mel Smith off the telly coming out of the car park.”  Mel was coming out. The cabbie was clearly in awe.

I pulled down the window. “Oi! Mel!!”

The cabbie was horrified. “Don’t shout at him. They don’t like it.”

“Get in the sodding car!”

Mel got in. The cabbie shut up.

But which order did this happen in? I don’t know. I remember I got my dad’s dog run over in Soho Square. Not something you want to do. I let him off his lead to run about a bit by the half-timbered hut and he chased a pigeon into the street. It was the squealing after he got hit that was the bother. Everybody looked at me like I was a murderer. The dog survived. It got its leg in plaster from a Soho vet somewhere. By that stage, we had first floor offices directly on the corner with Greek Street – big and airy rooms, with oblong-paned Crittal windows (now replaced by an ugly bank building), overlooking the dog-desecrating square. I went up to Star Warehouse in the old railway stables at the back of the Camden market and bought a pinball machine, a pool table and an orange jukebox. We believed they were essential to creativity. They went with us on yet another move to Carnaby Street. (Or was it the other way around? I remember the toys, but not the order of moves.)

The Soho Square offices had their charms. We were once taken up to the top floor where there was a beautiful darkened flat completely panelled out in shinny yellow satinwood that had belonged to Gracie Fields. But, ah, the joy of those Carnaby narrow 17th century rooms, poky stairs and clapboarded dados. Too many of the eighties edit houses and post-production facilities were squeezed into unsuitable 18th century listed houses with netted fire doors, glass partitions and grim noticeboards, but our place remained a house, with fireplaces in every room. We were always above a shop. Carnaby Street went on up into the roof. At a party crowding up the stairs, I watched a Harbottle’s lawyer patronise an anonymous-looking man about his music. “We sometimes represent groups. What’s yours called?”

“Pink Floyd.”

Carnaby Street was pedestrianised, like now, but in a yellow and black zigzag plastic. We kept taxis permanently hovering at one end or the other, waiting to take artistes to important lunches. Gradually the pool table and the pinball machines went. There was no room for creativity. They were replaced with desks. The company was doing all right. Nobody hung out and played very much any more. Mel had the orange, Sixties bubble jukebox transported off to his place. It was mine. I paid for it. But I didn’t say anything. He’s dead now and it sits in his empty Abbey Road house. I might try to get it back. It has pictures of the two of us wearing Greek costumes under its perspex lid. I don’t remember why the Greek costumes, or the silver boingers on our heads. Those should date it, but there is now no record of that headgear craze. It was around that time we decided to move to Percy Street in Fitzrovia. This was a big place. We even had the shop, with an old plate glass window looking on to the reception area decorated with pictures bought from Rebecca Hossack around the corner. That was the end of Soho for us. When was this? God knows. Must have been the end of the Eighties. It was in many ways.

 

Oliver Spencer

Oliver Spencer


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“I wanted to open on Berwick Street. I really believed it was the high street of the neighbourhood.”

Farringdon, Portobello, Lambeth: familiar names of London districts, but also those of a range of garments designed by Oliver Spencer, whose clothes, full of stylish accents and practical details, have earned a reputation for distinction, comfort and sheer cool. Designing and making handcrafted garments for modern men and women, Bloomsbury-based Spencer has produced his own individual take on relaxed British style, and a special relationship with the Soho neighbourhood stretching back to his youth.

Having grown up in Coventry, Oli first moved to London in the early 1990s to study art. Frustrated by the limitations of art school, he abandoned his studies and enrolled in what he describes as the University of Life, selling second-hand clothes from a stall at Portobello Market. “Lots of things happened which I would describe as being pivotal in framing where my life would go next. I learnt lots of lessons – some good and some bad,” he says. He woke up at 4.30am every day so he could get his pitch, and it was there on the market stall that his relationship with clothes really began, giving him with an enduring love of the product and a passion for shopkeeping.

Oli spent a decade creating and expanding his first venture, formalwear brand Favourbrook, during which time he designed waistcoats for the 1994 film Four Weddings And A Funeral and began to establish his place on London’s design map. Eight years later, he wanted to embark on a new venture with even greater ambitions – success on the global scene. His plan was to produce a range of clothing that combined the quality and craft of traditional tailoring with a more relaxed modern style. His philosophy: quality needn’t mean formality; casual needn’t mean careless. “I have a feeling towards clothing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressing up or dressing down – it’s involved in every step of my life in any case,” he says. “When my customers purchase something from us, I want them to feel a sense of belonging – as if they’ve bought something that’s like their best friend… something they’ve owned forever. Every season, I strive to get there. I want to create clothes that talk to people. Most of my customers like to be seen but not heard – that’s why I don’t brand my stuff.” The Oliver Spencer label was born in 2002, and its founder’s philosophy soon found a number of adherents in the heart of Bloomsbury and beyond. Oli’s arrival in Bloomsbury came about through friend and founder of Folk Clothing, Glaswegian fashion designer Cathal McAteer. The Oliver Spencer brand first came to Lambs Conduit Street in 2007, and Oli’s store at No 62 is home to the latest collection each season, with the original surviving shop fittings making for an immaculately dressed setting.

Since launching on Lambs Conduit Street, Oliver Spencer has continued to expand across London, opening shops in Shoreditch and Soho – an area that’s been important in Oli’s own life since 1989. “I first came here with an ex-girlfriend of mine who was a couple of years older than me. At this point, I was already into fashion. It was the middle of the summer, and I was wearing an old second-hand two-piece check suit with sandals – aged 18. I remember getting some strange looks! People could see I definitely wasn’t from the area,” he says. “My relationship with Soho has always been that of a stranger really. It’s always held this awe for me – I’ve always been a bit scared of it to be honest. When I was a kid at art school, Soho was this tricky place. It felt so grown up, with so much going on all around. To a young kid, it was a bit intimidating. It was full of many different tribes, and not everybody was necessarily nice, especially if you were an outsider coming here. Everywhere you turned, there were dark streets and characters lurking. Since then, my fear has turned into a fascination. On a Friday evening, I know if I get here after 9pm, I won’t be home until at least 3am. Its an absolute vortex.” After opening his Bloomsbury stores, Oli had always planned for Soho to be his next destination. “I knew exactly where I wanted to open: I wanted to open on Berwick Street. I really believed it was the high street of the neighbourhood. It was the first store we opened where the tills began to ring from the very first day… if the shoe fits, as they say.”

Oli is uncompromising in the standards he sets for production and provenance, sourcing the finest fabrics and yarns from artisanal British and Italian mills. He prides himself on producing his garments in only the best European factories and workshops, with around 40 per cent of the collection made here in London or elsewhere in England. Despite the emphasis on British quality, Oliver Spencer’s eye is firmly fixed on the global market. Today, his clothes are stocked in many of the world’s leading department stores, from Selfridges to Liberty of London, and he has opened shops in Toronto and Paris, as well as developing a profitable international online business. With wearers of his brand including Daniel Craig, Tinie Tempah, Alex James and Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, Oli confesses that his next ambition is to become a household name.

 

Raymond Revuebar

Raymond Revuebar


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Getty Images/Hulton Archive


Behind its ever-changing façade, Soho’s streets still hold secrets; dig beneath the surface and you can find yourself transported back to a different time. Make your way through the daytime crowds of Berwick Street, head towards the seedy Walkers Court, and stick around until nightfall, when the infamous doors to The Box Soho are open wide. Step inside this relic of Soho’s not-so-distant past and you’re in what was once the Doric Ballroom, which in turn became the setting of the Raymond Revuebar, perhaps Paul Raymond’s most famous legacy to the neighbourhood he reigned over for so many years.

It’s a legacy that still haunts the streets of Soho today. As evening revellers pass along Brewer Street, most don’t look up to see the neon beacon of the Raymond Revuebar that still glows above their heads. But, in spirit at least, the centre of Raymond’s empire of erotic entertainment, sex, publishing and property lives on. Despite the change of name and ownership, The Box Soho remains true to the Raymond Revuebar’s legacy, serving up nightly helpings of titillation, nudity and sex. Paul Raymond pioneered Soho strip clubs and the soft-porn magazine trade and prospered for more than 40 years; it was perhaps an unexpected ascendency for an entrepreneur who started out as a wartime spiv selling black market nylons from a market stall.

Paul Raymond was a stage name he chose early in his career, but he began life as Geoffrey Anthony Quinn, born in 1925 into a working class, Roman Catholic family in Liverpool. His mother wanted him to have a sound job, something steady and respectable, like a railway ticket office clerk, and she never fully accepted his more risqué chosen career.

Despite his success and confidence in later life, Raymond was a shy youngster who often stammered. If his childhood taught him anything, it was the need to establish his independence, something that ultimately defined his character. He left school at 15, working at the Manchester Ship Canal as an office boy. After a stint in the RAF, he embarked on a rather different life. He purchased a mind-reading act for £25, billing himself as a clairvoyant, and in Liverpool became a theatrical agent and impresario. The manager of one theatre told Raymond that he would book his act – but there was a catch. Raymond’s two female colleagues would only be allowed on stage if they appeared entirely nude. He offered the two girls an extra 10 shillings a week and they agreed. At this point, the law stated that nudity was permitted in a theatre providing women didn’t move whilst onstage. Finding away around this obstruction became something of a creative challenge: by putting the girls on a rotating platform, Raymond found a way to make his early shows a success. This set him on a path through a changing Britain – one that led him to Soho and made him one of the richest men in the country.

Raymond saw that the Lord Chamberlain’s restrictions surrounding on-stage nudity could be simply bypassed by turning public theatres into private clubs. In 1958 the old Doric Ballroom at 12 Walker’s Court, Soho, reopened as the Raymond Revuebar, hosting an array of explicit daily shows. At the time, this was one of very few legal venues in London offering full-frontal nudity. Though homosexual acts between men were illegal at this time, the Revuebar also operated a Sunday night show targeted at a gay audience. The success of the club was inevitably controversial, and in 1961 the chairman of the London Sessions called the show “filthy, disgusting and beastly”, and fined Raymond £5,000. It might have been a setback, but it also provided publicity for the shows worth many times this amount. By the late 1960s, the Revuebar was solely hosting striptease performances. This in turn made way for big-budget erotic shows of the type presented by Continental clubs such as the Crazy Horse. Performances involved a mixture of solo striptease acts mixed with simulated boy/girl and girl/girl on-stage sex. Known The Festival of Erotica, the show ran for many years, often with three performances a night.

By this time, Raymond had become a British institution. His realisation that the naked female body could deliver far bigger box office once it was relocated from Soho’s seedy cellars to the world of the theatre was the key to his success. Taking over the Whitehall and the Windmill theatres, his stage holdings grew, while his formula of providing nudity without actionable crudity was also applied to print publications like Men Only, Mayfair and Escort. Raymond’s wealth and empire begun to spread throughout Soho: he purchased freeholds of buildings throughout the neighbourhood, and created Soho Estates, amassing around 400 properties in the Soho area and becoming a commercial giant that dwarfed other theatre managements.

With competition from the wave of table dancing clubs that opened during the 1990s, audience numbers for traditional striptease shows were dwindling, and by 1997 Raymond sold the Revuebar to former Marseilles Ballet dancer Gerard Simi. The Revuebar hung on for a few more years, eventually closing in 2004. After the death of his daughter Debbie in 1992, Raymond stepped out of the media limelight and began to loosen his connections with the organisation he had built. A recluse in his last years, he died of respiratory failure, aged 82, in 2008, his granddaughters Fawn and India inheriting an estate estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.

You can recapture something of the glory days of Paul Raymond’s Soho in a new exhibition from Getty Images Gallery, which unearths rare photos of Soho’s past, and particularly of its nightlife and entertainment venues. The Raymond Revuebar, of course, is one of the exhibition’s focal points. Running until November 19th, the exhibition will be a trip down memory lane for some and an eye-opener for many others, juxtaposing the neighbourhood’s seedy roots with everyday Soho-ites through a series of beautiful photographs carefully selected from Getty Images’ vast historical archives – from David Bowie at The Marquee Club, jazz greats at Ronnie Scott’s and stunning images of Soho’s nightlife.

 

Filson

Filson


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“There’s an endless amount of inspiration within the Filson brand given that we’re over a century old…”

Filson is a brand that was born out of necessity: it arrived in the right place and at the right time, and with a sense of purpose that has kept it on course ever since.

Thousands of fortune hunters were stampeding through Seattle, heading north. Born in 1850 and inheriting his fathers pioneer spirit and love of the great outdoors, CC Filson was armed with a strong work ethic, a reputation for honesty and several years’ experience operating a small loggers’ outfitting store. He knew that quality was of vital importance and that the only thing good enough was the very best. It was said that if a man was heading north, he should come to Filson for his outfit.

The rugged quality of Filson products has been setting the standard for American outdoor apparel for over 100 years, as creative director Alex Carleton is well aware: he was a Filson customer before he even came on board the brand, growing up in New England with a love for the outdoors. “I was familiar with the products and always intrigued by the world they came from. I wanted to help reveal a lot of the untold stories that existed. I’ve always gravitated towards American companies that played in the arena of tradition and outdoor recreation. Filson is the perfect combination of both,” he says.

As creative director, Alex is a firm believer in working with what’s there and maintaining a connection with the company’s origins, purpose and sense of place. “I’m a creative, I don’t really feel comfortable working in a vacuum. It’s not my style. There’s an endless amount of inspiration within the Filson brand given that we’re over a century old. I’m cautious about not letting our narrative stretch too far away from where we are and where we come from. It’s really easy to keep close to the core when you love it,” he says.

As Alex explains, a book could easily be written about the story of Filson. Producing unfailingly reliable gear for outdoor work, the company’s golden age lasted for decades, with Filson kitting out the innumerable men heading north in the hope of making their fortunes. “The Cliff Notes go like this: CC Filson was a pioneer who, by way of Nebraska, landed in Seattle at the end of the 19th century. He and his brother opened what would be a modern day equivalent of a hardware shop in Pioneer Square. When gold was discovered in the Klondike, being the entrepreneur he was, CC targeted prospectors as his customers and outfitted them for the insanely harsh weather of the north. Filson is the original Alaska outfitter.” Come the 20th century, the brand introduced outdoor sporting goods oriented toward those quintessentially American pastimes of hunting and fishing. Today, Filson see themselves as offering a unique blend of products for both work and recreation – and not just in the wild northlands of the USA.

If London is the gateway to Europe, then Soho is the gateway to London, and Newburgh Street was where the brand came to open its first retail outlet outside of the US. “We opened our first store at 9 Newburgh Street in April 2013, and then our second store at 13 Newburgh Street in December 2015,” Alex explains. “At number 9, you’ll find our luggage, bags and accessories, and at number 13 our clothing, such as our famous Mackinaw jackets, cruisers and shirts.” Their Soho stores have managed to integrate into the surrounding neighbourhood in the same way that their US stores have done. It’s about establishing a feel for the environment and getting to know the local area and work with it. “Soho has a sense of adventure and discovery, and we definitely share those values,” he says, “We host an array of events that give us the opportunity to bring a slice of the Pacific Northwest to life, from Whiskey and Wax, where we will show you how to wax your jacket, to events hosted by people that live the Filson life, such as wild chefs and foragers.”

Over the decades, Filson has both maintained what works and continued to innovate. It’s interesting that while so many heritage brands have changed, and in the process lost themselves, Filson has concentrated on delivering what they always have: a guarantee of quality and a focus on making products geared for the wild. In the future, just as in the past, Filson will continue to serve those customers who demand the very best high quality apparel for outdoor pursuits, and the brand’s presence in Soho – bringing a taste of the far north to central London – will undoubtedly grow. “We shall continue to innovate our product offerings and foster that same entrepreneurial spirit that CC Filson had. We’ll continue to mine our archives and share our adventure stories while creating new ones today,” says Alex.