A London House
In the evening paper is a house for sale in Hampstead, a gothic Victorian monstrosity of the kind beloved by hedge fund managers. It’s selling for five million and will probably get it. The interior rooms are covered in gilt, with Latin phrases and improving proverbs etched into the ceilings, figurines and stained glass and an awful lot of bannisters.
Built by associates of Sir George Gilbert Scott at the time of the construction of St Pancras station, it saw many a musical soirée when Gilbert and Sullivan, George Grossmith and Ellen Terry would perform in the house’s miniature salon theatre. Joan Crawford stayed there too, although I’m not sure that’s a plus. But here’s the odd thing.
I suddenly remembered that I used to go there occasionally. In its latter days it belonged to a charming ham actor called David Warbeck, who had a habit of bringing mates back from the pub. Warbeck first arrived in London from New Zealand in 1965, and must have quickly realised that his face was his fortune. Possessed of that brand of good looks usually described as ruggedly handsome, his masculine presence was the stuff of action movies.
It seems that almost accidentally he became a cult movie hero, starring in a huge number of shockingly bad horror movies, and a handful of rather good ones. For the next 25 years he appeared in nearly 80 films. Most were Italian exploitation tales of cannibals and serial killers, but he was also in Hammer’s ‘Twins of Evil’ and Sergio Leone’s ‘A Fistful of Dollars’; he especially had the right look for westerns – he could squint like Clint.
There was some kind of complicated social arrangement going on, I was told, involving a wife and a boyfriend. It was best not to ask. So we would sit in that strange, cavernous house, with its insanely over-carved fireplace surrounds – always damp, always dark, always cold, no matter how beautifully restored it had been to its full Victorian authenticity – feeling creeping melancholy seep into our bones as the host tried to liven things up by pouring more wine, because the hedge fund managers don’t realise that these ostentatiously ‘improving’ follies are quite depressing and impossible to live in now.
Once there were children and nursemaids and servants and the rituals of Victorian daily life, with endless visitors leaving cards and merchants calling. And no matter how many honey-coloured photographs the estate agents take, nothing will ever fit this peculiar London house back into its rightful world. It is marooned like some baroque ocean liner in an area of wealthy lifeless silence, and its new owners (if they ever visit) will know nothing of its past.