Category Archives: West End

Dame Thora and the Killer Coat

London has no shortage of unusual ghost stories, from the Bald Chicken of Pond Square to Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane. Many of these unhappy shades choose to haunt Theatreland – and why not? If you’re looking for a spooky place to hang around scaring the living daylights out of people, you couldn’t do much better than a dark and gloomy playhouse.

Among the city’s many theatrical ghosts are William Terriss at the Adelphi and Covent Garden Underground Station, Sarah Siddons at her old house in Baker Street and the World War I soldier at the Coliseum. For those seeking less highbrow entertainments, Nell Gwynne was said to appear in the Gargoyle Club, a strip joint in Soho.

My personal favourite, though, involved the late and much-lamented Dame Thora Hird. In her long career, she played many roles, but is perhaps most famous for her long run on Last of the Summer Wine.

Long before that, she trod the boards in various venues, including a stint at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage. Here, in 1949, she played a lead role in a costume drama called The Queen Came By. Like many theatres, the Embassy had a store of old-fashioned costumes. Miss Hird was outfitted for her role as a seamstress with a short velvet jacket pulled out of a box of Victorian clothing that had been in store.

While it was initially a perfect fit, during the run she experienced a degree of discomfort – at first just a little tightness under the arms, which grew worse and worse even after the jacket had been let out. Worse still, the brooch she was wearing felt as if it was sticking into her throat. Attempts to adjust it were futile, and when the show moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End she simply did away with the painful piece of jewelery.

Yet still the jacket caused discomfort. The tightness was particularly noted around the neck. The Stage Manager tried it on, and felt the same. The Director’s wife felt a similar pinch, and when she took it off she had painful red marks around her throat, consistent with an attempt at strangling. When Thora’s understudy, whom Miss Hird described as “very psychic,” tried it on, she saw a vision of a teenage girl wearing the jacket in her bathroom mirror that night.

Eventually it was decided that the jacket itself had to go. But before it did, a cast member named Frederick Piffard, at the instigation of esteemed periodical Psychic News, decided that a seance was the only way to get to the bottom of this mystery. On the last night, after the final curtain, it was organised. Instead of indulging in the traditional last night pasttime of getting roaring drunk, the cast, crew and three mediums held the seance on stage in front of an invited audience.

Almost everyone who tried the jacket on reported the same sensation of strangulation, one even needing to be revived with water. A couple off the street, too, felt the hands of a mysterious assailant when asked to put the garment on. No conclusions were reached as to the identity of the spectre that had apparently taken residence in this coat (not least because the audience was rather more sceptical than the mediums and happily voiced this fact), but two of the mediums reported an image of a young Victorian girl violently struggling against an unknown assailant.

Speaking personally, at the risk of sounding disrespectful to the late Dame Thora, I’m not particularly convinced. There have been some pretty hard-to-explain ghost stories that I’ve heard of, but this one could mostly be accounted for by a too-tight jacket and hysteria. Theatrical folk prone to hysteria? Surely not.

As for the jacket itself, apparently it made its way to America. So watch out next time you’re vintage shopping and you come across a bargain, I guess.

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Beneath the Grave – Ghosts of the Central Line

Good evening, fright-fans, it is I, Tom, your extravagantly-cleavaged Master of the Dark [picture inadmissable]. As Halloween approaches with the inevitability of death, I thought an appropriately-themed entry might be in order. As last year’s entry on the ghosts haunting the Northern Line was so popular, I figured I might continue the theme with the hauntings on the old Central London Railway or, as the kids call it nowadays, the Central Line. Mind the gap…

Northolt

You’ve all heard of the Beast of Bodmin, but did you know there was a Beast of Northolt? In the early 1990s, there were several sightings of a big cat alongside the Central Line between Northolt and Greenford. Accounts vary as to the species of cat, although most seem to settle on “puma.” Whence it came and how it got to Northolt without being noticed remain to be explained.

Marble Arch

If you should find yourself leaving Marble Arch late at night, when the station is quiet, you may find yourself being followed up the escalator. Several people have reported a sinister man in 1940s clothing who they sense close behind them on the escalator and see out of the corner of their eye. Upon turning around completely, the man vanishes. Again, no explanation has been offered as to who this restless spirit might be.

British Museum

Perhaps the most unlikely ghost out of the many on the Underground was sighted at this now-closed station. The ghost would, so the story goes, appear at one end of the platform and walk to the other, wailing mournfully. What marked this particular spectre out, however, was the fact that he was dressed in the clobber of an Ancient Egyptian. Being the intelligent and probably very sexy reader that you are, you’ve no doubt figured out why there might be an Ancient Egyptian haunting British Museum Station. To be more specific, the Egyptian is said to have some sort of link to the so-called Unlucky Mummy (pictured right), a sarcophagus lid in the Museum that is said to be cursed. This is just one of many legends attached to it, the most interesting of which says that it was responsible for sinking the Titanic.

Even bearing in mind that I’m a sceptic, I’m inclined to take this one with a pinch of salt. The accounts are lacking in detail and only emerged shortly before the station was closed down. I’m inclined to believe it was the invention of a journalist looking for a spooky story. Nevertheless, the story persists, albeit with the ghost now haunting Holborn. Why Holborn and not the closer Russell Square or Tottenham Court Road stations? It is a mystery.

Chancery Lane

Chancery Lane has plenty of secrets of its own, but in the tunnels between here and Holborn, there’s said to be one more surprise. During the 1960s,drivers stopping at signals here would often be freaked out by the appearance of a man standing next to them in the cab. Apparently some sort of fellow crewman, he would be staring straight ahead, and would vanish as soon as the train pulled away.

Bank

I covered the manife-stations (see what I did there) at this stop in last year’s entry, but I thought I’d mention that it’s a haunted station on the Central Line for those pedants who’ll leave comments if I don’t.

Liverpool Street

This terminus is built on the site of a plague pit and one of the several incarnations of the notorious Bedlam. The building of this and neighbouring Broad Street Station involved the disturbance of many final resting places, so really it would be surprising if there were no hauntings here. Sure enough, Liverpool Street and environs are said to be haunted by the ghastly screams of a woman.

The most popular suggestion for the screamer is one Rebecca Griffiths, an inmate at Bedlam in the late 18th century whose illness included a compulsive need to hold on to a particular coin. Upon her death, one of the staff (who were not known for their selflessness) stole it from her lifeless fingers and Rebecca’s inconsolable spirit searches for it still.

More recently, in 2000, the Line Controller sighted a man in white overalls in the tunnels who should not have been there. He sent the Station Supervisor to investigate, who found nothing. What made this particularly peculiar was that the Supervisor found no man down there – even though the Controller could see the man on the CCTV screen right next to him.

Bethnal Green

I’ll finish with the Easternmost of the haunted Central Line stations that I’m aware of, and one of the most frightening hauntings. This one is traceable to a specific incident that took place on 3rd March 1943. As often happened in the East End at that time, when the air raid siren sounded, the local people made for the Tube station. Unfortunately, on this night it had been decided to carry out a test-firing of an experimental new type of rocket in nearby Victoria Park. Panicked by what sounded like a very nearby explosion, the crowds surged forward. A woman on the stairs lost her footing and fell, taking several others with her and causing further panic, which in turn worsened the stampede and the crush inside the station. 173 people were killed in the disaster, crushed or asphyxiated. For reasons of morale, the Bethnal Green incident was covered up until 1946.

From 1981 onwards, however, there were reports of an extremely unnerving nature from the station. Staff working late at night spoke of hearing screams – at first one or two, then more and more, clearly identifiable as women and children. These screams would go on for up to fifteen minutes before dying down.

There you have it, readers. I hope you enjoy your Halloween this year and whatever you do, don’t have nightmares…

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Less passion, less protein

As a former big fat guy, I’m always mildly curious about interesting dietary concepts. Most of them are utter balderdash, of course (although if you want to lose weight, the one that worked for me was something I like to call “eating less”). Nevertheless, for curiosity and humour value you can’t beat the opinions of an uneducated self-appointed nutritional expert.

Picture unrelated.

And that brings me on to Mr Stanley Green.

There are plenty of crazy people shouting things down Oxford Street (including one who informed me, very emphatically, that God hates petrol), but North London boy Stanley Green was more notorious than all of them. He was a chap who had some interesting beliefs developed during his time in the Navy relating to “passion” (i.e. lust and aggression) – namely, he felt that there was too much of it in the world. He came to the conclusion that this was caused by an excess of protein in the modern diet.

Therefore, he took to the streets with a sandwich board that would make him an icon. Actually, there were several sandwich boards over the years, but all contained a variant of the basic slogan:

LESS LUST,

BY LESS

PROTEIN

MEAT FISH

BIRD: EGG

CHEESE: PEAS

(INC. LENTILS)

BEANS: NUTS.

AND SITTING.

PROTEIN WISDOM

I’d question how sitting is supposed to increase one’s levels of protein, although I suppose it could increase lust depending on where you’re sitting and on whom.

Green also sold a home-printed pamphlet entitled EIGHT PASSION PROTEINS WITH CARE – I’ve noticed that while you can’t fault your average crank for enthusiasm, written English does appear to be one of their weaker areas. If you’d like to read Mr Green’s full dissertation, it’s reproduced here. Green also tried his hand at longer works on the subject of passion, both fiction and non-fiction, neither of which have been published. Well, you know what they say – sex sells, so by extension anything that argues against it is probably not going to set the publishing world on fire.

Green began his crusade on the streets of Harrow in 1968 before taking on the tougher audiences of Oxford Street and Leicester Square. Although by all accounts he wasn’t as obnoxious as some of the street preachers out there, he doesn’t seem to have been universally well received. Frankly, a man with a sandwich board sounds a lot more agreeable than a woman screaming at me about how I “fornicate and take heroin” (chance’d be a fine thing). Nevertheless, a number of people took issue with his campaign, not least of whom were women who objected to being told that they “couldn’t deceive [their] groom that [they] are a virgin on [their] wedding night,” which suggests a lack of anatomical knowledge on Mr Green’s part. In later years, Green took to wearing overalls to protect himself from the spittle of those who disagreed with him. He was also arrested twice for obstruction, which struck him as immensely unjust.

With his fussy little moustache, his cap and of course his placard, Green became something of a London icon over the 25 years of his preaching. Although his campaign wasn’t exactly what you might call an overwhelming success, he was pretty well-known about the town. Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway even featured Green, complete with sandwich board, in one of his catwalk shows. The Primark knock-off has yet to appear.

In his personal life, unlike most Oxford Street preachers, Green appears to have been agnostic, which does rather raise the question of what he had against lust. As you might imagine, he kept his diet simple and boring. He remained single and lived alone, dying in 1993.

In recognition of Green’s pop culture status, his writings and placard have been preserved for the nation in the Museum of London, and have been put on display. Alas, with the demise of the sandwich board as of a 2008 law introduced by Westminster Council, we shall not see his like again. That’s what the Internet is for.

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To Be A Pirate King

After the signing on Saturday, Izzi and I rushed off to complete my pirate costume. Pirate costume? Perhaps I should explain.

You see, on Wednesday, my good chum Tiny Emma, who is well versed in the ways of debauchery, invited me along to an event held by an organisation known as Corset and Diamonds. This, I was told, was a burlesque-and-electro-swing evening themed around Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a film that I understand enjoyed a certain amount of success a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I’m currently rehearsing for a play that is on next week (you should come and see it, it’s going to be awesome) and so the amount of time available to produce a suitable outfit was somewhat limited. So, a certain amount of improvisation was needed. I decided a little research was in order.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that most of what we think of as “piratical” is more-or-less BS, invented by fiction writers, based on misunderstandings and half-truths, reinforced by years of retelling. For -instance, you know the old pirate voice, the “ha-harrr, Jim lad, splice the mainsail, keelhaul the mizzen-mast, belike and by thunder!” accent? That dates all the way back to 1950, derived from Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver in Disney’s version of Treasure Island. Now, there was some truth in his performance – he was a Cornishman by birth and based the accent on the sailors he used to see. But the near-universal Mummerset growl of Hollywood movies was nowhere near as prevalent as you might think. Particularly given that so many pirates were, you know, not English.

And you know the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull-and-crossbones? Again, nowhere near as common as the movies would have you believe. More common was the plain black flag, or the plain red flag. They both indicated that this ship was not part of any navy and therefore not obliged to follow any niceties of international law, and if you’d like to surrender now then I’m sure you’ll save us all a lot of bother. Most common of all, however, was to simply fly the colours of whatever country you were pretending to be from until the other ship was too near to run. This would arouse less suspicion than having, you know, a flag that basically says “HELLO WE ARE PIRATES” from a distance. Of course, for the pirate with a sense of style, an off-the-peg skull-and-crossbones wouldn’t do, and many prominent buccaneers went with a custom design. I rather like Blackbeard’s one, pictured below. By the way, the red flag was also commonly known as the “jolie rouge,” from which we get the term “Jolly Roger.” So there you have it.

But what about clothes? Your basic pirate costume seems to come in two forms. You’ve either got the foppish Captain Hook-style outfit, very elaborate, lots of brass buttons, or you’ve got the raggedy seadog look.

The reality, in fact, lay somewhere between the two extremes. Pirates did indeed like to dress up, they were basically the pimps of the sea in sartorial terms. But commonly, the elaborate clothes they were able to get were stolen. So you might get a seadog acting the foppish macaroni in the coat several sizes too large, tottering along in shoes a size too small.

However, your average sailor was also pretty handy with a needle and thread – they had to be, with sail repairs to be made. So they could rustle up their own clothes if needs be. And if a recent haul included silk, lace or other fancy cloth, those clothes could be extremely… do people still say “bling?” Am I using that word correctly?

So the conclusions I drew:

1. There is a lot of freedom, the only limits on an authentic costume being period accuracy.

2. The party is tomorrow and I don’t have much money, throw something together.

So, what I went with:

Shirt: They all laughed at me when I bought a frilly white shirt at the Stables in Camden, but WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? It came from that basement stall run by that rather theatrical-looking woman.

Trousers: I don’t own any breeches, sadly. There is a shop in Camden that has a lot of theatrical costume, including several pairs of breeches, but these were around the £35-40 mark, which was a bit much for me. However, in the Paws charity shop in Tooting I found a pair of black trousers. I hacked the legs off below the knee to create a raggedy look that might, if you didn’t look too closely, pass for breeches.

Waistcoat: I have a rather elaborate and shiny red waistcoat with brass and mother-of-pearl buttons. The style is a bit too modern for the Golden Age of Piracy, but with it worn open this wasn’t too noticeable. Just the sort of thing a dandy sailing lad might steal from a fat unarmed merchantman.

Footwear: If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from years of amateur dramatics, it’s that if you wear a pair of breeches and a pair of long socks, nobody can tell you’re not wearing stockings. Shoe-wise, I just wore my trusty black Oxford brogues. Ideally I’d have liked a buckle, but I didn’t have any.

Headgear: At Izzi’s suggestion, I picked up a black bandanna from a stall in Oxford Street. I also managed to get a brown tricorn at So High Soho on Berwick Street which looked a lot more elaborate than its price tag would suggest. The shop was closing for the day, but they let me dash in, which was cool of them. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a decent pirate hat that is both affordable and doesn’t look crap? Very hard.

Accessorising:  Primark really came through here. I found a cheapo pendant for £1.50 in the Tooting branch along with a battered-looking brown belt which was free because the guy on the till forgot to ring it through har har. I also added a couple of pocket watches and two more pendants to give the whole ensemble that more-plunder-than-sense look. The finishing touch was a sword from Escapade in Camden.

I met up with Anna K and we made our way to the party. I think the outfit was pretty successful, it was reacted to favourably at the event. It also seemed to make the hobo outside Colliers Wood Tube Station quite angry, but I don’t speak derelict so I couldn’t tell you why. On the way back I had a number of drunks shouting “Captain Jack Sparrow!” which would be quite witty, only I actually was deliberately dressed as a pirate, so not really.

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The Beasts with Two Backs

Saturday was a busy, busy day. It started when I woke up in bed with two women and an empty champagne bottle. However, because this is the real world, the reason I was in bed with two women was because we’d passed out watching Moulin Rouge. The champagne is more complicated, and remind me to tell you about it some time.

Rashly, I had agreed to meet the Da and the Sis in London for lunch, and so I had to stagger back from Fulwell to Colliers Wood to get myself into some sort of respectable state. On the way, I decided that mobile phones should be banned on buses, purely because when you have a pounding headache and rising nausea, there is little that is more annoying than a guy sitting directly behind you, babbling non-stop for the entire journey. Well, actually, screaming kids are more annoying. There was one of those, too.

I had hoped a shower, a snooze and some lunch would take care of the hangover. Even a hair of the dog at the Princess Louise in Holborn didn’t help. This was particularly lame, as I was supposed to be meeting some of my theatrical chums at the Natural History Museum.

Our destination was the Sexual Nature exhibition, and after half an hour in line in the sun (with a hangover, I don’t think I mentioned that before) we were in. The exhibition, if you haven’t seen it, is basically devoted to the subject of reproduction in the animal kingdom. Reproduction is a hugely important part of life – if you go with Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory, it’s basically the meaning of life. But what makes this such an interesting exhibition is the incredible variety of it out there.

The exhibition covers a very wide area, from mating displays to pheromonesto  The Deed Itself to birth and those early days of life. Each section in turn covers a huge and incredible variety. Take the seahorse, where the males are the ones who give birth. Or ducks, in which the females have evolutionary strategies to deal with gang rape. Or the angler fish, for whom the males are so much smaller than the females that scientists initially thought they were parasites (any radical feminists in the readership?).

Isabella Rossellini is a strange woman.

Although such a broad topic is by necessity going to be unable to cover any individual topic in great depth, it certainly brought home the incredible variation among the many, many species with which we share the planet. We were particularly taken by the section on scent, including a rather pungent exhibit enabling you to experience the smell of jaguar piss. And there were a number of very strange short films by Isabella Rossellini from the Green Porno series. Good fun.

Following a swift cheap-and-cheerful Chinese meal, we headed over to Holborn, to the Princess Louise. As I think I’ve said before, this is one of my all-time favourite pubs, due to its pure Victorian decor downstairs, its luxurious lounge upstairs and, not that I want to sound like a cheapskate or anything, the fact that you can get a round of drinks for a tenner without descending to the accursed levels of Wetherspoons. Here, we met Shoinan for more alcohol and inappropriate conversation. At this point, my hangover finally subsided and I could return to damaging my liver in earnest.

After this, Shoinan and I decided to move on into sinful Soho to see where a couple of reprobates like us could get some more booze. We came upon the Nellie Dean, a pub we’d visited once before. This is another old-skool place, unkempt, disreputable-looking, not too crowded and not remotely trendy. Therefore, ideal for us. It’s also open until midnight, which helps. We continued to put the world to rights over a jug of Pimms (executive decision by Shoinan) before heading home.

I feel we all learnt a lot that day. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it. Hey ho.

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The Need for Speed

It just so happened that last night Yr. Humble Chronicler was presented with an opportunity to have dinner at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. Such exalted circles I move in. The RAC may be familiar to you as a breakdown service. In fact, this is a spin-off of the main organisation, which is a gentleman’s club started to campaign for motorists’ interests.

The dinner for which I managed to wangle an invite was ‘Land Speed Legends,’ themed – as you might guess – around the Land Speed Record. The guest speakers were Don Wales, of the Campbell record-breaking dynasty, and Richard Noble, responsible for the successful Thrust record attempts in the 1980s and 90s.

Despite not being much of a petrolhead myself, and not even remotely a follower of motorsport, I do take an interest in the Land Speed Record. I think it might be because it’s one of the last remnants of that spirit of exploration that died out some time in the second half of the 20th century. With the globe mapped out and with humanity having got as far as the moon, there seem to be so few boundaries left to cross.

I think it’s also one of the few areas of engineering in which Britain still excels – decades of underinvestment have left us with an engineering industry that’s great for cutting-edge, high-end, one-off-type stuff, but not so much on the mass production side. It’s quite heartening to know that there are certain areas in which we can still fly the flag.

So therefore, I was rather looking forward to the evening. The RAC is a rather old-school club, not the sort of scummy place I normally hang around in, but I think I managed to avoid making a fool out of myself. What helped was the fact that most of the members are petrolheads, and car folk tend to be very friendly in my experience.

The decor was rather sumptuous in an early-twentieth-century way with, predictably, lots of paintings depicting motor sport. To my surprise, the lobby featured the electric car Bluebird (the latest in a long line of vehicles by that name) in which Don Wales intends to go for the record for an electrically-powered vehicle. With environmentalism a hot topic as ever, the pursuit of excellence in alternatives to petrol propulsion is to be lauded. Wales currently holds the record for a steam-driven vehicle and, er, a lawnmower. Seeing the Bluebird parked inthe foyer of a gentlemen’s club took me particularly aback, given the fuss my flatmates make when I park my car in the living room.

Dinner was utterly exquisite – I’ve noticed that often these places fall down when it comes to the food itself, but I have never had such fine duck in all my born days. That’s not some sort of 18th century euphemism, but it sounds like it could be.

After indulging freely in food and wine, Messrs Wales and Noble gave their talks. Andy Green, driver of the supersonic Thrust SSC that took the record back in 1997,  was also supposed to be in attendance but was unable to make it due to being an actual fighter pilot. Nevertheless, the talk was very interesting indeed if you are into that sort of thing, and I am.

Noble explained the Bloodhound SSC project to build the first car to go at over 1000 miles per hour (concept picture seen right). He described the difficulties faced in its design and some of the interesting findings they’ve made concerning the behaviour of vehicles at those kinds of speeds. Despite the best computer simulations available, this really is virgin territory – the smallest of factors can have dramatic effects on the final run. The value of these projects, quite apart from the fact that they are excellent promotion for British engineering, lies in the practical applications of these findings – today’s pioneering technology is that which we take for granted tomorrow.

Speaking personally, I hope the Bloodhound succeeds because, well, it’s pretty cool. And I was drunk on free wine when they pitched it.

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And now the story…

Check this out, my droogs. Very little to do with London, but it was a funny thing that happened involving me and the author, Shoinan. That is all. Anyway, I’m off to write today’s real entry.

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