Soho Is

This documentary is a paean to Soho, ‘the most cosmopolitan place on earth, a precious jewel’ according to Robert Elms. In December 2014 Westminster Council closed and repossessed Madame JoJos, that iconic venue which was the heartbeat of the LBGTQI community that breathed life into that ‘golden territory’ we call Soho.

In response local musician and songwriter Tim Arnold founded Save Soho. Soon he had Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch on board which helped raise the PR profile and get them interviews on the national media. More importantly, he galvanized Soho residents who could see that this was another serious blow to the survival of the community that gives them livelihoods, shelter and most of all a sense of place. As June ‘Dot Cotton’ Brown says (I think) at one point, London is a collection of villages and Soho is at the epicentre of them all.

I have known Tim for many years; our daughter, the eponymous Little London Lou, helped him out on gigs from the age of 14; her 16th birthday present from us was a table at Ronnie Scotts at which Tim and several other friends were guests. I remember once going to support her when she was hosting a Hepatitis C fundraiser at Madame JoJos; I know had she been alive in 2014 she would have been on the streets protesting about the doors closing and supporting the street girls who were turfed out of Romilly street shortly afterwards. Tim recorded that haunting song for us in her memory, for which we are ever grateful. 

So it was with great pleasure that I watched this labour of love to honour the community that has nourished him from his early years – his mother Polly Perkins was a Windmill girl, his grandfather Dickie Arnold an actor/manager for Paul Raymond – and provided the inspiration for many of his most famous songs, several of which serve as the soundtrack here – Soho Heroes, Manners on the Manner, Old Compton Street Blues, Neon Glow, Don’t Go Changing Soho and many, many more.

Arnold and his co-director Kevin Godley have assembled a compelling film narrated by some of Soho’s colourful characters – bar owners, club managers, teachers, tailors, barbers, restauranteurs, prostitutes, councillors, actors and artists. It begins with the catalysing shut-down of Madame JoJos and includes news clips of events such as the demolition of the Astoria Theatre, a music hall venue which witnessed the likes of the Max Miller Band, the rise of punk and indy music, and is interspersed with interviews (most classily filmed in black shadow) with some of the celebrities, such as Paloma Faith, Jools Holland, Robert Elms, Terry Gilliam and of course Stephen Fry himself, explaining why Soho means so much to them. Even Boris when he was mayor makes an appearance in favour of Save Soho – perhaps the one good thing I can remember him for.

But there is more to the film than being a simple love-song to a neighborhood.  It is the story of the gentrification of an historic area, where they hunted hares before and foxes after lunch in the sixteenth century, and where the combination of Crossrail, Westminster council, and the estate landlords have been sealing the fate of London’s cultural heartland.

Soho Estates promised to retain Raymond’s Review Bar when they decided to renovate it, but it became a private members club with a hefty fee, quite out of range to Soho residents. As one landlord said to Tim, ‘Music has had its day in Soho’; although the fact is that Soho has been the incubator of the 6.5bn UK music industry for generations, and this is what is under threat as the live music venues are shut down to make way for shopping malls and hotels for tourists.

Now the Soho Curzon is slated to close for phase 2 of Crossrail – as the film points out this is more than a cinema but a meeting place and a local hub, following the demise of many of the cheaper clubs and bars in exchange for expensive restaurants and cafes for the interlopers. The new station will disgorge over 200,000 people per hour into the tiny Soho streets. As Marc Almond says ‘gentrification is a thing for making money’; the secret, sleezy side of Soho, its humour, individuals and character, according to Terry Gilliam is the ‘shit [that] makes beautiful things flourish’. 

In a valedictory statement as the film nears its end, Arnold asks people what they will remember Soho for. Stephen Fry puts it well: ‘wit’ – it encapsulates the characters, the banter, the sense of belonging, a place where everyone knows everyone. As the credits roll we are reminded of the fantastic cast list of characters who have made Soho; let’s hope that it remains a place to encourage young talent, ‘our birthright’ according to Robert Elms, and that it does not become a place where there is ‘a price for everything but value for nothing’. The one solace might be that Jools Holland’s prescient wish for ‘a world war or a recession’ puts a stop to any more damage. 

Tim Arnold with Kevin Godley and Jools Holland

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