In one of the unmarked cardboard boxes from my parents’ house I found a cast photo. The handwriting on the back tells me it is from ‘Turn It Up’, a stage revue which played at Unity Theatre in Islington in the early 1950s. There’s my dad standing in the front row in costume wearing a false moustache. The set designer, my mum, cowers in the back row, always quite camera shy. And at the front, dead centre stands the writer of the show, his enormous grin telling the world ‘I did this!’ You can’t miss him.
I’m sure I am not alone in getting a slight shiver when first encountering an old family photo. Perhaps it’s the sensation of seeing familiar people in unfamiliar situations, frozen in time decades before. This one is a professionally taken pin-sharp group shot that tells me how, even though it was an amateur set-up, Unity Theatre approached everything with the dedication and skill of a major repertory company.
Founded in 1936, Unity is something of a footnote in the history of modern performance. Long before the days of political fringe theatre it was introducing new radical writers to British audiences, many of whom we now regard as on a par with Ibsen or Chekov. It’s thanks to Unity that British theatre goers first discovered the plays of Bertholt Brecht, Sean O’Casey, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Then there were the actors, among them Bill Owen, Bob Hoskins, Warren Mitchell, most of the future Emergency Ward 10 cast – even Paul Robeson acted there for a season. Not bad for a shabby left-wing theatre under constant Special Branch surveillance.
‘Turn It Up’ was typical of the satirical revues produced by Unity. And as usual it came in for a lot of internal flak from the more hard-line politicos in the company, all of whom thought theatre existed primarily to extol the virtues of Marxist Leninism. But the ticket sales for such light-hearted fare said otherwise, proving as ever that the Noel Coward Tendency will always trump the Militant Tendency when it comes to bums on seats.
It was at Unity that my parents got together. By this time my father was in his twenties, out of uniform and continuing with his studies at Chelsea Polytechnic. Because of the war and its effect on the education system mum finished school in 1943 aged 13 and immediately started as a scholarship art student at St Martins College, thrown into a bohemian demi-monde fully deserving its own chapter elsewhere. She joined Unity because she wanted to act but, on discovering she was a trained artist, they instead put her to work painting sets and backdrops. A little later she brought along an eccentric friend and fellow St Martins alumnus to help out, the fellow in the photo with the enormous grin. This big-mouth soon made the change from paint-pot to typewriter when he impressed the company with his song and sketch writing skills. ‘Turn It Up’ was his first full show.
He later moved on to Joan Littlewood’s company at Stratford East and found yet more success as a jobbing song writer, first for Billy Cotton, then hitting it big with Tommy Steele in 1956. It was around this time that my parents, now married with two kids, had him over for dinner. He wanted mum and dad to hear some of his new stage material, having lugged a reel to reel tape recorder to their tiny flat in Stoke Newington. Over coffee my dad offered some constructive criticism and suggested a few changes, and after more discussion the writer said to my dad,
‘Paul, you’re full of bright ideas. Why don’t you and I write a show together?’
My dad thought about it for a moment. He now had a young family to support and a steady day job. ‘Us write a show together? Do me a favour.’
And that, gentle reader, is how my father passed up the opportunity to write a stage musical with Lionel Bart.
In time this exchange between dad and Lionel achieved something of a life of its own, a kind of family in-joke. My parents would always say ‘Do me a favour’ to eachother as well as their three sons if it looked as if we were about to turn down the chance to do anything creative, lucrative or simply for the fun of it. And over the years this benign entreaty to Carpe Diem worked well for my brothers and me.
As is now common knowledge, the career of Lionel Bart became a byword for showbiz success before descending into a cautionary tale of showbiz excess. For a while he had the Midas touch, writing Number Ones and creating hit musicals, most notably ‘Oliver!’ before hitting the buffers with a catastrophic flop called ‘Twang!!’ Within a few years he was bankrupt, alcoholic and Britain’s oldest acid casualty. But ‘Oliver!’ remains a classic with regular major revivals.
It was for one such revival in 1994 that my actor friend Olly went to audition. For some reason he didn’t want to sing a number from any familiar show as his audition piece, choosing instead a song I’d written a few years earlier, a satire on East End gentrification sung by a yuppie arriviste affecting to be a cockney geezer. In other words a thumbs-in-lapels ’ave-a-banana skit in the style of Lionel Bart.
Olly’s audition was politely received and a neutral voice told him he had made it to the next round, then another older voice called out from somewhere in the darkened auditorium:
‘What was that song?’
‘It’s called Riff-Raff,’ said Olly.
‘Who wrote it?’
‘Matthew Diamond?! Never heard of him!’
Cameron Mackintosh drafted Lionel in as a production consultant to do some re-writes on ‘Oliver!’ and sit in on auditions and rehearsals in exchange for a decent fee and a share of the gross. This worked well for everyone including Lionel who, long after selling the rights to stave off bankruptcy, hadn’t received a royalty from the show for decades.
He was still an occasional visitor chez Diamond until the late 1960s so I could reasonably counter that he had heard of me. The last time I saw Lionel was when my mother sold him a bronze statue of Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was rewriting and revising a musical based on Victor Hugo’s masterwork (naturally entitled ‘Hunch!’), hoping it would restore the creative mojo he lost after the disaster of Twang!! The statue sat in his office as inspiration but despite many attempts ‘Hunch!’ remained unperformed in public until 2013, over a decade after his death.
From a distance my father’s rejection sometimes looks like a classic Sliding Doors moment that robbed me of a childhood spent hanging out with The Beatles, or at the very least babysat by Alma Cogan. But I am also aware from experience that of all the hopeful artistic collaborations of the past, most come to nothing and history only records the successes. If he had written a show with Lionel my dad might have seen his name in lights on Broadway. Then again, if my auntie had nuts she’d be my uncle. So do I still think he should have taken up Lionel’s offer? Do me a favour.
It was fine at first. When the Rufus T Firefly pub chain took over Adrian’s local, Sid and Cheryl still managed the place, Joanna was still pulling pints and making doorstep ham sarnies, and old Bob still organised the 5-a-side team, the darts league, and wrote questions for Sid to mispronounce at the Tuesday quiz night.
‘So who is this Rufus T Firefly, anyway?’ said Adrian to his team mate Jim, the film buff, as they waited for the first round (Food and Drink) to begin.
‘Groucho’s character in Duck Soup. They say it’s the Marx Brothers best film but I always preferred Animal Crackers. Their boss probably thinks it makes them sound wacky and interesting.’
Adrian winced at the word wacky. It was a word used by people who tell you, unasked, that they have a great sense of humour, and then prove it by joylessly quoting Monty Python at you.
Six weeks later they renamed the pub. Since 1868 there had been a Lord Raglan on this site but now, without a by your leave, Adrian’s watering hole of choice was called The Kebab and Calculator in honour of The Young Ones. Another month went by before Sid and Cheryl moved to their cottage on the Isle of Wight, then the place closed for a fortnight’s refurbishment. Its grand reopening, advertised in the local rag, featured a special comedy night starring Nick Burnside. Adrian had seen Burnside before, a regular panellist on some topical game show or other, a comic eager to prove his edgy credentials by joking about paedophilia and genocide. Adrian gave the grand reopening a miss but would return for the regular quiz night.
He arrived as usual at 7pm the following Tuesday and entered the Lounge Bar (now renamed The Harpo Room) and at first he wondered if he had arrived at the right pub. The table where his team mates sat in the corner was empty. In fact the table itself was now replaced by a stripped pine floor level monstrosity with two Chesterfield sofas either side. Maybe he was early and they’d be along later, or maybe the quiz night was no more. He went to the bar and asked for a pint of London Pride.
‘We don’t do it,’ said the barman, who despite trying to grow a beard looked about twelve, ‘We do mainly lager but we’ve got San Andreus Extra Hopped Craft IPA. It’s American,’ he said pointing to the tap between Urutislav and Estrella, ‘Or we’ve got John Smiths.’
‘Oh. I’ll have of John Smiths, then. Is Joanna in tonight?’
‘Who?’ said the barman.
Adrian took his pint back to one of the Chesterfields and stared around the room. The Stubbs prints of old racehorses and photos of prize-fighters were no longer there. In their place were stills from Marx Brothers films. The room wasn’t packed but he recognised none of the punters by sight. It was obvious that Mr Firefly intended to attract a ‘young crowd’, all drinking expensive far-eastern lager and garish cocktails. From the look of them Adrian guessed that none of the twenty-something punters had ever watched a Marx Brothers film in their lives.
An hour passed and there was still no sign of Jim (Film and TV), Geoff (Sport), Nathan (Art and Lit) or Ziggy (Music, Politics and History). The lectern for the quiz hadn’t been set up and it was now obvious that the Tuesday quiz night was no more. He took a look at the menu standing in the middle of the low table. That day’s Chef Special was the celeriac and jackfruit haggis in a raspberry jus, drizzled with truffle oil, a snip at twenty five quid with vegetables extra. Never had stopping off at the Lin Hong for chicken and cashew nights on the way back to his flat seemed a better proposition. He returned to the bar.
‘No quiz tonight, then?’
The barman was visibly annoyed at having to engage in small talk with a punter without money changing hands.
‘No. But from next week there’s a Northern Soul night. I dunno what that’s about – probably the DJ playing soul from up north,’ and he turned to the next customer. After another pint he picked up his Evening Standard and left The Kebab and Calculator, unsure if he would ever return.
It was now five years since Adrian moved out of London, far enough to afford a mortgage on a flat but close enough to still commute to his job just north of The City. He wasn’t much of a social animal and found it difficult to form lasting friendships, but The Lord Raglan had over time become a home from home for him, his social club, his second living room, his local. There was the Tuesday quiz night, the Saturday five-a-side team and even the Sunday jazz club was congenial enough despite the musicians in bowler hats and bow ties committing atrocities in the name of Trad. All these convinced Adrian that he led a full and varied life.
That Friday he stopped off at the supermarket for an eight pack of London Pride. Even though they cost less than three pints in the pub it wasn’t the same supping them in front of the telly. In truth he felt like a sad lonely old drunk. It then occurred to Adrian, as the credits to Graham Norton rolled, that he knew none of his mates at The Lord Raglan outside of the pub. They talked about telly with them, or argued over quiz answers in stage whispers, or discussed football tactics but he had never visited any of their homes, nor they his. And the fact that Adrian had no family as such meant that he found no reason to inquire after theirs. With his local turning into a soulless corporate drinking shop went his entire social life, such as it was, and the thought of it meant that he sat through QI without laughing once.
A few months went by. One Wednesday he was feeling more than usually down and, as if to lift his spirits, walked the long way home from the station. It was summer and the warm evening meant it would be nice to amble through the park and perhaps sit a while on a bench by the duck pond. The White Hart sat hard by the park’s exit. It was a fairly non-descript looking place, not exactly a flat roofed estate dive, but neither did it provide any reason for him to go inside. Except this time someone had placed a chalkboard outside the door announcing ‘All Week: Fullers London Pride £2 a Pint!’ Adrian pushed the door but the laws of physics dictate that the first door anyone tries to an unfamiliar pub has been locked for decades. He pushed the corner door and beheld a wondrous sight. There was Joanna behind the bar, dispensing real pints and ham sarnies; there was old Bob testing the microphone for that evening’s quiz; and there in the corner were Jim (Film and TV), Geoff (Sport), Nathan (Art and Lit) and Ziggy (Music, Politics and History).
‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’ said Ziggy through a mouthful of pork scratchings.
‘I lost my local and had nowhere to go,’ said Adrian.
‘So did we all, mate,’ said Jim. ‘That opening night at The Kebab and Whatsit, they had a rep from Rufus T Firefly swanning about and telling us they were after a younger crowd and even though we were welcome to stay we might be happier drinking elsewhere. Old Bob got in a strop and decked him so now we’re all barred. No great loss, though.’
‘This place is just round the corner from me. I never drank here because I liked the Raglan. Not bad, though,’ said Nathan.
‘Anyway, we missed you and the quiz is about to start so stop blabbing, get a pint and sit down,’ said Jim, ‘It’s six quid a table but this one’s on us,’ and the rest of the team nodded.
Adrian did as he was told and bought a pint while exchanging a few pleasantries with Joanna, who also wanted to know where he’d been. The pub didn’t have the stately Edwardian charm of The Lord Raglan. The carpet was a bit frayed, the dartboard was at an awkward angle and the pool table had seen better days. But it didn’t matter. Adrian had found a new home.
‘Adrian,’ said Geoff as they waited for the scores at half time, ‘Me and the wife are having a little anniversary get-together this Saturday. I’d have sent you an invite but I don’t know where you live. We’d love it if you could come along.’
A week later he walked home from The White Hart past The Kebab And Calculator, which was now dark and boarded up. ‘For Sale. Retail Development Enquiries Welcome,’ read the sign above the door.
Adrian nodded to himself and walked on.
Len: I really enjoyed that. Full of ‘pop culture’ references I could relate to, also the sentiment of a life being swept away by change. You painted a very good portrait of the narrator and I like his realisation that his friends ‘down the pub’ were just that. The resolution was very neat – him being invited to the anniversary party and the pub being shut down. An optimistic note on which to end.