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IT’S BEEN A LONG FIVE YEARS for anyone living near the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. For those of us who stood, gape-mouthed and damp-eyed at its smouldering remains on that chilly May morning four years ago, it seemed unlikely it would ever rise from the (literal) ashes. Perhaps having to wait so long when the going has been so very tough made the official re-opening by Her Majesty the Queen in April all the sweeter.
Cutty Sark’s restoration is not to everyone’s taste; you either love or loathe the large glass bubble it now floats upon. But for me at least, it’s a real joy to see the ship back. Controversially, the historic clipper has been raised on giant supports, more than three yards above ground, so that visitors can walk underneath the hull and view it from below. This is not just for aesthetic reasons. The long-term viability of the ship depends upon the space created below attracting large private functions to fund her future.
I confess I found the idea of raising a ship “airborne” a bit strange, and I am still not fully convinced by it. Having walked underneath it, though, I have to admit that it’s quite an awe-inspiring sight from below, especially with the newly restored keel. We may have lost the smell of tar and wood and that deliciously British quality of funny little exhibits haphazardly displayed, and the addition of three glass lifts (to comply with British disability access laws) may shock a few, but on the whole I think the new Cutty Sark is a success. For a while, at least, Greenwich is complete again.
BACK IN TOWN, a bunch of us were on our way to cheer on my best pal, comedian Timandra Harkness, in her latest Edinburgh Festival offering, showing in preview in London at the Leicester Square theater. Since it was a 9 p.m. show, we needed to eat first and picked the Criterion, for three reasons. First, it’s on Piccadilly Circus next door to the Eros statue and didn’t involve any difficult directions. Second, it’s gorgeous, and third, there was a special deal on last-minute restaurant website Toptable.com, which is always worth checking.
Next to the Criterion Theatre (where the fabulous 39 Steps still plays to packed audiences), the Criterion restaurant is a destination in itself. Many remember it from a few years ago when its deliciously faded high-Victorian splendor came complete with a patina of seediness that was part of its grubby allure. They recall it as a place where Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson first met; where the early suffragettes planned their daring attacks; where Edgar Wallace regaled 1920s luncheon clubs with sundry anecdotes. To those who remember it thus, the Criterion’s restored guise might seem a little antiseptic, but the low lighting, sparkling chandeliers and stunning neo-Byzantine glamor still enthral in their own way.
We met for cocktails in the bar, which, after an initial language problem that resulted in Tony and me receiving a couple of glasses of Martini Dry instead of Dry Martinis, were most enjoyable. The menu is pan-European, erring on the traditional side, and without exception, our meals, chosen from their pre-theater menu, were excellent. Marco Pierre White may have left the building, but the food is still a force to be reckoned with, especially when you’re on a Toptable deal.
TALKING OF THINGS TOP, I’ve been enthralled by the idea of the Fred Astaire musical Top Hat being adapted for the stage ever since I heard about it. The only thing that surprised me was that it hadn’t been done before. I was particularly excited that Summer Strallen, whom I loved so passionately in the fabulous-but-doomed Drowsy Chaperone, was taking the Ginger Rogers role. And I can report that it’s great, complete with floaty dresses, high kicks and all the 1930s stereotypes you can shake a silver-topped stick at. I defy anyone not to have a big grin on their face by the time the first number kicks in, full of tap-dancing chorines and towering art deco sets.
It is, of course, a dangerous thing to see one of your favorite films, completely driven by its stars, re-created, and, if I’m honest, TV personality Tom Chambers is no Fred Astaire. But he dances beautifully (I particularly loved the coat-rack number), is infectiously perky, and if his voice sounds a bit on the Al Jolson side, I blame the slightly shonky sound on the night I went rather than the man himself. As usual, the smaller comedy characters stole the show. Stephen Boswell as Bates was a hilarious mixture of pomposity, disapproval and high-camp, and it would take a heart harder than mine not to break for Ricardo Afonso’s abandoned Latin lover, Alberto Beddini, whose dignity in defeat is as charming as his wooing tactics are ridiculous. The laugh-out-loud one liners are at once clonky, old-fashioned and absolutely perfect.
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THIS MONTH’S CONTACTS
The Viaduct Tavern
126 Newgate Street
St. Sepulchre Without
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Folks—the West End is going through a bit of a golden age at the moment and the choice is massive, but you won’t go wrong with Top Hat for sheer fun.
SOMETHING THAT’S BEEN ON MY to-do list forever is to persuade the guv’nors at the extraordinary Viaduct Tavern at Old Bailey to let me see their cellars. Newgate Prison was, for 500 years, the foul, stinking dead-end for the City’s criminals and debtors. When the Victorians built the Holborn Viaduct, the prisoners had to go so the area could be redeveloped. The Viaduct Tavern has hardly changed since 1869 when it was one of the most glorious of all those newfangled “gin palaces,” built to dazzle wealthy patrons with all the gas lights, mirrors, gilt, opium and prostitutes they could dream of. It still has its beaten-copper ceiling held in place by a giant gold-topped iron column, still has its macabre frieze depicting Old Bailey’s 16 hanging-judges and still has the bullet hole in the giant oil painting of the Maidens of Industry where a soldier’s rifle was accidentally fired during the celebrations on Armistice night in 1918.
The tavern has a much darker secret though. It also still has five original prison cells lurking at the back of the beer cellar, complete with iron bars and relentless, airless damp. These cells are absolutely not a tourist attraction; they are part of a working pub and, as such, if you want to see them, you have to be prepared to climb down steep stairs and weave through strip-lit beer barrels to a white-painted door to Hell-on-earth. As long as you pick your time and ask nicely, though, the staff are happy to show you around. Busy times are 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.—avoid those hours and you should be lucky.
When I arrived at 9:30 p.m., this most beautiful and busy of City pubs was all but deserted. The barman admitted he doesn’t care to be alone down there after hours and, opening that door, I understood why. Twelve feet by eight feet, with iron cages from floor to ceiling, this dank oubliette was “home” to 20 pathetic wretches. Their only light was a tiny circular hole onto the street, through which they would push scrawny hands in hope of a crust of bread from a passer-by. Food had to be paid for and these were debtors; there was nothing to be had from their gaolers. They lived like battery hens, knees round their ears, and I can’t remember a time I have been more disturbed at what humans can do to other humans. The smell today is of pervasive damp; when these cells were in use the stench of human effluent and rotting flesh was described by one gaoler as “enough to turn the stomach of a horse.”
While I was in the neighborhood, I took a look inside the creepy church of St. Sepulchre Without, opposite, whose bell figures in the nursery rhyme Oranges & Lemons as the voice of Old Bailey (When will you pay me?), which was tolled while an execution was taking place. Seeing those cells I can’t help thinking execution would have been a merciful release. I was there, however, to see the church’s other, even more sinister bell, housed in a glass case in the nave. The Newgate Execution Bell was paid for in the 15th century by one Robert Dow, a merchant tailor, with the instructions that, on the eve of a criminal’s execution, it should be rung once an hour to remind the poor fellow of his coming doom so he could pray for forgiveness. The bell is big, black and distressing, and I have no doubt that in the unlikely instance of his having forgotten, the unhappy recipient of such “charity” would have been reminded of his predicament.
On a cheerier note, next time I’ll chase round Waterloo committing grand larceny in the name of Art, track the transit of Venus from a very high place, poke around some livery halls in the City and watch a very bloody Michael Ball.