24 December, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary
The Garrick Theatre
WE parted company last week in Cecil Court, admiring its decorum and sense of history that oozes from each of its time-trodden paving stones. And now we shall continue our stroll by heading a little south east down Charing Cross Road, and past the (sadly currently silent) Garrick Theatre.
Two weeks ago we had discussed the building of the Royal English Opera House by Gilbert and Sullivan promoter Richard D’Oyly Carte. The Garrick was another that owed its construction to the craze for these English librettos. This one was paid for by Gilbert, but the construction did not go smoothly. When builders dug down to lay the floor of the stalls, they discovered an underground river gushing beneath their feet.
One regular performer at the Garrick in its early days was Rutland Barrington, a baritone in G and S shows who played leading roles in HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado.
Barrington was a popular music hall comedian. He had the knack of twisting lyrics to reference something happening that day to the audience’s amusement – and once recalled how, in 1908, he was due to do a gig during the FA Cup Final.
“I determined to sing a verse giving the score at half-time,” he recalled.
“I had written an alternative two lines to suit whichever team had scored, but when the curtain rose for my turn, the news had not come. While I was singing the song I saw the stage manager in the wings waving a telegram. I got the envelope, opened it before the audience, and sang them the information that Aston Villa were a goal ahead. I do not think I have ever had a greater success with a verse.”
Now we leave Barrington’s echoing voice in Charing Cross Road and scoot down William IV Street and to the junction of Agar Street.
Here we pause to gaze at Charing Cross police station, a cream stuccoed piece of London Classicism. Originally built as Charing Cross Hospital in 1831, its founding was the result of the good deeds of Dr Ben Golding.
Dr Golding had 15 years earlier opened the doors to his home to treat the poor – and so great the need, work began on a purpose-built hospital. Designed by the revivalist Decimus Burton, it has a Grecian flavour with Corinthian pilasters and a portico at its entrance.
Burton’s work was hit by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz, and the damage was captured by the artist, RG Mathews. Mathews had been known for his celebrity portraits in the 1920s, painting Arnold Bennett and Joseph Conrad. When war broke out in 1939, he was commissioned by the War Artist’s Advisory Committee to head into central London from his Hampstead home to survey and depict the scene.
The former Charing Cross hospital, now the police station
His work shows a huge crater that the hospital looks perilously close to toppling into.
The hospital closed for good in 1973 and in the 1990s, after a careful restoration project, the Old Bill took it on.
Now we cross the Strand – don’t get distracted – and explore Villiers Street, which takes us down towards the Thames.
It is on this street Benjamin Franklin lived during a 16-year spell in Blighty. Franklin, the Enlightenment politician and key mover in the American Revolution, was also known for inventing the lightning rod, designing spectacles and creating the fuel-efficient stove that took his name. He stayed at No 36 and it was while at this address, in 1761, Benji F created a “glass armonica”, an instrument inspired by watching musician Edmund Delaval play water-filled wine glasses. In later years he invented a stick with a grip on one end. Known as the Long Arm, he used it to hoik books down from high library shelves.
Down the slope from Benjamin’s old abode we find the site of a house belonging to Samuel Pepys. Handily close to the Thames and Whitehall for his naval work, it was later demolished to be replaced by the Salt Office, the government body charged with collecting tax on the seasoning. Its proximity to the river also meant Villiers Street boasted warehouses, though when the Embankment was built, it found itself too far from the quay.
Instead the old Salt Tax HQ became a boarding house and its reputation sunk. In 1923 landlord Alfred Frederick “Fred-Fred” Joyce was found guilty of using it as a brothel.
Deep below this building you may hear the gentle pop of a cork being pulled from a bottle. It’s home to the famous Gordon’s Wine Bar, that den of good grape, tucked in to the cellars of buildings that once stood above.
Established by Angus Gordon, the bar dates from 1890 and has been allowed to mellow like a fine vintage.
In 1972 wine buff Luis Gordon bought the business from the Gordon family – they were unrelated, but in a nice dash of fortune shared the same surname – and the place continued much as before.
It is said that after closing for six months for what regulars were told would be a revamp, the decades old cobwebs that haunted every nook were left in situ.
From Gordons, we just have time to stick our heads down the tunnels underneath Charing Cross station, and pause outside Heaven nightclub. It earnt a brilliant reputation for its gay nights, but also acid house raves Land Of Oz and Rage, which have gone down in the sub-culture’s folklore.
And it was also here that New Age Hippie met Acid House in the early 1990s, with the result being an event called Megatripolis. Its organisers sought to create a rebellious, left-field festival vibe in a West End club, and there was a fair dollop of rather silly, spaced-out philosophy shared across the dance floor. The Megatripolis team invited speakers such as the LSD-infused beat poet Allen Ginsberg, professional dope smoker Howard Marks and American spiritual guru Baba Ram Dass to spout stuff at pie-eyed trance heads.
And on that hedonistic and slightly confused note – have a nice Christmas. We will pick up our route again in the new year.
Stay well, stay safe.