In the 21st century, London has a “night tube” and bills itself as a 24-hour, always-on city, in imitation of New York. Before the legendary Scala cinema at Kings Cross in the 1980s, there were other cinemas in London that were open all night, especially the Electric film club in Notting Hill, which has its 50th anniversary this year. Copying the midnight movie theatres which they read about in the underground press, especially The Elgin in New York’s West Village, London’s hippie venues provided nocturnal oases for the revolutionaries, radicals, hermits, hedonists, black magicians and black marketeers, the seekers after truth, the transients, anarchists, freaks and malingerers of the Seventies counterculture, all adrift in the city at night.
“There was this cinema on the Portobello Road, the Electric Cinema, and it was the oldest cinema in England, the first to show movies. It was owned by some strange old man who lived up in Edgware and was managed by a man called Paul who looked like Bill Haley and was only about 4’3” and put margarine in his hair. It was taken over by John McWilliams. He was renting films from various places […] a mixture of classics like stuff by Cocteau, Buster Keaton, ‘Metropolis’, plus modern underground things like ‘Pull My Daisy’, abstract movies… it was packed. Huge crowds. It cost a shilling to get in, later it went up to four shillings. The place used to fall to bits, it had old-fashioned steam heat and every now and then a piece of the ceiling used to fall on the seats and they’d collapse, but it was a safe haven for hippies. The ethos of the place was ‘We are the community.’ The Electric Cinema at one time was the major fund-raising organisation in the underground. I mean everybody needed money and got it from the Electric.”
—Peter Brown, former manager of the Electric Cinema, 1988.1
October is the month the clocks go back. As the summer light dims and fades, we become more aware of the importance of light and of the extra hour of daylight we’re about to lose.
The first buildings to be constructed with mostly electric-power in the UK were cinemas. They transformed electricity into warmth, into light—materializing imagination into a collective dreamtime, in the form of films—and into a temporary community. The first all-electric cinema was in Birmingham, in England’s Midlands. Then followed the ones in the capital: in Pimlico, London (now gone, sadly, its last glorious incarnation being as a gay porn cinema); and the Electric in Notting Hill, which under the ownership of property company Soho House is still going strong, but now as much as a boutique space for hire for corporate events as it is as a cinema.
The physical footprints of cinema buildings connect the past, present and future because, as large public structures, they also leave a footprint in our collective, yet at the same time private, memories. The light radiated by cinemas traces an invisible thread back through time, of millions of personal decisions to take trips, to and fro, to the pictures. We can locate a personal memory of a cinema visit inside a shared one of the movie’s release and reception. Like most people my age I have very vivid memories of seeing the first Star Wars when it came out in 1977, for example.
This effect, of a superimposition of personal and cultural memory, is due not only to the buildings being familiar to us, but is also due to our recollections of the stories contained in the films as well; especially when films are set near—or in rare cases, inside—cinema buildings. We notice the things that have changed, and the things which have stayed the same about familiar public spaces. Only cinema can do this: allow us to see back a century, to witness not only how things looked but how they felt as well.
Sixty years ago, on the night of September 2nd, 1958, an estimated 300 men from West London’s black community barricaded themselves in The Fortress, Totobag’s cafe at 9 Blenheim Crescent,which is still standing round the corner from the Electric, with the cafe’s familiar exterior, and sepia-orange doors that were once green. The building is currently being renovated. Totobag’s is a two minute walk from the equally famous blue door of Hugh Grant’s “Travel Bookshop” from Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill at 280 Westbourne Park Road. I’m writing a book centered on the Electric Cinema nearby on Portobello Road and its role in the Seventies counterculture. According to locals I interviewed over the summer, tourists who photograph themselves outside the Notting Hill blue door often then ask for directions to nearby Grenfell Tower, for more selfies by the site of the June 2017 tower block fire in which at least 79 people asphyxiated and burned to death. An imagined version of the city that exists in movies, and a tragically real one that exists in the news, have both imprinted themselves in the popular imagination through the reiterative reproduction of images of London, around the world and online.
With lights out and curtains drawn, occupiers of The Fortress waited for a signal from women from the community, who were also barricaded in at No. 6 across the road. At 10pm, a racist male mob appeared, yelling. The windows opened, Molotov cocktails descended, the mob ran for cover. One activist, Baron Baker, is said to have shouted after them “get back to where you come from!” as the improvised Afro-Caribbean self-defence battalion charged out of Totobag’s. Racist Teds, and “indigenous” Londoners egged on by Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts, were seen off on September 2nd, 1958 because, unlike the Notting Hill residents they sought to harm, they didn’t know the area. On a recent visit, I fished some bits of skirting board from The Fortress out of a skip, and can now hold in my hand a part of the history of resistance to intolerance in England. It’s a talisman imbued with great symbolic power, like all of the structures on Portobello Road.
The ability of the black British street fighters to create a stockade and to bring comrades in from Brixton by van, unnoticed, was a direct result of the lack of interest that white people showed in West London’s biggest African and Caribbean community at the time. There’s no contemporary feature film using these events as a backdrop. What we have as a record are British Pathé newsreels. (The official voice of the news in British cinemas before the main film was strikingly less accommodating of racist street thugs in 1958 than the BBC and government are today: “opinions differ about Britain’s racial problems” the impeccably sonorous voice-over opines, “but the mentality which tries to solve them with coshes and broken railings has no place in the British way of life. This violence is evil, and the Law and public opinion must stamp it out.”) We get a glimpse of grotty Notting Hill in the ‘50s and ‘60s in a few quota quickies, though; the main one being Michael Winner’s unfairly overlooked West 11, starring the—by 1963, deactivated—post-War British sex bomb, Diana Dors.
Over the decade that followed, an alliance emerged between West Indian homeowners and hippie activists who had moved into the area, attracted by the freewheeling attitude and low or no-rents. They included the revolutionary cadre the White Panthers, the rock band Hawkwind fronted by Lemmy (of Motorhead fame, subsequently), the photo-journalist John “Hoppy” Hopkins, the author Michael Moorcock, and the sex-positive feminist and artist Caroline Coon (this is a moment captured in Jo Gannon’s 1970 film Getting It Straight In Notting Hill Gate, which you can find on the BFI Player). Together, they saved many run-down Victorian and Edwardian houses from demolition and repurposed the newly built Westway motorway flyover as a monsoon awning, the public space this then freed up being utilised in ingenious ways for community activities. Other newcomers formed the ‘squatter’s republic’ of Frestonia and one of its spin-offs, the Mutoid Waste Company, who still make robots out of recycled machinery and cars in Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy.
The epoch of mutual support and cheerfully impecunious coexistence—artists, revolutionaries and Afro Caribbean Londoners all scraping by in a crumbling Ladbroke Grove—is captured in the weird 1975 black and white musical The Moon Over The Alley,directed by Canadians Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq and scored by Galt MacDermont (who had written the West End stage hit ‘Hair’, before it). The film is also viewable on the BFI Player and on a lovingly restored Flipside Blu-ray along with Despins and Dumaresq’s weirder-still Duffer (a kind of sadomasochistic version of the contemporary TV situation comedy Rising Damp, also set in a squalid boarding house). The Moon Over The Alley features the one appearance of the Electric in its hippie heyday, though former Electric manager Peter Howden points out that on its release the club was unhappy with the grim depiction of their cinema, so at the end of the film a disclaimer was added to that effect. Howden also points out that Getting It Straight In Notting Hill Gate managed to overlook the Electric altogether.
While the moment in British social history evaded a fitting, filmic document at the time, the discovery of common cause among residents of Notting Hill in the mid-70s forged both a community with a distinctive character, and what has become a “destination” street market. In 2018, the “spirit” of Notting Hill throughout most of the year is typified by a vaguely louche, laid-back street life—the independent barista coffee emporia, “vintage” shops, and high-end boutiques selling branded handbags and shoes, the non-threatening multiculturalism and conspicuous consumption which are the hallmarks of gentrification the world over—fueled by the limitless mobility of wealth. Despite this anodyne and inoffensive atmosphere, once a year a genuinely ‘local’ and distinctively Caribbean street carnival breaks cover.
Notting Hill’s carnival was created in direct response to the events of 1958, through the inspiring leadership of Claudia Jones, Trinidad-born, US-radicalized, and exiled to London for her communist affiliations. As well as being a legacy of the Windrush generation of immigration to the UK from the Caribbean, the carnival is also suffused with an authentic ‘60s and ‘70s ethos of unity, community and joyous rebellion.
Music producer Trevor Horn’s legendary Sarm West Studios is nearby to the Electric in Basing Street, where Band Aid recorded “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and Queen made “We Are The Champions.” The building is being constantly refurbished but will probably remain as recording studios; unlike, so many centres of music, TV and film production in London which have been converted into flats (such as the former home of Hammer Studios, Bray; and Capital Studios in Wandsworth, South West London, where David Bowie made the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video). In previous lives, Sarm West has been a congregational chapel and a factory making “Shop Fittings for all Trades. Papier Mache, Wax & Mechanical Figures. Shop Fronts & Show Cases.” Rough Trade Records—a stay-behind cell of crustie self-sufficiency and pre-Tank Girl, pre-Internet, cyberpunk DIY-lifehacking—is directly across the road from the Electric.
The persisting radical spirit, ground into the grout of the brickwork of the Electric Cinema, is part of what makes Notting Hill so attractive to investors. So much so that the area’s many ornate properties—saved from the wrecking ball by the hippies and Afro Caribbean activists—will never be affordable to immigrants and bohemian drop-outs, ever again.
The no-questions-asked attitude resulting from black ownership of the Victorian and Edwardian houses which survived the Blitz—an attitude which had, in the mid-1950s, made the area attractive to beatniks, poets, musicians, radicals from all backgrounds—had also attracted at least one gay novelist.
When it came to making Colin McInnes’s book set during the 1958 riots, Absolute Beginners, into a film in 1985 (inverting “58” and “85” after the film of Nineteen Eighty-Four had been released in 1984), the director Julien Temple felt the greatest authenticity could be achieved by rebuilding McInnes’s multicultural, ambisextrous “Napoli” of Blenheim Crescent and Bramley Road on the sound stage at Shepperton Studios. Temple told the NME:
“I don't think they'd let you stage a race riot that easily in Notting Hill these days; and the place itself has all been painted in pretty electric blues or apricot and pink, whereas in the 50s it was all crumbling and blackened slums.”
Describing Napoli’s streets, McInnes’s narrator says Notting Dale was a “stagnating slum. It’s dying this part of London.” He observes:
“…broken milk bottles everywhere scattering the cracked asphalt roads like snow, and cars parked in the streets looking as if they’re stolen or abandoned, and a strange number of urinals tucked away such as you find nowhere else in London, and red curtains, somehow, in all the windows, and diarrhoea-coloured street lighting – man I tell you, you’ve only got to be there for a minute to know there’s something radically wrong.”
Temple’s talented art department, under John Beard, recreated Napoli with an almost obsessive love for its bombsites, battered Edwardian architraves and hand-painted signs. Rarely has such love been lavished on making London look so authentically dreadful.
The ‘50s musical in the imaginations of every reader of The Face lifestyle magazine at the time, Absolute Beginners has an astounding cast including David Bowie, Sade, Mandy Rice-Davis, Stephen Berkoff as Moseley, Slim Gaillard, Ray Davies, and Patsy Kensit. The opening—a stunning, swooping, neon-suffused continuous shot of Soho (another meticulously-built set)—in its digital cut is now returned to Temple’s original vision, an homage to the opening of Val Guest’s Expresso Bongo, which itself stars Laurence Harvey, Cliff Richard and the Shadows. A restored Expresso Bongo was recently a surprise best-selling Blu-ray and DVD from BFI’s Flipside series.
The way Temple tells it, saving the opening sequence was the most he could achieve after a panicked studio had fired the film-makers. “When the shoot finished we were taken off it,” Temple told Ian Schultz of The Quietus in 2016, ahead of the film’s Blu-Ray release,“the producers and myself, and they had three editors—one took the beginning one the middle and one the end and they cut the opening shot up into about a thousand pieces. They didn’t like the ambition of that, I guess, and they couldn’t make it work.”2
Absolute Beginners was blamed for the collapse of the British film industry at the time. It was one of three productions that went over budget, nearly forcing Goldcrest Films to bankruptcy. The company, founded by Canadian banker Jake Eberts, had revitalised British film production with multiple Oscar-winning hits, including Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, The Killing Fields and Gandhi. The negative hype that singled out Temple’s film for the change in Goldcrest’s fortunes was unfair, given that their other two commercial disasters at the time—The Mission and Revolution—went further over budget and lost more money when they flopped at the box office.
The film’s producer and, before that, one of the managers of the Scala cinema, Stephen Woolley says of Absolute Beginners in 2018: “‘it was a mixture of some wonderful music and some great scenes and some so-so music and not so great scenes.” While this is admirable self-deprecation, it’s also perhaps downplaying the impact that Temple’s visual audacity has today, in an era when the apogee of British film’s ambition is heritage paeans to Empire, and The Inbetweeners movie. Any film which features Ray Davies dancing around his semi-detached house—sliced down the middle like a birthday cake—as his wife, played by one of the women who brought down the MacMillan government, carries on with the lodger, the building collapsing slowly around them as bits of plaster fall off the ceilings, deserves another long and languorous look.
Woolley also connects the film to the punk era of Rough Trade and The Clash, to Portobello Road, and the carnival which emerged from riots: “In the 70s, during the height of punk, we always referred to the Notting Hill Carnival as the Notting Hill Riot. The police presence inevitably led to trouble every year.”
I interviewed some retired gentlemen from the area recently, both of them living in council flats near to the Electric Cinema, which is round the corner from Totobag’s, ‘The Fortress,’ and across the road from Rough Trade records (another cultural landmark and site of pilgrimage for tourists). Sipping tea from blue and orange French-style mugs and saucers on the pavement outside a boutique-y barista café, one told me, “I had black friends but I had white mates on the other side in the riots too. It was mental.” They partly blamed events in 1958 on local gangs who provided Moseley with foot soldiers, “the Bakers, Bells and Wisers.” (Neither of them wanted to be identified after they’d named local villains, “they’ve still got grandkids.”)
I asked them about other landmarks such as the Electric Cinema. As children, they knew it as The Imperial. “I used to live in there. I liked watching Flash Gordon serials,” said one. I remarked that I’ve made a personal pilgrimage to some of the cinemas in Scottsdale, Arizona, a city where James Dean chilled out in the ‘50s, mooching around looking for imported linens, and Flash Gordon star Buster Crabbe (not, in those days, openly gay) had retired. My Flash Gordon-fan interviewee sipped his tea. “Dig up ‘is old bones.”
MIDNIGHT AT THE ELGIN
Midnight movies started, arguably, on the west coast of America rather than in New York: in Los Angeles, and at Stephen Arnold’s Nocturnal Dream Shows starring the avant-garde trans troupe the Cockettes, held at the Pagoda Palace Theatre in San Francisco. It’s true that Alexandro Jodorowsky’s bizarre sadosexual Catholic Western allegory El Topo had begun the trend in 1971. For many months, it ran continuously at the witching hour on the screen of The Elgin, 175 Eighth Avenue,in New York City’s West Village (now a theatre dedicated to live dance performance, round the corner from the Chelsea Hotel). This unexpected and phenomenal success was thanks to El Topo being blessed at midnight showings by the presence of Yoko Ono and by her husband, the expatriate ex-Fab, John Lennon. The screenings of ‘El Topo’ had no other promotion besides word-of-mouth and an ad in the Village Voice which simply read “too heavy to be shown any other way.”3
But before El Topo at midnight at The Elgin there had been the Underground Cinema 12 festival, which started out in 1965 run by John Fles as Round Midnight at the Cinema Theatre 1122 North Western Avenue, Los Angeles. The theatre’s owner, Louis K. Sher, was based at the Kiva Theatre at 7125 East Main Street, Scottsdale, Arizona (until recently, a cowboy-themed mini-mall, now just a mini-mall), where a young Steven Speilberg first saw John Ford, Zorro and Flash Gordon flicks at Saturday morning matinees. When Mike Getz, Sher’s nephew, took over the rundown L.A. movie theatre from Fles in 1968, Getz changed the name of the midnight shows to Underground Cinema 12 (UC12) and started touring his collection of film prints around Sher’s chain. At first it was to an audience of Getz’s friends but it rapidly became a huge, regular “happening.” According to local L.A. legend, the line-up before the doors opened literally went round the block, and spilled down Santa Monica Boulevard.
UC12 acted as the Johnny Appleseed for the emerging cinema of freaks, much as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were dispensing LSD-laced Kool-Aid from their van at around the same time. Gathering at midnight in uncle Louis’ chain of crappy and neglected old movie theatres across California and the Southwest, to watch an odd assortment of rock concert movies, porn, foreign and art house films, cartoons, W.C. Fields and Busby Berkeley musicals, this transient new audience which El Topo tapped into a few years later consumed phenomenal quantities of sacramental herbs in the darkness. All in an effort to commune with oblique and indistinct spirits trapped on celluloid.
What John and Yoko brought to the occult working at midnight of El Topo, was what made The Rocky Horror Picture Show a success a few years later in its first incarnation in London as a stage musical. The live Rocky Horror ran in the old Chelsea Classic cinema on the Kings Road when it was close to demolition, before moving to the U.S.A. and then onto celluloid immortality as the most truly cult-like of all cult films. In the case of El Topo, its success as a midnight movie was due both to the imprimatur of John and Yoko’s countercultural celebrity; but it was also due to the sense that by their physical presence—and as is also the case with Rocky Horror—the line between performers and audience was being blurred.
St. Marks Cinema was located at 133 Second Avenue, New York City (it has since been converted into condominiums and is currently for sale, the ground floor shop space has been a Gap and a Verizon phone store in recent years). In 1971 it hosted a ten-week stint of another bloody and visually arresting midnight hit, Fernando Arrabal's Viva la muerte, set in the Spanish Civil War and filmed in Tunisia. Blood-soaked, surrealistic celluloid polyptychs responding to military coups and conflict, and suffused with Mediterranean shamanism, were “in” as far as New York’s nascent midnight movie congregation of late 1971 was concerned. It’s not hard to see why, with America mired deep in the Vietnam War and President Nixon a year away from re-election, that these themes struck a chord with New York’s nocturnal hipster flotsam; as the counterculture took a turn from recondite hippie hocus pocus, to cults and Kool-Aid.
Having abandoned the U.K. for good and settled in Manhattan, John Lennon had moved a twenty-minute cab ride away from St. Marks Cinema, to the St. Regis Hotel, near the corner of Central Park, and nowadays a block from Trump Tower. Lennon liked the St. Marks Cinema and Viva la muerte, which he saw for the first time with Yoko at the Cannes Film Festival. He became a regular during its New York run.
Director Jim Jarmusch worked as an usher at St Marks Cinema in later years and used it as a location in his first film, in 1980, ‘Permanent Vacation’. In it, you can still see the puke green and mustard colored walls of its late 70s’ foyer. The Rollerball lettering on its popcorn machine and the matching trim on the counters were the orange and clotted blood color of SodaStream, if you mixed all the syrups together in a spirit of experimentation (which was not an uncommon pastime in 1980, besides watching second-run movies in fleapit cinemas).
Jarmusch told interviewer Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1994:
“It was like a two dollar theatre, or something, and I was the new usher so they used to make me do things like, you know ‘Jim, get your flashlight, go down there and tell those Hell’s Angels there’s no reefer smoking.’ [laughter] Stuff like that.”5
Having been turned on to Arrabal's Viva la muerte, John and Yoko became such huge fans of El Topo when it was playing across town at The Elgin in 1971 that, having seen it for the third or fourth time, they persuaded their manager Allen Klein to buy the rights.
Klein purchased half the rights and a five year distribution deal from the U.S. owner Alan Douglas, not for Lennon but for Klein’s ABKCO company, which today owns music by—among others—Marianne Faithfull, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, as well as Jodorowsky’s early films. (Subsequently, Lennon put up $1 million for Jodorowsky's next movie, The Holy Mountain.)
In November 1971, within a few weeks of Klein purchasing the rights to El Topo, there was a $60,000 billboard ($373,549 in today’s money) up in Times Square, the five-building length of an entire block, announcing “Allen Klein presents El Topo an ABKCO film.” When Alan Douglas held a press party in San Francisco, he had to buy tickets for his guests to see the movie which he co-owned.4 Klein ordered a new movie trailer, full of horses whinnying portentously and percussive Sergio Leone-style gunshot noises, over a bed of sombre church organ chords. (“Be prepared to live the most wonderful experience of your life,” it begins, heralding the film as a “classic.” Then later “El Topo is not a religious film. It contains all religions.”) The film was rebooked into Film Forum in its old location, 57 Watts Street in Soho (about half an hour’s walk south of The Elgin) for five shows a day, starting at ten o’clock in the morning. It closed within three days.
In the early months of 1971, the success of El Topo at The Elgin had eclipsed its reputation as a film. By the time it made it to a more conventional run at Film Forum later in the year, El Topo was being seen more for what it truly was, an intriguing, hyper-real—if deeply troubling—visual tour de force by Jodorowsky which, for all its flaws and problems, captured the mood of the time.
In November, Roger Greenspun wrote in the New York Times that, in its months of midnight screenings at The Elgin, El Topo:
“won what not even the most fashionable success at the East Side art houses has won, genuine followers who depended not on advertising and not, God knows, on influential critical opinion, but on their own needs and their own unaided enthusiasms. Those followers - I'm not sure I'd want to call them just an audience - have also earned a modicum of fame. And some of them, the kids in capes and wide-brimmed hats, the ‘El Topo’ freaks, re-materialized the other night for a sneak preview at the Forum where, yesterday, their movie began its long-awaited full-scale commercial run. […] in looking for a fancy comparison, Borges, like Blake, comes too easily to mind. One admiring reviewer calls it, disarmingly, ‘a work of incomprehensible depth.’ But it is more nearly a work of incomprehensible breadth, and I am not persuaded that Jodorowsky, any more than the rest of us, altogether knows what he is about.”6
At El Topo screenings, the magic liminal space between the priesthood of Lennon and Yoko, mavens of fickle countercultural taste, and the congregation of their fans, had been transgressed in a comingling of freaks. (This was a blurred line which was to prove fatal for Lennon in 1980. It was his relaxed attitude to the public, living a new life in his beloved New York, which helped Mark Chapman, psychotic and unwell, to track him down and to kill him.)
In July of 1971, when they were still resident in Ascot, England, John and Yoko gave an interview at their sumptuous home, Tittenhurst Park, to Jamie Mandelkau and William Bloom of International Times. Tittenhurst was where Lennon wrote and recorded “Imagine” and “Power to the People,” and where the couple breached planning regulations by installing an ornamental fountain. The interview was granted to discuss Grapefruit, a book documenting Ono’s performance art in the early Sixties as “event scores,” what are essentially sets of instructions which other artists can replicate. Event scores had been developed by the artists attending John Cage’s New School for Social Research in New York City, which in 1959 had included both Ono and her husband at the time, Ichiyangi Toshi. One work which came up, inevitably, in conversation with International Times in 1971 was “Cut Piece,” one of Yoko Ono’s earliest scores, which is widely discussed within conceptual art practice to this day, as is her book Grapefruit which is considered groundbreaking.
In “Cut Piece,” Ono or a surrogate artist sits on stage and the audience is invited to cut pieces off their clothes with scissors. Yoko’s conscious intentions when she first performed it in 1960 were both to channel a selfless act by the performer—she explained it in terms of Buddhist philosophy—and to break down the boundaries between artist and audience. In a way, Ono’s “Cut Piece” prefigures by a decade the El Topo freaks in capes and wide-brimmed black cowboy hats showing up at The Elgin at midnight. From that initial cinematic sacrament of exsanguination, which along with Lennon she partially initiated at The Elgin Theatre by their physical presence, flowed Rocky Horror, and all the cosplay that’s followed since.
In the July 1971 International Times interview with Bloom and Madelkau, Lennon describes a performance of “Cut Piece” by Charlotte Moorman (“a cellist who’s famous for bringing her breasts out when she plays the cello,” according to Yoko. “Tits are good marketing PR. Draws them in like flies,” International Times chimes in, helpfully).
Lennon: “[…] she was doing it in a convent in Virginia and they chose ‘Cut Piece’ too. She said are you sure you want it and they said yeah and they did it and all the nuns cut out hearts and flowers, they were all like children and she said Hey that’s great you know, how come you’re like this? They said we understand it because we give our bodies to Christ. So it’s pretty good. Most artists give you something, like a book, poem, little drawing or a painting or record, but that piece the artist has an even take on it.” Yoko: “You can cut anywhere you want you see. It’s a very frightening piece. I can’t perform it no more because it’s so frightening, I’ve done it three times, Charlotte was once cut very badly.” Lennon: “People just got berserk with the scissors in their hands.”7
Scratch the surface of “Napoli” and Notting Dale, the gentrified Westway and Labroke Grove in London of today, and the flamboyant hippies, the street fighting men, the squatters of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s are still there, languishing in the dust (probably because no one has woken the lazy sods up). They are there in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s film Performance, Mick Jagger’s Byronic rock star Turner owned the house at 25 Powis Square, Ladbroke Grove W11. West of Ladbroke Grove and nearer to Bayswater, swinging London hipster, Satanist and Dracula groupie Johnny Alucard—played by Christopher Neame in the film—had a flat at Hillgate Place, Queensway W8in Hammer studio’s Dracula A. D. 1972. And so on.
Hippies first started showing films (the first one being Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin) at the Imperial—as it then was—in 1968, around the same time as Underground Cinema 12 got started in Los Angeles. (Despite the vast distances, radical film exhibitors in the early Seventies on different continents were keenly aware of one another through the blossoming underground newspaper scene. Underground Cinema 12 was also the name of the regular film review column by Gene Youngblood in the formative Freep, the L.A. Free Press. Meanwhile in London, Oz magazine’s office was also around the corner from the Electric). By August 1972, the Electric—in its second year under hippie management—paid for a one-eighth of a page box in the back pages of International Times.8 It was below a half-page ad for Hawkwind at the Rainbow and next to small ads for:
“GIRLS REQUIRED – BIG BREAD For the 3rd Year, U.S. Film Company in London to make Nude Films for the American market”; “loony fun” at a Free Freaks Carnival in Leith; someone asking for Marvel, DC and “underground comix” to start a freak paper shop in Glasgow; and Nick Landau offering his first venture, Comic Media magazine, for 15p an issue from his home in Egham, Surrey. Landau was later the editor of Britain’s 2000 A.D. comic (Duncan Jones is in pre-production of a film based on its futuristic ‘Nam strip, Rogue Trooper), as well as the co-owner of Titan Entertainment Group and the Forbidden Planet chain of comic and sci-fi bookshops.
It was 40p a show at the Electric Notting Hill (when membership of the film club was purchased 24 hours previously, for 10p), which in 1972 prices was about the same as two and a half pints of beer at the pub, or five loaves of bread. A bottle of whisky was £2.70, compared with almost ten times that today. The average weekly wage in the U.K. was about £30, and weekly unemployment benefit was about £12. Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath was heckled by Labour MPs in Parliament when it was announced that 1972 was the first year since the 1930s in which one million people were out of work.
Friday and Saturday night triple bills at the Electric in August 1972 started at 11pm with Dennis Sander's 1970 documentary Elvis: That's the Way It Is about the King's comeback to live performance at the International Hotel, Vegas. It was followed by the 1967 documentary of Dylan touring in the UK directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Don't Look Back (released in the wake of his Manchester Free Trade Hall gig, at which Dylan's opting for electric guitars in the second half was denounced from the balcony with the cry of “Judas” by hardened folkies including John Cordwel and student Keith Butler, who said in later life of his reaction "I kind of think: 'You silly young bugger.'”)9
The Electric's late night line-up finished with Tony Palmer's 1968 Cream: the Farewell Concert, filmed at the Albert Hall (which wasn't going to let hippie poets in again after the debacle of the Poetry Incarnation in 1965—filmed by Peter Whitehead as Wholly Communion—but which was happy to take Eric Clapton's money).
Following on the bill was a week of Marx Brothers' films from 11pm, the Beatles farewell in Let It Be and, at the weekend, a double bill of the Mae West and Randolph Scott 1936 vehicle Go West Young Man and the 1934 W.C. Fields feature The Old Fashioned Way.
The program at the Electric in West London was picking up on a trend, by way of Underground Cinema 12, from the cults of the Marx Brothers (1933’s Duck Soup made it into Danny Peary’s Cult Films 1 book by 1981), of Todd Browning’s Freaks on midnight movie bills, and—above all else—the long shadow cast by Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” essay. The surreal, caustic humour of comedies from the 1930s—as well as the over the top, campy production values of the musicals of Busby Berkeley, and of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—somehow struck a chord in the gloomy world of the hippies on both sides of the Atlantic in 1972.
In praising the Electric and its legacy on the 50th anniversary of the film club’s establishment on Portobello Road, Stephen Woolley pays particular tribute to the eclecticism of its former head programmer Peter Howden, which we can see from the very start of its advertised all-night bills. Though technically retired, Howden continues to program films at the Rio in Dalston. Woolley says:
“Peter maintained the Electric as one of the few, and possibly only, places where you could see American ‘50s film noir, eccentric European art movies and classic Hitchcock in an intelligent, film-friendly environment that was loved and is still sorely missed by so many cineastes.”
In an isolating and paranoid era in which we’re encouraged to experience cinema alone, at home on digital devices, the experience of being with strangers in the dark, in the privacy of our thoughts—something which the Electric Notting Hill continues to offer us—is as valuable and as radical as it was in 1968.
I’m grateful to Peter Howden, Rob Small, Stephen Woolley, David Cairns and to the management of Soho House, the Electric’s current owners, for their time and assistance in researching this article.