Sunday, 13 March 2011

Wardour Street

Wardour Street
Terry had not long turned seventeen, and was happy and excited about the job he had just taken, as a messenger boy at a company called T. V. Advertising Ltd., in Wardour Street, where he was being paid the princely sum of £3.50 per week. Doesn't sound much, but this was about the going rate for 1957.

During this period in time, music, known as skiffle was then sweeping Britain, it was a cross between American folk music, and rock n' roll. The main exponent of skiffle in Britain was a singer named Lonnie Donegan, and the good thing about skiffle was that almost anyone could take part in it. The main instruments were a double base, usually made from an old tea-chest, with a broom handle to control its one single string, a washboard which was played with thimbles on one's fingers, and the most expensive instrument, being an acoustic guitar, a mouth organ was optional.

Terry formed his own skiffle group with colleagues from work, calling themselves 'The Worried Men' after a very popular skiffle song, 'Worried Man Blues'. If nothing else, Terry was certainly a hard worker, and within no time he had found his group gigs in all the local Soho expresso coffee bars, including, The Cat's Whiskers, Orlando's, Mars, The Skiffle Cellar and of course the famous Two Is, where they eventually became resident.
The top television programme of the day for young people was the "Six-Five Special" which was produced by Jack Good and had a reputation for originality. Good decided to broadcast one of the shows direct from the Two Is Coffee Bar, where Terry and his group, The Worried Men, opened and closed the programme.

Jack Good was very impressed with Terry's performance but was not convinced about the group as a whole, so he invited him back on the show as a solo singer. Good was convinced of Terry's potential, with a voice like Buddy Holly, and the looks of James Dean, he was sure he had a star in the making.

Terry had by this time, progressed from being a messenger boy, to becoming a film cutter, which was quite a prestigious job for someone his age, but the thought of becoming a pop star made him immediately give up his job as a film cutter and turn professional. Jack Good secured a recording contract with HMV Records for Terry on the strength of the TV appearance, and also helped him choose his new stage name; Terry Nelhams, he said, wasn't exactly the sort of name to set teenage girl's hearts quivering with delight. What about Adam Faith?

Wardour Street had lost Terry Nelhams, film technician, but the world had gained Adam Faith, international pop star, and later, film and television star.

For many years, Wardour Street has been known as the centre of the British film industry. But it was a Frenchman, Charles Pathé, who initiated the start of film and television production from this street. Charles and his brothers, Émile, Théophile and Jacques, had originally started their company, known as Société Pathé Frères in Paris, France on September 28th 1896. Pathé became the largest film equipment and production company in the world as well as a major producer of gramophone records.

The Pathé Company moved to Britain in the early 1900s and set up home, as Associated British-Pathé at 142 Wardour Street. They were the first company in Britain to produce a regular newsreel for cinemas in June 1910. The newsreel was called the Pathé Gazette, and along with other newsreels from rivals Gaumont, and British Movietone, ran through until the mid-1950s, when television news took away their purpose and audience. By 1970, television had improved and spread to almost every home in Britain. This spelt the end for newsreels and both Pathé and Movietone stopped production.

Just a few doors away from another of Pathé News' offices in Wardour Street, was where the entrepreneur Charles Urban promoted Kinemacolor from number 82 Wardour Street. The first colour movies were produced towards the end of the nineteenth century by teams of young women, who meticulously painted every single frame of black and white film.

Urban pioneered the first successful process for shooting and projecting actual colour film, which he called the Kinemacolor process. In the Kinemacolor process, film ran through both the camera and projector at 32 frames a second, double the normal rate for black and white film. A spinning wheel with two coloured filters meant that alternate frames shot and projected the red to yellow and the green to blue parts of the spectrum. Urban's first Kinemacolor film was shown in public on the 26th February 1909.

When the Technicolor film process was invented in 1917, and the first film using an early version of this was released, it received great reviews, and was even given a standing ovation in one London cinema. Needless to say the superior Technicolor process eventually killed off Kinemacolor, but the name of Charles Urban lives on in the history of Wardour Street and cinematography.

There was a time, not too long ago, when you could not walk down Wardour Street without bumping into film stars such as Michael Caine, Peter Sellers, or Roger Moore, and directors such as Michael Winner, Ken Russell, Mike Leigh, or Peter Greenaway. The names above the doors proclaimed such film companies as J Arthur Rank, EMI Films, Hammer Film Productions, which later became Hammer House of Horror, Scala Productions, Carisbrooke Films, and Handmade Films.

By the start of the 1970s however, the British film industry had started to feel the pinch. Big Hollywood movies were becoming the order of the day, and the small British films seemed to be fading fast.

In 1978 Lord Delfont, who was the chairman of EMI Films, had backed a typical British film, called "Life of Brian". The film was the brainchild of the Monty Python team, who had also invested a great deal of their own money in it, as well as starring in it. But at the last minute, Lord Delfont got cold feet about the subject matter, and pulled out just days before shooting was due to start. The Monty Python team was devastated, and faced the prospect of writing off what was already a considerable investment.

Finding another backer at such short notice was not going to be exactly an easy task, and the team started searching high and low for such a person, without much success, until Eric Idle suddenly remembered someone he had recently been introduced to as a party, who had shown a considerable liking to a parody of the Beatles, which the Python team had produced, entitled "The Rutles". The person in question was former Beatle George Harrison. Idle came straight to the point and asked Harrison outright if he would be interested in bailing out the film. Harrison read the script the following day, loved it immediately, and agreed to help. He then formed Handmade Films with his business manager Denis O'Brien in order to produce it. The film was an enormous success, and Handmade Films was born.

Although Handmade was formed originally to produce that one film, they soon found themselves becoming involved with another salvage operation. This time it was with the gangster movie, "The Long Good Friday" which had already been completed, but its production company Black Lion Films, which was owned by Lew Grade, Lord Delfont's brother, was nervous about its prospects, due to the level of violence and a key subplot involving the IRA. After some negotiations Handmade agreed to buy the rights for £700,000, and released the film in its originally intended form. The film proved to be another critical hit for the company, though not quite producing the commercial triumph of Life of Brian, it still helped to establish Handmade and George Harrison, as major players in the British film industry.

The bulk of the financial and business decisions were left to Harrison's partner, Denis O'Brien, whilst Harrison was involved in some creative decisions. This eventually resulted in disagreements and lawsuits between the pair as Handmade Films started feeling a reversal in their fortunes.

Harrison once said, "As a musician I've been the person who's said of the people with the money, 'What do they know?' and now I'm that person. But I know that unless you give an artist as much freedom as possible, there's no point in using that artist."

George Harrison sold Handmade Films in 1994, and returned to his roots, which were strictly entrenched in music.

In one-way or another, Wardour Street seems to be inextricably bound with music and film. From film technicians turning to music, to one of the most famous pop stars in the world, turning to film.

Hailed as Britain's most famous and undeniably important jazz and rhythm & blues venue, the Marquee Club, first opened its doors on April 19th 1958 at 165 Oxford Street, London. Legends such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Alexis Korner, and Howlin' Wolf, all played there regularly.

On March 13th 1964 the club relocated to its most famous location in London's Soho at 90 Wardour Street. The music scene was changing, and jazz was being replaced by rhythm & blues, which in turn was gradually being overtaken by pop and rock music. A whole new generation of British musicians was starting to emerge, bands, such as the Rolling Stones, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds, and the Animals found fame on the small stage at the Marquee.

Nothing however, prepared the club or the music world, for what was to happen on the night of Thursday, 24th January 1967, when a relatively unknown trio, were booked to perform there. The trio, were called the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and as far as the management of the club were concerned, they were unknown, but when the club opened its doors that night, there was a queue of 1,400 people already waiting to get in, stretching from Wardour to Shaftesbury Avenue all the way to Cambridge Circus.

No advertising had been done; this was simply by word of mouth. It seemed that every guitarist in the country had heard about the wonders of this American guitarist, and was there to witness it for themselves, from Eric Clapton, to the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck and even the Beatles, to name just a few, they were all there.

There is no other street in Great Britain that can boast such a distinguished crowd of musicians and rock stars to have trod its pavements as Wardour Street can. The Marquee helped give birth to many of these stars, such as Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Cream, Pink Floyd, Manfred Mann, the Who, The Nice, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Genesis, Moody Blues, and many others.

Number 90 Wardour Street, where the famous Marquee Club once stood, is now a part of the popular Floridita Restaurant and Bar, which also has a cigar retail shop and cigar lounge, and is one of the only public indoor venues in the UK, where smoking is still allowed.

Walking away from the site that is now the Floridita, in the direction of Piccadilly, brings you eventually to number 33 Wardour Street, where there now stands an O'Neills Pub. From its relatively small and unimpressive doorway, it is difficult to believe that this was once the site of the famous Flamingo Club, which was of equal importance on the 1960s music scene, as the Marquee Club was.

The Flamingo attracted so many of the greats from that period, sometimes as performers, other times just as customers, mingling with the all night crowd and watching the live performances on stage. Names such as Ella Fitzgerald; Billie Holiday; Judy Garland; Adelaide Hall; Cissy Houston; The Modern Jazz Quartet; Woody Herman; Illinois Jacquet; Billy Eckstine; Frankie Laine; Billy Daniels; Mary Lou Williams; Thelma Carpenter; Garland Wilson; Dudley Moore; George Shearing. Even Lord Spencer Churchill and his High Society friends used to drop in on occasions. Many of these famous names would have probably been served by a young man behind the bar, named Andrew Loog Oldham, who some years later, went on to manage both the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithful.

Jeff Kruger was the owner of the Flamingo, but the name that attracted everyone to the club, was Rik Gunnell, the German born entrepreneur who leased the club from Kruger on Friday and Saturday nights, and launched the famous Flamingo All-Nighters. Rik's brother, John, booked the bands, whilst Rick became the face of the Flamingo.

Rik Gunnell was a born showman and fighter, who had taken up boxing at the age of 15. He fought as an amateur, and won 15 out of his 20 fights. His father was a friend of the famous German heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling, who Rik alleged was his godfather. His first involvement in the club scene was as a bouncer at another famous Soho jazz club, called Studio 51. He conducted business in much the same manner as he lived his life, trusting people, and being what some saw as too generous and foolhardy. He once had the chance of managing the Rolling Stones, but lost out to his barman, Andrew Loog Oldham. Another unwise decision saw him turn his back on the Kinks, refusing to let them play at the club.

Rik liked nothing better than to play host at the bar of his club, mixing and chatting with his celebrity guests, such as Judy Garland, and even society call girl, Christine Keeler. One night in October 1962, Lucky Gordon, who was one of Keeler's boyfriends, visited the club, and bumped into Johnny Edgcombe, who was a rival for Ms Keeler's affections. The two men started arguing and it soon developed into a vicious knife fight, which ended with Edgecombe seriously slashing Gordon's face. No one knew, least of all the two protagonists, but the fight started a slow-burning fuse that eventually caused the explosion that became the most infamous political scandal of the twentieth century, which has been covered elsewhere in this book.

Friends of Rik Gunnell constantly warned him to choose whom he mixed with more carefully, but Rik was his own man, and did not like being told what to do. Most of all he was one of those rare characters, that helped make Soho what it is today. The Flamingo attracted many African-American servicemen that were then based in Britain, as well as a smattering of underworld characters and villains. This in turn drew adverse attention from the press, with certain newspapers claiming that drugs and prostitution were rife at the club.

In his usual nonchalant way, Rick brushed the allegations to one side, and even furthered his career more by forming a management and booking agency with his brother John. They handled Georgie Fame, Chris Farlowe, John Mayall, Geno Washington, Zoot Money, P.J Proby and others.

By 1966 when his top artist, Georgie Fame, was topping the charts, and Rik was a very rich man, he would still wander up to the door of the Flamingo, and do what he did best, by acting the part of the tout, pulling the customers in with one hand, whilst comforting a large whisky-and-coke in his other hand.

The Flamingo Club closed in 1967. Rik took over the Bag O'Nails in nearby Kingly Street, and from there moved to New York for a while. But being a small fish in a big pond wasn't to Rik's liking, and in 1972 after periods in Vietnam and Australia he eventually moved to Austria where he opened a small bar in Kitzbühel. Rik Gunnell died, aged 76 on June 3rd 2007.

Soho is made up of legends such as Rik Gunnell; they come and they go, and whilst here, they enhance Soho for a while. Wardour Street in particular, has had more than its fair share of legends in one form or another, especially in the music and film business, but although these people helped to enhance the street, there were others, some long forgotten, who helped make it to begin with.

In 1585, the area was all open countryside, with a lane, called Commonhedge Lane running through it, in roughly the location as where Wardour Street lies today. In or about 1680, Edward Wardour owned much of the land around the northern end of the street, and starting building houses there. It was natural, at that time, to then call the street after the name of the person who first built upon it, hence the street became Wardour Street.

At the southern end of Wardour Street, lies the main entrance of St. Anne's Church, which was designed and built by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant William Talman, and has been a place of worship, since Bishop Henry Compton consecrated the original Church in 1686. The Church was dedicated to St. Anne because Bishop Henry Compton had been tutor to Princess Anne, who later became Queen Anne.

St. Anne's, founded a Parish School for boys, in 1699, and education was provided free of charge. In 1704 the School became mixed, opening its doors to girls as well as boys. The Parish School remains, to this day, a thriving part of the Soho community. From the time of its consecration, St. Anne's, became well known for its choir, known as its Singing Boys, and the superior quality of its music, which just might have paved the way for the ongoing association with music that Wardour Street has endured to this modern day.

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