Travels: London: Sunday 1st October 2000

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NFT presentations: At Last! The 25th Anniversary restoration of At Last the 1948 Show, Eric Sykes - In Person; walking tour around the Square Mile

As yesterday I went eastwards along the Strand, past Somerset House, and found the long-closed Strand Piccadilly Line station, which is also round the corner in Surrey Street. [NT 'Roman' Bath] A little further down the street there's a gated alley (with Westminster City Council sign) and steps down to Strand Lane, a narrow lane parallel to Surrey Street. A couple of doors up from the passageway is the National Trust property with part of a "Roman" bath visible. One has to crouch down and peer through a grimy window, having pressed a timed light switch. Through the murk one can make out the stone surround of the bath, restored in the 17th century.

I carried on down Surrey Street, along the Embankment downriver to Blackfriars Tube station and was outside Monument Tube station six minutes later.

The Famous Square Mile

by The Original London Walks. Cost: 5.

A group of about 25 (mostly Americans) built up for the walk. Our guide was Graham, a Glaswegian former insurance worker. The tour started at 10:35 and was full of fascinating facts and stories. For instance, where we were standing, just north of the Monument, one can see where a line of the inscription has been removed. It referred to suspicions that Catholics were responsible for the Great Fire.

We went eastwards to Pudding Lane, round the corner up a lane and down a narrow alley to St Mary's where there's a fine old clock projecting into the street. We carried on through a gate and into the ruins of bombed (WWII) St Dunstans in the East, now a charming enclosed garden. We emerged in Tower Street, by the ultra-modern building of the London Underwriting Centre, and went past the Hung, Drawn and Quartered pub and round into Seething Lane.
This is where Samuel Pepys lived and worked while Secretary of the Admiralty. On the first morning of the Great Fire he went up the tower of All Hallows Church (across the road) to see. We stopped in the Pepys Garden - the site of Pepys office. Slightly further up the lane is St Olave - a charming little church long associated with the Navy.

Graham pointed out that there are few lampposts in the City of London: wherever possible lights are mounted on walls to reduce clutter. Another oddity is that there are no litter bins - for security. [This must relate to the high level of street sweeping.]

We followed the twisty lanes around past Fenchurch Street station and an impressive stone building of 1320 - the Clothworkers Hall. Via Billiter Street and Fenchurch Avenue we arrived at Lloyds of London in Lime Street.

Then we went through to the Victorian (with recent additions) Leadenhall Market, which is on the site of a 14th century market, the land having been given to the City by Dick Whittington. Now the market operates until 3pm Monday-Friday. The name comes from a grand house with lead roof that was previously there. The current building and the old Billingsgate Market were designed by Sir Horace Jones.

Next we crossed Gracechurch Street to Lombard Street. The name derives from the expelling of Jews in 1290 and their replacement by Lombardy gold merchants. St Edmund the King church there has a memorial to the Titanic.
Nearby are some quaint alleys and old inns. The George and Vulture was a 17th century coaching inn, the end point of journeys from Cambridge and Norwich and with a "Pickwickian" air (lunch served Monday-Friday). [It's also associated with the Hell-Fire Club.] Nearby is the Jamaica Inn, on the site of the first coffee house, and down an alley is Simpsons, also known as Simpsons in the City to distinguish it from the unrelated Simpsons in the Strand. Lunchtime downstairs gets packed with suits but the upstairs area is less formal. Arrival shortly after noon is recommended as it's so popular.

The alley took us through to Cornhill and we crossed to the Royal Exchange buildings, noting the grasshopper symbol of Gresham, the founder. There are statues of Reuter and Peabody there. On the other side is Threadneedle Street with the London Stock Exchange and the Bank of England. The latter's museum is open Monday-Friday (plus last Sunday). Each new Lord Mayor gets the unusual privilege of an account at the Bank.

We went into the Bank station subway, noting the long sloping tunnel down to the Waterloo & City Line (weekdays only) which gives rise to its nickname of "the drain".
We emerged by No. 1 Poultry - the startling Palumbo building which now features a Conran restaurant at the top.
[Peter Palumbo, the property developer, was infamous for "carbuncle" property development in the 1980s and in particular a Paternoster Square development. He was also Chairman of the Arts Council.]
Across the road is the Temple of Mithras - foundations discovered during building works and rebuilt at street level.

We went up Cheapside and up Ironmongers Lane to the Mercers Hall. There Graham described the Livery companies, the largely-ceremonial and charitable successors to the medieval trade guilds. No. 100 was the Information Technologists. The Taxi Owners are likely to be the next.

Our last stop was across Gresham Street in Guildhall Yard, where the polling booths for yesterday's election of the Lord Mayor were being cleared away. A black line around the Yard marks the position of the Roman amphitheatre. The tour ended at 12:35.


I went back to Gracechurch Street to try the JD Wetherspoon Crosse Keys [having opted out on the previous trip]. There was some very light drizzle but it didn't last long. The Crosse Keys is trying an important experiment, advertised in What's Brewing for instance. Instead of the usual bland, widely-available beers so typical of JDW, this one is buying interesting brews from smaller breweries. If the experiment works, they say they'll do that nationally. So it seemed important to investigate and to support the idea.

There was indeed a fine selection on: Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, Exmoor Gold, Hop Back Summer Lightning, Ridley Rumpus, London Pride, Batemans XXXB. However there were only two young barmaids working (no sign of the manager) and they let a group of about 25 French tourists monopolise them (not helped by not having good enough English to order properly) whilst five or so British people (with brief orders) waited to be served. I had to wait exactly 25 minutes to get served and then the gum-chewing barmaid advised me not to bother ordering any food "as that lot have just ordered" (or words to that effect). A properly-trained person would have advised me that there might be a considerable delay. My Exmoor Gold cost 1.89 but it was the first pint I'd ever had in any JDW (approx. 12-15 visits) which was full-measure. I wasn't impressed that the other barmaid dropped an ice scoop on the floor and put it straight back in the ice tray.

Anyway, the place is typical of JDW: a vast space with white stucco ceiling interrupted by glass domes and a large circular bar in the middle.

I returned to Monument station where I considered going along to the Barbican for Andy Goldsworthy's Time exhibition but there was a signal problem on the Circle/District Line so I couldn't risk being late for the next event.

Instead I went to Embankment and walked up Villiers Street and across the Strand to Pizza Express there.

After my meal (garlic bread, the same pizza & wine as yesterday and Tira Misu - 14.95 - strangely cheaper), I had time to spare and wandered north up Adelaide Street, passing a reclining statue of Oscar Wilde - Conversation with O.W. - which was featured on a TV documentary earlier this year.

After a rest and freshening up in my room, I headed for the NFT again for 16:15.

At Last! The 25th Anniversary Restoration of At Last the 1948 Show

This started with an introduction by Steve Bryant, Keeper of Television at BFI Collections. Two restored episodes were shown then Tim Brook-Taylor and the Lovely Aimi MacDonald came to the podium for an interview and Q&A. There were lots of amusing stories and interesting questions.

The rediscovered bits came from Sweden, where apparently the more visual sketches have been shown many times on TV in the intervening years. UK copies suffered from the early 1970s frenzy of videotape wiping. The BFI already had some material from the show.

The show was one of the many spin-offs from I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and was written and performed by Tim B-T, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman (still also working on Round The Horne). With Do Not Adjust Your Set, it was the immediate forerunner of Monty Python's Flying Circus. For instance: writing in pairs (Tim+John, Graham+Marty), the wide variety of material and the use of captions.

David Frost, as Executive Producer, gave Tim & John money to make the show and broadly left them to it. They found the other three. Barry Cryer and Dick Vosburgh also helped with some writing and performing. Dennis Norden was very helpful as an occasional adviser.

As a superb finale, we saw the original version of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, from the show. "Sheer luxury!"

It was over just before 18:00 so I popped into the adjacent NFT cafe-bar for a keep-awake coffee (95p) and to kill the next half hour. Aimi wasted no time getting there to light up a fag! She looks little-changed and fit!

Eric Sykes - In Person

The show started with clips, including a black+white Sykes show and the TV version of his silent classic The Plank. Then Michael Parkinson (a BFI Fellow) came on to introduce "a national treasure" and interview the man himself - it was just like his BBC chat show. Eric told many wonderful anecdotes and then there was a good Q&A.

At age 77 he never stops working - he's got four film scripts ready to go and had just come back from filming in Spain.

Eric talked about his war-time experiences and the post-war move into professional entertainment, in the company of that generation of ex-military comedians - Jimmy Edwards, Spike Milligan and so on. He also talked a lot about his old friend Tommy Cooper.

Sadly, his old friend Sir John Mills was to have joined in the evening but couldn't make it.

Eric mentioned his philosophy a number of times: "life is a marathon, not a sprint".


At 20:00 I headed out to Upper Ground as last night. This time I found the GBG-recommended Youngs pub there I've been meaning to go to, the Mulberry Bush, but it was closed! I retraced my steps and went into the Pizza Express again (rather than messing about hunting around for a more adventurous restaurant).

After another good meal (18.85) I left an hour later to find it was raining quite hard. I didn't want to miss the opportunity of seeing what the Covent Garden area was like on a rainy Sunday evening - presumably very different from a hot Friday or Saturday!

I crossed Waterloo Bridge and the Strand and went up Wellington Street. The small Hogshead on the west side had recently closed for the night. I could see hand pumps for Wychwood and Pendle Witch, possibly associated with the chain's October Beer Festival. On the east side was the Coach & Horses, supposedly the only Free House in Central London. It looked packed, with a large landlord-like character standing in the doorway (always off-putting). A little further up is the Youngs' Marquis of Anglesey - hand pumps but loud music. The street becomes Bow Street, which was deserted. After a diversion into Drury Lane, I returned to Endell Street, reminding myself that as there were far less people about, it was prudent to stick to the better-lit and populated areas. I passed an open-all-day all-you-can-eat Indian restaurant, Royals Indian, and came to the Cross Keys, which was packed. I turned back down to Covent Garden. The eateries and bars were open and reasonably busy.

I went into the Porterhouse again (about a quarter of the seats taken) and had a pint of their Red ale (4.4%, 2.70). I was glad it wasn't overchilled. To me it seemed to have more interesting/pleasant taste than the Oyster Stout and was perhaps less bitter (hopped).

I returned to my room around 22:00 and noted that checkout was by 12:00, rather than the awkwardly-early time of 10:00 most hotels seem to have.

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