Last Night In Soho I Saw Last Night In Soho

London, The Arts



They asked if we had seen a man in a chicken suit go past. That’s Soho for you.

Edgar Wright’s new film is a psychological puzzler that’s a love letter to London’s Soho then and now. That’s its blessing and its curse.

Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy are faint-voiced mentally fragile fashion student and confident glamour model respectively, the twist being that they exist in different time periods, the sixties and now. Periodically the sixties breaks through to the present, mostly via mirrors. And it has a purpose.

Wright is originally from Somerset, which means Soho must have come as a shock to him. His dream version of Soho is circa 1965 – we know that by the huge ‘Thunderball’ marquee on a cinema building that’s a blend of the London Pavilion and the Café de Paris. Those of us who remember the latter will picture it much smaller and crummier than it looks here, where it’s been enlarged and glamourised, but that’s fine as Anya is dancing there – a lot – to old Cilla Black hits.

I used to hate visiting the loos in the London Pavilion, a vast cinema long past its finest hour, because it involve traversing a gigantic underground ballroom in the dark. Now it’s part of a cocktail bar complex. The film is full of lovely pleasure-points for those of us who came of age in Soho, but there’s a supernatural story for everyone else as the two lives and two time frames get inextricably tangled, leading to a past murder.

It must be said that the film doesn’t quite work, for the simple reason that the characters are a little too one-note; menacing, innocent, kindly, sinister, etc., and the set pieces become repetitive. If ghosts really haunt Soho they should be glimpsed once, powerfully, not shown so many times that you start to work out where they bought their clothes.

The fault is with the script and not the stunning design. But sometimes that doesn’t really matter, and what fun it is to see night-time Soho put up on the screen with the stars who populated it then – there are roles here for Diana Rigg, Rita Tushingham and Terence Stamp. Sadly, the fabulous Ms Rigg died and the film was caught up in a two-year pandemic delay.

What is it about putting Soho on screen that directors get wrong? ‘Absolute Beginners’ was an absolute disaster, and perhaps the only film to catch its seedy glamour is ‘The Small World of Sammy Lee’. Perhaps filmmakers fall too in love with their subject. The film that possibly gets closest to capturing something of that era and that place is the family slapstick comedy ‘Smashing Time’, which foregrounds the characters.

Emerging from the screening at the Ham Yard Hotel we could head for a pub called The Toucan, which features in the film, but for sheer atmosphere you can’t beat The Sun and 13 Cantons. In the film, Thomasin McKenzie runs past it in a hysterical panic (Wright says; ‘We shot it for real and nobody even noticed’). And there in front of me, tonight, hurtling along the opposite pavement, was a beautiful girl in a white dress, running.

A few minutes later she went past again. Then a third time, always the same direction. This time she was with a crowd of smartly dressed running men. I started to think I was stuck in a real life time-loop. It was broken by a bunch of amiable young guys who asked if we had seen a man in a chicken suit go past. This is Soho, after all.

Earlier in the evening I’d had a drink with a young American woman who was on her first day out in the world. She had left US soil for the first time and suddenly found herself in a madhouse. Her first question caught me by surprise; ‘Why is everyone so smartly dressed?’ And I thought, It’s a Friday night in Soho, you wouldn’t wear casual.

Right then I would have loved to have seen the city through her eyes. But for now I settle for seeing it through Edgar’s.


21 comments on “Last Night In Soho I Saw Last Night In Soho”

  1. Des Burkinshaw says:

    Looking forward to seeing it. As far as Im aware though, only Diana Rigg had died, Tushingham and Stamp are both still alive:)

  2. admin says:

    I thought Rita T had gone? That’s good to know. I knew Terence Stamp was still hanging around in Soho. I wonder if he knows he’s rhyming slang?

  3. Roger says:

    There isn’t much Soho in them and one was made long before your time there, but “Peeping Tom”, “They Drive by Night” and “Night and the City” depict it convincingly to an outsider.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    You’ve put your educated finger on the pitfalls of location shooting. The technical difficulties to be sure, but most importantly, for the viewer, the creative ‘dissonance’ which often shows up on the screen. Is the location an integral part of the story or does it essentially become the story by directorial dereliction ? I expect many of us,at one or another, have settled into our seats expecting one thing and gotten what was, to all intents and purposes, a travelogue — only perhaps missing commentary by Michael Palin. And if the surroundings didn’t exactly overwhelm the acting or story, they certainly distracted from it.

    This is always a potential issue with well-known (by direct or vicarious experience) urban locations like London, Paris or New York and dramatic landscapes. I’ve had the feeling with some films that the scenery acted as a crutch for the director, who apparently found it simply easier or more convenient to fill in the alloted running time with more of the location than the story. Depending on the film, there is something to be said for studio soundstages and constructed sets, directorial arrogance or presumed prerogative notwithstanding.

  5. Helen+Martin says:

    We’ve started watching “The Mallorca Files” and wonder how much the Tourist Board put into the production as I would really like to see those weird mountains and the funky capital (not so much the detectives’ boss lady.) The logic of the two detectives being there is totally non-existent, too, but it’s fun watching them move through the scenery.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘@admin You ask,’ What is it about putting Soho on screen that directors get wrong?’ I think, with some exceptions, they try too hard to romanticize it one way or another. Then there is the wonderfully sleazy ‘juvenile delinquent’ (don’t hear that much anymore) B-movie ‘Beat Girl’ (1960) starring a young Adam Faith and Oliver Reed with Christopher Lee as a disreputable strip-club manager. Probably the most noteworthy aspect of the film is that it was the great John Barry’s first soundtrack commission. And who could forget ‘Expresso Bongo’ (1959) with Laurence Harvey as a two-bit hustler, and one of my personal favourites, the 1986 ‘Ping Pong,’ which portrays SoHo’s Chinatown and its people in great depth.

  7. Nancy says:

    Completely unrelated, but I just finished listening to “London Bridge is Falling Down” and, well, I don’t know what to say. Another good story, another few days spent with the wonderful cast of characters, and the ending – wow. The commentary after the Audible book says you “may have a trick or two up your sleeve” and I’m hanging on to that hope!

    Loved it. Now to start on the rest of your work – can’t wait.

  8. admin says:

    Thanks Nancy – I do indeed have a couple more tricks up my sleeve, including at least two in the coming year.

  9. Joan says:

    I think no one can beat Woody Allen for putting New York on the screen, it is a love letter to the City each time!

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    With the gentrification of your beloved Soho continuing to inexorably grind on, there is nothing for it but for you to come up with a preliminary plan for ‘Soholand,’ a theme park — if for no other reason than to divert the biblical hordes looking for what is rapidly disappearing. I suggest you include yourself among the animatronic figures from its history to be scattered throughout. Perhaps standing on a street corner near the entrance hurling invective in several languages at passersby by way of a welcome.

  11. Debra Matheney says:

    Can’t wait for the tricks you have coming our way. I need all the amusement I can find.

  12. Jan says:

    I can’t say that I even like the place very much but there was some stuff that was really that odd, uniquely Soho that you really had to be there to experience the area. You had to live It + spend real time there – was not capturable .

    It won’t ever be possible to record it in any meaningful way and with all the re-development it’s likely too late anyway.
    Hope all’s well sir.

  13. Paul+C says:

    Julian Maclaren-Ross was an interesting cult writer on the heyday of Soho and Fitzrovia and well worth a revival. A hefty collection entitled ‘Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writing’ is chockful of his best work despite the catchpenny title. His desperately sad life shows the less glamorous side of Soho.

  14. Roger Allen says:

    A biography of Julian Maclaren-Ross was published a few years ago. He’s probably better known for his appearances in other writers’ novels and memoirs – as the original of Anthony Powell’s X Trapnel and there are interesting accounts in Anthony Cronin’s Dead As Doornails and Dan Davin’s Closing Times.

  15. SteveB says:

    The film is named after a Howard/Blaikley song
    (Pub quiz question, who were best selling British songwriters in the 1960s? It wasn’t Lennon /Mccartney it was Howard/Blaikley)
    I worked at Aquascutum for 18 months in 78-79 so remember the area well.
    By the way here’s another Howard/Blaikley piece for nostagia

  16. admin says:

    Jan hits the nail on the head – Soho is simply not capturable. I have had so many incredible nights out there that I cannot separate them. It becomes one great wild party in my brain. Although I do recall we painted Maggie green to make her look like the Statue of Liberty and got paint over everyone…

  17. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Have to ask. Did Maggie willingly — or perhaps, knowingly, at the time — submit to the paint job ? And was it a water-based paint or does she still have the look of the Wicked Witch of the West about her ?

  18. Jan says:

    Soho has left me with a series of indelible snapshots in my head though that I’ll never forget (despite on some occasions wanting to) Apart from the various sights have I told you before about the dreadful dreadful smell we found one night inside the multistory car park not far from Ham Yard?

    Honestly it was incredibly bloody awful. This judgement from a group of experienced Police officers well used to being left in rooms with dead bodies which had been in situ for weeks (and occasionally months) or accompanying Environmental Health Officers on exciting expeditions.

    This pong was that bad it was practically unreal.
    Perhaps it was a mixture of magic and Dynorod. Not simply the smell of a person or animal dying and rotting. Was like the poo itself had died and rotted. Unforgettable. Summed so much of Soho up for me. Sorry Chris it’s a very different perspective is all

  19. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Just saw your tweet, Christopher. Congratulations!

  20. chazza says:

    Rita Tush is very much alive since she was in that awful BBC bilge “Ridley Road” the last few Sundays.
    Friends of mine worked in a film production company behind the chicken stall in Berwick Street Market. Lots of decapitated chicken heads strewn about. Derek Stokes had his wonderful shop “Dark they were and golden eyed” right next door. The sex shops where I picked up some good Olympia Press books; you never saw anyone entering these shops but when you when you went in they were full to overflowing with shuffling slightly wet punters. The Greek and jewish tailors in Glasshouse street . Randall and Aubin to go to dine on lamb’s brains and buy stinky Toulouse sausages. Followed by a visit to the Star and Garter in Poland Street to ogle Carol the pneumatic bar lady. The sheer joyful sordidness of the place! All gone but what a period to have experienced!

  21. Stu-I-Am says:

    Always amuses me how the passage of years often leads to confabulation (in addition to actually using the word itself) when it comes to a district like Soho. There is little question that Soho was unique and any comparisons with it I could personally make to this or that arrondissement in Paris, maybe the Meatpacking District in New York and Mitte or Kreuzberg in Berlin and similar areas elsewhere, would tend to fall flat. What was once disreputable and quite possibly downright seedy in places tends to become delightfully unconventional and funky in the mind’s eye.

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