Soho the Set, Soho the Industry, Soho the Star
“There is an island in the great city of London, a little foreign island called Soho…”
There was always something different about Soho – something dangerous, intoxicating and exotic – that drew in writers, actors, directors. Emeric Pressburger knew it when he wrote that opening gambit to his 1957 film, Miracle in Soho.
Its streets often wangle top billing – or at least they play the villain. Soho is the tawdry universe that Diana Dors inhabits as a prostitute in Passport to Shame. The detritus-ridden streets paced by Anthony Newley’s down-and-out strip club compere in The Small World of Sammy Lee.
Soho can be the hero too: a black and white reel from 1957 is hypnotic, simply by fixing a camera to the back of a car and rolling the tape.
More recently, the ghosts of this crooked Square Mile have flickered up onscreen. In The Look of Love, Steve Coogan purrs through Soho as porn baron, Paul Raymond, in a silver Rolls yelling “Sohooooo!” out the window. In Toast of London, Matt Berry bunks up with Francis Bacon (“I thought he was dead?”).
Soho was also once Britain’s answer to Hollywood.
Charles Urban was among the first raft of filmmakers to colonise. In 1908, he set up camp at 89-91 Wardour Street. Bringing with him a miraculous invention called Kinemacolor, he was soon flooding Londoners’ screens with the incandescent excitement of colour. By 1914, Wardour Street had more than 20 film companies ferreting away. It became better known as Film Row.
On Wardour Street now, the reminders are there to be found: Hammer House, Film House, Cinema House. Ironically, the British Board of Film Classification still presides over Soho Square – and for every dubious ban it’s enacted (The Phantom of the Opera, Reservoir Dogs) – trust us, it’s made some wise decisions too.
Film has a different life in the Soho of 2019; you might not see a cigar-chewing movie magnate waddling down Wardour Street, but you could catch a post production specialist popping out for a vape, or a film journo shaking their head in disappointment, coming out of Soho Screening Rooms.
More than ever, we are fascinated with the realcharacters of Soho: a 1000 Londoners documentary meets Maragret Bloom – a Buddisht who’s lived in Soho for 30 years, and stargazes its skies every night. The 2019 doc, The Soul of Soho tells the stories of those artists, outcasts and miscreants who made this film set, this film industry, this film star, what it is.