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Flour power: a starring role in Wardour Street

On this week’s virtual ramble, Diary explores the West End’s links with the film industry – and the bread business behind one of its giants – and recalls a slice of live music history at a lost gig venue

23 October, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Wardour Street was home to no less than 40 film companies by 1926

WE parted company on the pavement outside Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, and having skipped through Frith, Greek and Dean streets, let us complete the cabbies’ Soho dictum (“Good For Dodgy Women” – aka as Greek, Frith, Dean and Wardour) and head to the last name on that list.

Some background: the name Wardour comes from the Dorset/Wiltshire borders and is linked to a tooled-up baron who leapt upon our shores with William the Conqueror. The early Wardours set up shop on the fringes of the rolling hills of Cranbourne Chase, their name becoming synonymous with a district and a castle. They owned land in and around the town of Shaftesbury, where King Alfred had established an abbey in 888. Having put down roots and oppressed the peasants, the Wardour family headed to town and bought land in the 1700s.

The gorgeous town of Shaftesbury featured in the famous Hovis advert, with the boy on the bike, shot by Ridley Scott. This leads us to a little link between sliced bread and Wardour Street.

It would be churlish not to mention the film world when strolling along our chosen thoroughfare – it was the centre of the industry in the UK and still boasts film production offices.

By 1926 there were no less than 40 film companies based along its stretch. The Rank Organisation made its home there in the 1930s, and here is where bakers come in.

Founder J Arthur Rank was born into money. His father Joseph got into the business of milling flour in the late 1800s when he rented a windmill in Hull. He got the taste for it, and went round buying up as many mills as he could near ports and installed new electric processing systems. His wheeze was good: he soon established the biggest bread firm in the UK. Think a Victorian Greggs and you’re close.

As well as grinding and baking, he owned shops selling his produce in high streets.

As he became more successful, he began considering life’s larger questions, and this led him to Methodism. He poured his wealth into promoting Christian values, and put his bread where his mouth was: he used profits for charitable purposes.

But more importantly for British film he supported and inspired his son.

J Arthur had set up his own flour business but when it failed to reach the same heights as his father’s he quit and went back to the family firm. During this time, in the early 1930s, he became involved with the Religious Film Society, which showed movies with a Christian slant at Sunday Schools and Methodist halls. The RFS opened his eyes to the world of film and the business opportunities it offered. He wanted in.

By the end of the Second World War, Rank owned more than 650 cinemas, five studios including Pinewood, and an acting school to nurture new talent. His business acumen saw him do something similar to his dad: while his father thought he should be selling the bread he baked, Arthur felt if he was producing films he should also own the screens they were shown on. He bought out The Odeon and Gaumont chains, giving his movies a huge platform.

It was the golden age of film and Arthur facilitated it, partly due to his belief that the people he employed were there for a reason. He let directors to get on with it. David Lean said of J Arthur’s approach: “We can make any subject we wish, with as much money as we think that subject should have spent on it. We can cast whichever actors we choose, and we have no interference with the way the film is made… not one of us is bound by any form of contract. We are there because we want to be there.”

It was while the Rank Organisation was churning out the hits in the 1950s, a young man called Terry Nelhams came looking for a break. He worked as a messenger boy for a Wardour Street firm called TV Adverts and while running about Soho he discovered the skiffle craze. Soon Tel had persuaded colleagues they should arm themselves with a washboard, a tea chest bass and an acoustic guitar. Called The Worried Men, they gigged in Soho coffee bars and clubs, until one day Terry was spotted by talent scout Jack Good. He took the lad on, with the condition he changed his name to something more pop – thus bequeathing the world with the singer Adam Faith.

Another stand-out Wardour Street film company was Handmade Films. You would think a Beatle would be rolling in it, but George Harrison had to remortgage his house in 1978 to finance the Monty Python film Life Of Brian. The firm would go on to produce The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits and Withnail and I, creating a slew of British classics and no doubt giving George a good return on his investment.

And finally, as we’ve name checked Beatle George and Adam Faith, we should mention the Marquee Club, home to the British blues explosion and where Jimi Hendrix blew the audience’s minds with his first UK show.

Legend has it that he was already so well known for his fret-lickin’ skills that 1,400 people queued up to get in without any promotion done. The queue included The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and The Stones, all intrigued to see for themselves if this left-handed dude had really reinvented what you could do with a Fender Stratocaster played back to front (his father Al told Jimi playing the guitar left-handed was the work of the Devil, which with hindsight, sounds about right).

The Marquee’s stage played host to all the names – The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Led Zep, The Who, Jethro Tull… More recently, the address was home to Cuban bar Floridita, which as well as food and music had a cigar shop and cigar lounge. It happened to be the only venue in Soho where indoor smoking was allowed following the ban, something its many rock’n’roll ghosts surely appreciated.

Stay well, stay safe.

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