David Hemmings, Blow-Up and the Red Buildings on the Stockwell Road

September 8th, 2015
David Hemmings driving on the Stockwell Road in Blow-Up.

David Hemmings driving on the Stockwell Road in Blow-Up.

STOCKWELL ROAD isn’t the most exciting and handsome of roads. It may have been once, but the Luftwaffe and the subsequent, typical unimaginative post-war redevelopment put paid to that. It’s got a skateboard park, if that’s your thing, and David Bowie was born in a road just off it, but even he moved to Bromley when he was six. And that’s about it, to most people, even if they live there, it’s just a road that joins up Stockwell and Brixton.

If you walk towards the Brixton end, however, and you stop and look carefully at the end of a terrace, you can see a tiny bit of maroon-ish red paint showing through some peeling cream emulsion. It’s the remnants of a lot of red paint and a clue that in the winter of 1966 this road made a glamorous appearance, alongside David Hemmings, the model Veruschka, and Vanessa Redgrave, in THE swinging Sixties film – Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. It was the Italian director’s first film in English (he had just signed a lucrative deal to make three English-language pictures for Italian producer Carlo Ponti), and it was David Hemmings’ first major film role.

Blow-Up Lobby Card

Blow-Up Lobby Card

On stage, however, Hemmings had already been a star, of sorts. In 1954, thirteen years before Blow-Up was released, a twelve-year-old Hemmings had appeared, as a boy soprano, in Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw. To prepare for the role of Miles, in the as yet uncompleted opera, Hemmings had left school and his home in Tolworth, a southwest suburb of London, and had gone to live with Benjamin Britten at Crag House in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. ‘It was one of the most wonderful times of my entire life’ Hemmings once remembered: ‘we all gathered round the piano – Peter Pears, Jennifer Vyvyan, Joan Cross, Arda Mandikian, Olive Dyer and me … He really constructed the opera round our voices.’ Hemmings throughout his life never wavered from saying that Britten’s conduct with him was beyond reproach, at all times. In John Bridcut’s Britten’s Children Hemmings says:

He was not only a father to me, but a friend – and you couldn’t have had a better father, or a better friend. He was generous and kind, and I was very lucky. I loved him dearly, I really did – I absolutely adored him. I didn’t fancy him, I did go to bed with him, but I didn’t go to bed with him in that way.

Tenor Peter Pearsas Quint and child soprano David Hemmings (1941 - 2003) as Miles in the English Opera Group's production of Benjamin Britten's 'The Turn Of The Screw', 13th October 1954. (Photo by Denis De Marney

Tenor Peter Pearsas Quint and child soprano David Hemmings (1941 – 2003) as Miles in the English Opera Group’s production of Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Turn Of The Screw’, 13th October 1954. (Photo by Denis De Marney

David Hemmings, aged 12 enjoying Venice (drinking water from a fountain) between rehearsals of Benjamin Britten's new opera 'Turn of the Screw".

David Hemmings, aged 12 enjoying Venice (drinking water from a fountain) between rehearsals of Benjamin Britten’s new opera ‘Turn of the Screw”.

Just five weeks after Britten had completed the opera the British premiere took place on 6 October 1954 with the Sadler’s Wells Opera. It took place against a backdrop of increasing police antipathy to homosexuality. A situation not helped by the fervently anti-homosexual and moralistic Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe. Three years previously, in 1951, the defection to the Soviet Union of Guy Burgess, who was as close to openly gay as you could be in those days, and the (almost certainly) bisexual Donald Maclean had also stoked up public hostility.

Prosecutions for ‘gross indecency’ were increasing and there had been several highly publicised arrests, such as Lord Montagu and John Gielgud. Britten was also interviewed by police officers in 1953 – he had been at school with Maclean and one of Guy Burgess’s boyfriends had lived at Britten’s Hallam Street flat in the 1940s – but nothing came of it. At one point, however, Britten discussed the possibility that his partner Peter Pears might have to enter into a sham marriage.

The end of Hemmings’ opera career with Britten came to a particularly abrupt end. The English Opera Group had taken The Turn of the Screw to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. It was 1956 and Hemmings was now fifteen. In the middle of Miles’ main aria, ‘Malo’, Hemming’s voice suddenly broke. Britten was utterly horrified and stopped the orchestra immediately. He waved his baton in anger at the now ex-soprano, and the curtain slowly lowered. Britten did not speak to, or even acknowledge Hemmings ever again.

Benjamin Britten (right) with Peter Pears.

Benjamin Britten (right) with Peter Pears.

Ten years later Antonioni chose Hemmings for the role in Blow-Up because he wanted a fresh young actor who had no self-conscious acting style. The Italian director detested ‘Method’ acting, and in The Passenger, filmed in London in 1974 and the third of Ponti’s English language films, Antonioni kept on saying to Nicholson, ‘Jack, less twitching’. Antonioni once said: ‘Actors feel somewhat uncomfortable with me. They have the feeling that they’ve been excluded from my work. And, as a matter of fact, they have been.’ He first saw Hemmings act in an adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade, at a small theatre in Hampstead. A few days later, at the first audition for Blow-Up held at the Savoy hotel, and before the young actor had said a word, Antonioni told Hemmings, ‘you look wrong. You’re too young.’ Hemmings replied ‘Oh no. I can look older. I’ve done it before. You can trust me on this. I am an actor.’

After one more audition, Antonioni did trust him, and Hemmings went on to play his most famous role – the ‘swinging’, hip fashion photographer, who discovers by accident that some photos he took seem to reveal a murder. The character was purposely based on David Bailey who in the mid-sixties was at the height of his fame. Even a scene where Hemmings buys a large old propellor in a junk shop was based on Bailey doing exactly that. At eight quid they even got the price right, much to Bailey’s shock when he was watching the film in New York with his new wife, Catherine Deneuve. Bailey was once asked whether his photo sessions ever got as sexy as the one between Hemmings and Veruschka. ‘When I was lucky,’ he replied.

A publicity still of Veruschka and Hemmings from Blow-Up.

A publicity still of Veruschka and Hemmings from Blow-Up.

Poster for Blow-Up, released in 1967.

Poster for Blow-Up, released in 1967.

The shoot for the film began in April 1966 and wherever the filmmakers went they left their mark on London. Antonioni thought the roads were a bit grey in Woolwich and had them painted black, and it was said that even pigeons were dyed so they were just the right sort of pigeons. The Rolls-Royce, once owned by Jimmy Savile, was originally white and the director had that re-sprayed to black. Antonioni once talked of his fastidious attention to detail: ‘When I was making Blow-Up there was a lot of discussion about the fact that I had a road and a building painted. Antonioni paints the grass, people said. To some degree, all directors paint and arrange or change things on a location, and it amused me that so much was made of it in my case.’

Most people thought that Antonioni was only up to his old particular ways when they watched Hemmings drive his Rolls Royce down a long terrace of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, all painted entirely red. The buildings, however, really were that colour and were made up of dozens of properties all owned by the motorcycle spares company, Pride and Clarke, and every one painted red.

The company was founded in 1920 by John Pride and Alfred Clarke and was based on the Stockwell Road for over sixty years. In its heyday the showrooms of ‘Snide and Shark’, as they were occasionally called, took up a huge stretch of the road and if the Guinness Book of records had ever been interested in motorbike spares’ counters, they would have featured Pride and Clarke’s because it was the longest in the world. With about 2000 new motorbikes on display plus a good selection of traded-in second hand machines in their showrooms, on a Saturday afternoon, around the time Blow-Up was being made, thousands of bikers from all over the country would congregate outside the bright-red Pride and Clarke shopfronts.

3. Pride and Clarke Mortons Archive copy 2

Inside the Pride and Clark shop on the Stockwell Road, c.1964.

The contemporary press releases for Blow-Up made sure that attention was made to ‘the swinging world of fashion, dolly girls, pop groups, beat clubs, models and parties’ and one of the best lines in the film is when David Hemmings says to Veruschka at a party: ‘I thought you were meant to be in Paris!’ to which she stonily replies, ‘I am in Paris.’ The 26-year-old Veruschka, or Countess Vera Gottliebe Anna Gräfin von Lehndorff-Steinort, to give her full name, was an extremely tall German model, born just before the start of the war in East Pussia. Her father was said to have fainted when the extraordinarily long baby was born, but Veruschka hardly got to know him, as he was executed five years later for his part in the July Assassination Plot against Hitler in 1944. Around the time the film was released she told the press that she now wanted to be a proper actress: ‘I should like now to go into the movies,’ she said ‘but it is difficult – the men are so small.’ The experience of working with Hemmings must have scarred; he was eight or nine inches shorter than her six feet four.

The party scene was shot in a house next to the Thames on Cheyne Walk. Owned by the designer Christopher Gibbs, it was full of Moroccan cushions and medieval tapestries. Antonioni paid beautiful people to be extras at £30 each (easily over an average week’s wage in 1966), [6] essentially just to get trashed. Paul McCartney once said, ‘I remember the word around town was “There’s this guy who’s paying money for people to come and get stoned at some place in Chelsea. And of course in our crowd that spread like wildfire…Everyone was being paid, like blood donors, to smoke pot.”’

Kieran Fogarty, in Jonathan Green’s Days In The Life, remembered the filming of the party scene in Blow-Up: ‘I was flung into this bedroom in Cheyne walk…plonked on the front of this bed with about another nine people on it and Antonioni tossed a couple of kilo bags of grass on the bed and said, “Right, get on with it.” It took five days. It just went on and on…people would stumble out going “Yeeeaahhh” and go gibbering back. Most of swinging London was there, every deb that was halfway decent looking, and wild they were too. Outrageously dressed, superheavy make-up …’

1966: Two men enjoying a conversation with each other while attending a party at Chrisopher Gibbs' place. Photo by Terrence Spencer

1966: Two men enjoying a conversation with each other while attending a party at Chrisopher Gibbs’ place. Photo by Terrence Spencer

Frank Horvat 1965: Paris, photo test with Veruschka

Frank Horvat 1965: Paris, photo test with Veruschka

One of the reasons the party scene took so long to film was that Veruschka, most of the time, really was in Paris. She would phone the house every few hours saying ‘Tell Michelangelo that my taxi crash …’. Whoever picked up the phone would wander around the house saying ‘It’s Veruschka! Her taxi’s crashed, she’ll be here in five or six hours’. Despite the camera running for almost a week, the scene at the party ended up just 30 seconds long.

Michelangelo Antonioni, who in 1960 won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes with his film L’Avventura, wrote an article in that year’s December edition of Films and Filming entitled: Eroticism – The Disease of Our Age. He asked ‘Why are literature and the entertainment arts so thick with eroticism today? It is the more obvious symptom of an emotional sickness.’ Six years later, after deciding to take no notice of himself whatsoever, Blow-Up became known as the first British mainstream film to show pubic hair, not to mention naked teenage models (including the 19 year old wife of John Barry, Jane Birkin). Not that anyone noticed particularly, as all around the country the public were treated to a ‘censored’ version of the film, not because the British Board of Film Censors or the local authorities were trying to protect the public’s morals, but because the brief moments of nudity, in those more sheltered days, were being trimmed out by projectionists to add to their private collections.

David Hemmings in a scene from Blow-Up

David Hemmings in a scene from Blow-Up

The film was released in March 1967, just as most people, especially in the capital, were getting rather bored with the idea of ’swinging London’. The result of which was mostly bad reviews from the critics in Britain – Peter Evans in the Daily Express, after describing Hemmings, aptly, as ‘a depraved choirboy,’ wrote: ‘What many people believed was to be some kind of tribute to the vibrant pace-setters turns out to be no less than an epitaph.’ He finished by describing the film as: ‘an unpleasant orgy of self-glorification.’

In Europe and America it was often a different story. Richard Schickel in Life magazine wrote: ‘This movie seems to me one of the finest, most intelligent, least hysterical expositions of the modern existential agony we have yet had on film’. Most of the contemporary reviews talked about the nudity, but none about how Hemmings’ photographer treated the women he encountered. Much of it uncomfortable to watch these days. But it is an enjoyable museum piece that, at least, gives us a good glimpse of groovy sixties London from the eye of an outsider. Additionally, if you want to stop the film at the right moments, you can see, briefly, Michael Palin and a young Janet Street Porter dancing in stripy Carnaby Street trousers during the the Yardbirds nightclub scene.

Janet Street Porter as an extra in Blow-Up.

Janet Street Porter as an extra in Blow-Up.

Four months after Blow-Up was premiered at the London Pavilion, The Sexual Offences Act was made law in July 1967. It decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21. Although the comments of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary at the time, captured the government’s attitude: ‘those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives.’ Lord Arran, one of the original proposers of the bill, tried to minimise criticisms by making the qualification to what he called an ‘historic’ milestone: ‘I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity … any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful …’

A few years later the motorcycle business started to change and during the seventies Japanese motorcycle companies such as Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki took over from the old British and European marques. Alfred Clarke was an astute businessman (the nickname ‘shark’ wasn’t gained for nothing) and the Pride and Clarke firm was sold to Inchcape for about £3 million pounds in 1979.

Then and Now: The Stockwell Road in 2015 and 1977 the year that Sammy Hagar's 'Red Album' was released.

Then and Now: The Stockwell Road in 2015 and 1977 the year that Sammy Hagar’s ‘Red Album’ was released.

Before the company and the red paint were whitewashed from history, however, the striking red buildings of the Pride and Clarke showrooms had one more brush with fame. In 1977, the former Montrose vocalist Sammy Hagar was in London to record his second solo album at Abbey Road. Known to his fans, but to no one else, as the ‘Red Rocker’, someone at Capitol Records had the bright idea that the Pride and Clarke shops on the Stockwell Road were perfect for the cover of the so called Red Album. So as not to look too downmarket, he was told to stand next to an expensive American car, also coloured red. There is no record of what Sammy Hagar made of the Stockwell Road and there’s no record left of the ubiquitous Pride and Clarke shops. Unless you look very, very closely.

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Children from Hoxton Visit Charlie Chaplin at the Ritz in 1921

September 1st, 2014
Charlie Chaplin at the Ritz with 50 children from Hoxton in 1921.

Charlie Chaplin at the Ritz with 50 children from Hoxton in 1921.

Charlie Chaplin was woken up on the morning 17 September 1921 while in his bed at the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly. “Visitors from Hoxton” he was told, and from outside the window he could hear children singing a song over and over again:

When the moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin

His boots are cracking, for want of blacking

And his little baggy trousers need mending

Before we send him to the Dardanelles

The song had originally been written in protest about Chaplin not enlisting during WW1 (it was said that he had tried, but at 5 feet 4 inches tall and not much more than 126 pounds was told he was too small) but by 1921 the song had lost its original connotation or at least it had to the group of children from Hoxton School that had walked across London to see him.

Chaplin had arrived in England from America only a week earlier, disembarking at Southampton after a pleasant and sunny voyage. He had sailed across the Atlantic on the RMS Olympic, the elder sister ship of the Titanic but now, of course, complete with the requisite number of lifeboats and luxuriously re-fitted after life as a troopship during WW1. The comedian had come back to England mainly to promote his new and first full-length (six-reeler) film called ‘The Kid’. Already a huge success in America it eventually became the second highest grossing film of 1921.

The Manchester Guardian, in rather a gushing style – although not that dissimilar to most other newspapers describing the event – wrote of the first glimpse of the homecoming Hollywood star:

Mr Chaplin just bubbled over with good nature and good humour. He poured out smiles and laughter and merry jokes in bumper measure, and all with the utmost simplicity and perfect freedom from affectation.

The Mayor of Southampton greeted Chaplin and began speaking rather nervously, with an apology about the weather, “It does not always rain in England…” Chaplin quickly interrupted, “I am an Englishman, Mr Mayor,” he said, “and English weather, whatever it is, is good to see. It was raining, I remember, when I went away nine years ago.

Chaplin was now an incredibly rich man but his childhood in Walworth had been a desperately poor one. Both his parents, Charles and Hannah Chaplin, were music hall performers but of no great fame. When Charlie was just three, Charles Snr left the family home after his wife gave birth to a boy whose father was Leo Dryden – another music hall performer. Not long after the birth Dryden came and forcibly took his child, Charlie’s half-brother, away from Hannah.

Struggling financially, Hannah Chaplin had a breakdown in 1895 and the following year, along with Charlie and his brother Sydney, entered the Lambeth Workhouse. Although within a few weeks, however, the two boys were sent to Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children.

In 1903, after further breakdowns, Hannah was placed in the Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum in Surrey. Chaplin later wrote about a visit to see her in 1912, just before he left to live in America:

It was a depressing day, for she was not well. She had just got over an obstreperous phase of singing hymns, and had been confined to a padded room. The nurse had warned us of this beforehand. Sydney saw her, but I had not the courage, so I waited. He came back upset, and said that she had been given shock treatment of icy cold showers and that her face was quite blue. That made us decide to put her into a private institution – we could afford it now.

The brothers took their mother from Cane Hill and placed her at Peckham House – a private asylum in south London that cost 30 shillings a week. Not an inconsiderable sum in 1912.

Chaplin had been performing to audiences from the age of five – it was said that he was literally pushed on to a stage when an audience started jeering after his mother when she suddenly lost her voice half way through a song. By the age of 19 he had become a member of Fred Karno’s prestigious music hall troupe, and it was with them that he first took him to America in 1910 (one of the other members of Karno’s company was Stanley Jefferson who would later become known as Stan Laurel). On a second visit in 1912 Chaplin caught the eye of Mack Sennett and he began to work in the still very young film business. Within a few years he had appeared in more than sixty films, most of which he had directed himself. By 1918 Charlie Chaplin was one of the most famous men on the planet.

When Chaplin stepped off the train onto platform 14 at Waterloo Station, just a mile or so away from where he had grown up as a child, he was visibly shocked at the thousands and thousands of people waiting ready to greet him. “A fierce roar of the great crowd smote his ears,” wrote one newspaper, while the Times wrote, “At Waterloo the stage might have been set for the homecoming of Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Lord Haig rolled into one.”

The police managed to get Chaplin into a waiting car which then drove down to the Ritz on Piccadilly. Another enormous crowd was waiting and ‘Everybody – including the police – went mad,’ reported the Manchester Guardian. Chaplin, his hair dishevelled, but bronzed by his voyage and dressed immaculately in a grey overcoat stood up in the car and shouted:

Thank you, very much, for this generous, kind and affectionate welcome. This is a great moment for me. I cannot say much. Words are absolutely inadequate.

The police were almost overpowered by the boisterous and excited crowd and there was a struggle on the steps of the hotel before they managed to get Chaplin inside. The crowd continued cheering until he appeared at a first-floor window where be broke up a huge bunch of carnations and threw them down to the crowd. A few days later he received a letter (one of thousands, many of them begging), “My boy,” it read, “tried to get one of your carnations and his hat was smashed. I enclose you a bill of 7s. 6d. for a new one.”

Chaplin outside the Ritz on Piccadilly.

Chaplin outside the Ritz on Piccadilly.

Chaplin throwing carnations to the crowd from his balcony at the Ritz Hotel.

Chaplin throwing carnations to the crowd from his balcony at the Ritz Hotel.

The south London Waterloo area c.1921

The south London Waterloo area c.1921

Waterloo Bridge in 1921.

Waterloo Bridge in 1921.

Chaplin told the press that he was tired and needed to rest but actually soon slipped out of the Arlington entrance of he hotel and took a taxi to Waterloo Bridge and then, on his own, he walked to Lambeth Walk an old haunt of his childhood. A few days later, on another trip to south London, he visited 3 Pownall Terrace in Kennington (the street would be demolished in 1968) where he had lived in a little room at the top of the house.

It was now occupied by a Mrs Reynolds, ”many’s the time I’ve banged my head on that sloping ceiling,” he said to her after she had taken him to see his old room. Mr Charles Robinson, described as Chaplin’s manager by the Daily Mirror, told the newspaper in an interview in 1921, that the attic scenes in The Kid were based on a replica of that room in Charlie’s old ‘diggings’ in Kennington.

Le Petit Journal dated 25th September 1921. Chaplin is seen visiting the Lambeth room, where he once lived and which had inspired his film 'The Kid'.

Le Petit Journal dated 25th September 1921. Chaplin is seen visiting the Lambeth room, where he once lived and which had inspired his film ‘The Kid’.

 

The house in Pownall Terrace in Lambeth, where Charlie Chaplin once lived. It was demolished in 1968.

The house in Pownall Terrace in Lambeth, where Charlie Chaplin once lived. It was demolished in 1968.

Back at the Ritz, on the morning of the 17th of September, Chaplin got dressed and walked into the sitting room of his suite to meet the young visitors from Hoxton. He found fifty excited boys and girls from the Hoxton school. One boy, called Charles Loughton, stepped forward and handed him a box of cigars and a letter. It read:

You were one of us. You are now famous over the world. But we like to think you were once a poor boy in London as we are. You are now a gentleman, and all gentlemen smoke cigars. So we have chosen a box as a little gift to ‘Our Charlie.’

A young girl, Lettie Westbrook aged thirteen, gave Charlie a bouquet with a note saying, “with our thanks for all the fun you give to us.”

After Chaplin had given each child a package of “candy,” he impersonated an old man in a picture gallery. By a skilful use of his overcoat, hat, and stick, he appeared to grow gradually to a height of some nine feet in order to look at the highest pictures, and the children screamed with laughter.

Three weeks after Chaplin met the boys and girls from Hoxton School he left London, via Waterloo again, for New York, this time on the Cunard liner Berengaria. He had also decided, along with his brother Sydney, to bring his mother back with him to California. After a particularly harsh and tragic life much of which had been spent in workhouses and mental institutions Hannah Chaplin was being properly looked after in a home in Los Angeles.

"Six Reels of Joy" - The Kid released in 1921.

“Six Reels of Joy” – The Kid released in 1921.

During the production of ‘The Kid’ Chaplin had met a 12 year old girl called Lita Grey who appeared as the flirtatious angel in the dream sequence at the end of the film. Three years later he cast her again, this time as the female lead, in ‘The Gold Rush’. During the early stages of the production the 35 year old Chaplin became ‘romantically’ involved despite Lita being only 15. It wasn’t long before Lita discovered she was pregnant and was quickly replaced in the film by another of Chaplin’s lovers Georgia Hale.

Lita Grey in 'The Kid' released in 1921.

Lita Grey in ‘The Kid’ released in 1921.

Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey not long after they were married in 1924.

Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey not long after they were married in 1924.

Grey and Chaplin were wed on November 25th 1924 in Empalme, Mexico. The New York Times, reporting on the event, listed her age as 17. They had two children, Charles Jnr born in 1925 and Sydney born the following year. On August 27th they were divorced due to ‘extreme cruelty’. Chaplin was ordered to pay $600,000 and $100,000 in trust for each child – the world’s largest divorce settlement at the time.

Exactly a year after the divorce Chaplin’s mother, the woman whose life he had based so many of his female characters, and who had probably been suffering from the symptoms of Syphilis for over twenty years, died at the Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Hospital in Glendale in August 1928.

Hannah Chaplin in Los Angeles, not long before she died.

Hannah Chaplin in Los Angeles, not long before she died.

 

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