In comparison to some parts of London, South End Green (hence known as SEG for the sake of brevity) was a bit of a late starter. Admittedly Pond Street dates back at least to the Middle Ages when it was the path that linked Haverstock Hill to the pond that then covered a large section of the present Green. But mostly the area was built up in the 18th and 19th centuries, a semi-detached adjunct to its more elevated and aged neighbour, Hampstead Village.
The population of the district was enhanced by two particular sets of migrants. Artists from John Constable to Mark Gertler were attracted by the light and the relative affordability (in their day) of property around Hampstead and the Heath. Then in the 1930s, it became the refuge for many of the Jews fleeing Nazi Europe; this exiled intelligentsia greatly enhanced local life. What was Europe’s loss was Hampstead’s gain. Latterly, psychoanalysts have provided another wave of settlement.
In the 20th century it survived two vigorous attempts to destroy it. During World War Two, the district was unfortunate in that its one great natural feature, Parliament Hill, was on moonlit nights the only visible guide that German pilots could use to navigate their position and check whether they were north of central London and could therefore turn for home. In order to make their return trip faster they would jettison any remaining bombs on the locality immediately below them. Although never suffering the carpet bombing that the East End and Dockland underwent, the area was hit repeatedly by individual missiles and became a patchwork of bombsites. Gospel Oak Primary School on Mansfield Rd suffered one of the worst attacks and was destroyed during the 1940 Blitz. These sites were mostly rebuilt in post-war architectural style and materials. Hence the SEG district acquired its strange variations whereby 1950s brick boxes stand in stark contrast to the neighbouring and un-bombed Victorian terraces on either side.
The second attempt at destruction came in 1966 with a plan to build an elevated motorway ring road that would have passed directly through and above SEG. Today one has to visit such blackspots of urban blight as those under the Westway or Hammersmith flyover to appreciate what was intended. Thankfully the idea was shelved amidst a storm of protest by the local community led by the newly formed South End Green Association (SEGA).
In some ways, SEGA was typical of the populace – fiercely and justifiably protective of what is one of the most extraordinary places in London. Hampstead became notorious in corporate eyes for being one of only two towns in the world that tried to resist the full might of the Macdonald’s fast food chain and refuse to allow them to insert an outlet on its streets (Martha’s Vineyard in the USA was the other). Although after ten years of legal battle it was forced to surrender, it is noticeable that the Macdonald’s branch that opened in subsequent triumph now has been quietly closed.
Although rarely identified as such, the area has been an anonymous background to a variety of cinema films. ‘Scenes of a Sexual Nature’ (2006) was set entirely on the Heath; the old Town Hall on Haverstock Hill featured in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (1994); and to a local, films such as the 2006 pair ‘Venus’ with Peter O’Toole and ‘Notes on a Scandal’ with Judi Dench almost have a home movie feel about them. ‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize’, a short film made in 1968, although a dreadful mishmash of period trends, gives an unparalleled picture of Hampstead streets in the 1960s.
What has distinguished SEG through the years is that it has been a borderland between the wealthy world of the Hampstead hill slopes and the less opulent council estates to the south. The pubs especially have been a neutral mixing ground where both communities have been more than adequately represented.
The Hampstead ‘muesli belt’ life style is, of course, a well-known stereotype. Left-wing yet well-heeled, principled but well-protected – the fourth richest constituency in the UK but which nonetheless remains a marginal seat and has voted Labour for most of the elections since 1966.
This contradiction can lead to odd results. For instance, recent overheard conversations have included such comments as:
In a SEG café: “Sebastian and I went to that ‘War on World Poverty’ lunch last Friday. The scallops were definitely undercooked.”
And reported on Facebook as happening in the SEG Marks and Spencer: “Oh, Hermione, do hurry up and choose one of them. Mango juice or pomegranate cordial? This indecision is eating into oboe practice”.
Some children in Hampstead seem to grow up differently. Reputedly one infant’s first word was: ‘Taxi!’
A 1970s ‘Time Out’ magazine cartoon once summed it up – an irritated father snapping at his recalcitrant nine-year-old: “One more word out of you, Isolde, and I’m taking you to the Little Angel Marionette Theatre!”
However, to see SEG simply in those terms would be to misrepresent the place. The streets until quite recently had a genuine Steptoesque rag-and-bone man complete with horse and cart making his weekly round. Another common sight was Jan the French onion seller with his bicycle festooned with his wares. [A colleague notes: ‘It might be worth mentioning that the onion seller related to me in French and after some beer that he actually lived in Norbury not Normandy as some of his customers believed’.]
But even less typical of the stereotype were the old ‘hard men’ of the district. Although one such character may have been more show than strength – he once stubbed a cigarette out on his own thigh to the appalled admiration of a group of pub witnesses. It later turned out that he had a wooden leg.
But there was no denying the toughness of some of the locals. When the police attempted to arrest one of them, it took eight large constables to subdue him sufficiently to carry him to a police wagon. The Load of Hay on Haverstock Hill was called the ‘Noble Art’ between 1965 and 1974 in honour of the boxing club behind it. It was reported that the famous British fighter Henry Cooper (the man who floored Muhammed Ali), visited the club in the early 1970s and afterwards walked down the hill to have a drink in the Elephant’s Head in Camden Town. The pub landlord managed to lift him off the floor using only his teeth.
South End Green and its environs are drenched with historical connections. One of the first stories recognisably connected to the Green concerned the eighteenth century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
It appears that one night after a drink-fuelled session at a friend’s house in the Vale of Health, he managed to walk down the hill as far as the corner of the present Pond St and South End Rd before collapsing in a heap. The local watch arrested him and marched him back to the lock-up in Hampstead Village. When they demanded his name he announced loftily that he was ‘William Wilberforce’.
In more romantic vein, the poet John Keats famously courted Fanny Brawne and wrote his great poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ at their shared house in the eponymous Keats Grove. The fact that Keats and a friend lived in one side of the house while the Brawne family lived in the other suggests that cramped accommodation in North London is nothing new.
Standing on the brow of Parliament Hill (sometimes known as Kite Hill), one can spot the habitats of the three men who might arguably be said to have dominated 20th century thought more than any others. In a semi-circle starting from the west it is possible to see the spire of Hampstead church – a short distance from that is 20, Maresfield Gardens, the home (now a museum) of the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Directly south in Gower St (now buried under University College London) was the home between 1838 and 1842 of the naturalist and father of evolutionary theory Charles Darwin. Looking slightly to the south-west is Maitland Park Rd, the last home of the Communist philosopher Karl Marx; he and his friend Friedrich Engels were known for their frequent walks up to Parliament Hill, crossing over the Roderick Rd footbridge. A more visible monument to Marx was erected towards the east in Highgate Cemetery.
His imposing grave has had its own chequered history. It was the setting for a famous scene in the film ‘Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment’ starring David Warner. In 1970, an attempt was made to blow it up with a home-made bomb. Although little damage was done other than to the surrounding paving stones, an anonymous letter was received that read: ‘And when you’ve repaired the statue of that commie bastard, we’ll blow it up again’. So far, they have not.
In 1895, the playwright and wit Oscar Wilde was on bail between his trials and was undecided whether to flee from England or to stay and face prison. He was living in Chelsea and feeling depressed. His friend Frank Harris put him in a carriage and drove him up to South End Green for a walk to the top of Parliament Hill, hoping that the sight of the panorama of London might help Wilde to choose escape. It did not work and Wilde stayed on to become the most prominent martyr of the anti-homosexual laws. His boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas (aka ‘Bosie’) later lived in Church Row in Hampstead Village.
Another renowned (and more justifiable) recipient of British justice was the murderer Dr Crippen. Having killed his wife (although recently doubts have been raised about this), he collected his mistress Ethel Le Neve from her lodgings on Agincourt Rd, just off South End Green, and departed on their ultimately unsuccessful escape bid across the Atlantic. Before they left, Crippen, Ethel, and her landlady Mrs Jackson had a farewell drink at the Stag on Fleet Rd. (An equally notorious killer who had a connection to the area was the infamous John Christie, the perpetrator of the 10 Rillington Place murders. At one point he worked at the old tram depot on the site of the present Byron Mews.)
Close by the Stag, on Lawn Rd, is the Isoken Building. Built in 1934, this was a monument to the ideals of socialism and an experiment in minimalist group living. It consisted of 34 flats that shared a communal bar/restaurant and various domestic services. Among its famous residents were the sculptor Henry Moore, the architect Walter Gropius, and the crime writer Agatha Christie. (Oddly enough, years later a real life murder took place in the building – but long after Agatha’s departure.) Regular visitors at the bar were the artists Piet Mondrian, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson (all inhabitants of Park Hill Rd before their departure for St Ives in 1939). Sunbathing was allowed on the roof of the Isoken but only if you were nude. The socialist side of the idea suffered from an early onset of the Hampstead Left syndrome. Their communal cook was Philip Harbin, a maestro of food and destined to become one of the first celebrity TV chefs in the 1950s. Also it appears that a necessity of socialist domestic life included hiring a communal butler.
During its heyday of the mid-1930s, one of the Isoken flats was occupied by Dr Arnold Deutsch. Deutsch was an Austrian academic and a Soviet agent, his main achievement being the recruitment and training of the ‘Cambridge’ Five spy ring, led by Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby. Having built this team, Deutsch was recalled to Moscow in 1937 and died in obscure circumstances in the early 1940s, probably captured and shot by the Nazis after parachuting into Austria.
The writer George Orwell was another inhabitant of South End Green during the 1930s. He lived above and worked in a bookshop in Warwick Mansions on the corner of Pond St (coincidentally the scene of Sheridan’s arrest) and later lived at No 77 Parliament Hill, a period he described in his book ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’.
The clock on the White Horse pub that he mentions in this book has been recently restored.
Whereas the genuine spy Arnold Deutsch escaped surveillance by the authorities, Orwell was being watched by the Special Branch during this time and marked down as ‘a man of advanced communist views’.
Warwick Mansions figured again in the classic sci-fi book ‘The Day of the Triffids’ written by John Wyndham about 1950. There is a scene where the hero escapes the killer Triffid plants by escaping from ‘a provision store’, climbing into an alleyway, and stealing a car from ‘a garage workshop’. The provision store has been identified by Wyndham’s biographer Prof David Ketterer as being the Co-op grocery, now a Starbucks café; the alleyway as being the passageway to the rear of Warwick Mansions with a gated entrance on Pond St; and the garage was a business called Alpine Motors, now closed and re-developed in Maryon Mews. The rather grim passageway has now been commemorated with a plaque and a re-naming as ‘Triffid Alley’.
This particular Starbucks also played a part in the excellent modern thriller ‘The Hollow Man’ by Oliver Harris (2011) in which the customers of the café undergo a sniper attack (the wounded are treated in the Magdala Tavern). There can be few Starbucks in the world to have undergone fictional attacks from both snipers and Triffids.
Another literary connection lies across the road in the underground toilets by the 24 bus terminus. Built in 1897 they featured in the film ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ starring Gary Oldman as the 1960s playwright Joe Orton. Orton was a libidinous homosexual who enjoyed ‘cottaging’, the practice of cruising around public toilets looking for random gay sex. The South End Green lavatories were one of his favourite spots. He was murdered in 1967 by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, who then committed suicide. The conveniences were restored recently but the suggestion that they should be renamed ‘The Joe Orton Memorial Gents’ was rejected.
Further up East Heath Rd, the author of ‘Room at the Top’ and a leading ‘Angry Young Man’ of the 1950s John Braine spent his last days living in a basement flat on Downshire Hill.
All his life he had been a professional Northerner railing endlessly against the egregious Hampsteadites and their ‘decadent rotten’ world. Then in 1983, broken by a bitter divorce, with many financial problems and half dead from illness, he arrived in the heart of enemy territory. An amazing transformation came over him and, as he described in his last book ‘These Golden Days’, he fell in love with his life-long detestation. He said that now he would cheerfully fall on his knees and worship the very pavements of Hampstead. Unfortunately, due to his total refusal to abandon cigarettes, he did not live long to celebrate this new lease of happiness.
Around the corner from Downshire Hill in Willow Rd the neo-Brutalist architect and tower block designer Erno Goldfinger constructed his own home (now a National Trust property) on the site of some 18th century cottages. In 1939 their destruction and the building of their decidedly un-18th century replacement led to much opposition by local Hampstead residents, among them the James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Goldfinger was an unpopular man, humourless, a known bully, and given to intemperate rages. Fleming, probably as a reaction to both Erno’s character and architecture, gave the name ‘Auric Goldfinger’ to one of the most horrible villains in the Bond spectrum. An infuriated Erno threatened to sue for defamation, which drove an equally angry Fleming to suggest changing the name to ‘Goldprick’. Fortunately for the future of the Bond franchise both parties backed off from confrontation. Erno Goldfinger lived on in Willow Rd till his death in 1987. Throughout his later years he was plagued by prank phone calls claiming to be messages from ‘007’.
The American Jim Henson was a much gentler figure who lived at 50 Downshire Hill House and opened a workshop at 1b Downshire Hill in 1977. To the delight of children (and others) worldwide, this became the birthplace of Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and the rest of the Muppets – a huge television success that spread over decades. However, due to the foul smell of the foam latex that Henson used for his creatures, complaints from the neighbours led to his enforced removal to Oval Rd in Swiss Cottage. Henson died young aged 54 in 1990 – there is a bench on Hampstead Heath dedicated to his memory.
The comic actor Marty Feldman, perhaps best known for his portrayal of ‘Igor’ in Mel Brooks’ film ‘Young Frankenstein’, also has a local memorial. Walking south down Hampstead High Street, on the left near Gayton Rd, there is an alleyway called ‘Marty’s Yard’. When Feldman died in 1982, his friend the architect Ted Levy named the cul-de-sac after him.
Feldman had lived nearby in a vast Gothic mansion on the corner of Well Rd and East Heath Rd; the house had previously belonged to the Victorian flush lavatory inventor Thomas Crapper. More recently it became the home of the pop star Boy George.
Shane Macgowan, the lead singer of the Irish band ‘the Pogues’ also lived locally in a house on Savernake Rd. His unique dental display was said to have been created after the collision of his teeth with the bar counter of the Old Eagle in Camden Town.
At the former church facing St Stephens at the top of Pond St, the Beatles mentor Sir George Martin built his Air Studios from which countless recordings have been made – not least by Oasis, another band who migrated to the area.
A more tenuous connection to the rock world concerns the wild life of Hampstead Heath. It is rumoured that when the great rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix died in London, his pet parakeets were released on the Heath where they prospered and bred. It is certainly true that the Heath has a parrot population though whether their early days were spent listening to ‘Purple Haze’ is debateable.
The rock singer George Michael on the other hand has an undeniable link to the area. In the early hours of Sunday July 4th 2010, in a state of some confusion, he managed to drive his car off Roslyn Hill and into the frontage of a photographic shop named ‘Snappy Snaps’. The next day, someone scrawled the graffiti ‘WHAM’ over the damaged brickwork – a reference to George Michael’s original pop group. Since then this junction of Roslyn Hill and Willoughby Rd has been known informally as ‘Wham Corner’.
Although slightly off the South End Green patch and more of a Camden Town girl, the singer Amy Winehouse has been one of the most mourned of rock stars, possibly because of her youth when she died. She was a deeply loyal constituent of the Camden scene and even at the height of her fame would work behind the bar of the Hawley Arms just for the craic.
On one occasion however she almost wrecked the tourist trade of the Borough. She was receiving an award in New York that was being televised live before a world audience of about half a billion people when she half-heard the news that the Lock was on fire. Under the influence of a lot of drink and shocked to the core that her beloved Camden was in danger, she staggered to the microphone and announced in horror that ‘the whole of Camden Town has been burnt to the ground’. This announcement was greeted with equal horror by the tourist department of Camden Council who knew that while only a small part of the area had been affected, Amy’s statement to the world would cost the Lock dear in cancelled holidays, shopping trips, music gigs, etc., etc.
Probably the most famous local politician was the one-time leader of the Labour Party during the early 1980s. Michael Foot was a common sight around South End Green. He would spend time choosing his vegetables at the stall outside Hampstead Overground station before climbing on to the 24 bus to travel to the House of Commons. At the age of 81 he could still be seen, dressed in blue jeans, trainers, and black leather jacket ambling over the Heath accompanied by his dog ‘Dizzy’. Although he never became Prime Minister of Britain he remained one of the great Parliamentary orators, a considerable author, a stalwart of the Left, and a thoroughly nice man.
A much sadder case concerned the offspring of the Conservative Chancellor and Home Secretary Reginald Maudling. Maudling himself had a chequered career leaving office under a cloud after the Poulson scandal of 1972. In 1999 the body of his son William Maudling was found on the ground at the bottom of Bacton Tower near Mansfield Rd. He had been an ‘unemployed and of no fixed abode’ heroin addict and apparently had thrown himself off a high balcony of the building.
Parliament Hill was lucky enough to acquire its own Poet Laureate when John Betjeman was born just off Gordon House Rd. Although the family was to move to a house further up Highgate West Hill, he later recalled his childhood days in his poem ‘Parliament Hill Fields’:
‘…..when we heard a mile beyond,
Silver music from the bandstand, barking dogs by Highgate Pond;
Up the hill where stucco houses in Virginia creeper drown
And my childish wave of pity, seeing children carrying down
Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of Kentish Town’.
(This same bandstand was witness to a very different scene in the summers of 1968 and 1969. To its eternal credit, Camden Council sponsored a series of all-night rock shows. The bands played for free and there was no admission charge. The stages were located at the foot of the hill and in the bandstand itself with the audience scattered on the slopes of Parliament Hill above. The first show in September 1968 starred the Jefferson Airplane and Fairport Convention – and was policed successfully by the Hells Angels. Owing to lack of publicity and fairly constant rainfall, the audience was small but enthusiastic. The next year was better organised and featured three concerts. The first night had Pink Floyd as headliners, the second had Procol Harum, and the third Fleetwood Mac. These concerts began at 10pm and lasted till 3am. At the final show it appears that Fleetwood Mac were interrupted by ‘drunken elements in the crowd’.)
Less well known than Betjeman but still a considerable figure around the Village in his day, Keidrych Rees was the heart of the London branch of literary Wales. He moved to Hampstead in 1935 and spent his life developing Welsh talent through his influence and his magazine ‘Wales’. During WWII he served with a Welsh anti-aircraft battery and later as a war correspondent in Europe. On the occasion of his first marriage his best man was the poet Dylan Thomas – who was forced to borrow a suit in order to carry out his duties. Later, Keidrych was a familiar figure sitting in his large straw hat in the bar of the Coach and Horses after a day presiding over his Heath St bookshop.
Antony Wilson was another bookseller of local renown who started his career as manager of the Belsize Bookshop on Havistock Hill. He went on to found and run the Highgate Bookshop from 1966 until 1990. Antony suffered from bi-polar disorders that led him from the depths of gloomy isolation to the heights of manic excitement. He contributed greatly to the world of theatre by becoming an ‘angel’, financially backing many shows, in particular those of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. For some reason he took against Lloyd-Webber’s musical collaborator, Sir Tim Rice, claiming that he was an indifferent lyricist who just got very lucky in his professional partnerships. In one of his black moods he once described Rice as ‘the Ringo Starr of musical theatre’.
Amidst the famous names that became part of Hampstead life, there were two characters almost unknown outside the borough but unmissable within it. ‘Bronco’ was the protégé of the comedian Peter Cook (a long term resident of Perrins Court in the Village) who said that he reminded him of his own comic creation ‘E.L. Wisty’. Recognisable in that he habitually wore a long coat and a wide hat, Bronco arrived in Hampstead about 1968 and earned some money by playing the piano, mostly Mozart from memory. He became well known for his addiction to tea, never without a supply of teabags, sugar, and a teaspoon for the occasions when hot water might turn up. He was estimated to drink between 30 and 40 cups a day. Peter Cook said that he would appoint Bronco as ‘Minister of Tea’ in any future government that Cook might lead.
The luminary of various bizarre political parties and a neighbour of Cook, ‘Rainbow George’ Weiss was the third member of this glorious trio. One of his recordings of their conversation concerned an occasion when Cook and Bronco arrived at 3am at George’s house in order to cook a tin of beans. Unfortunately none of them had the faintest notion of how to work George’s cooker. Bronco eventually died of pneumonia in the Royal Free Hospital (as opposed to Peter Cook who was said to have died of ‘pure boredom’). At his funeral the 1950s singer and another veteran loser-of-deposits-in-parliamentary-elections Ronnie Carroll sang ‘Danny Boy’, and the TV quiz show host Henry Kelly declared that: “This is the first time I’ve been in Bronco’s company and not lost £2 out of it”. Bronco’s ashes were interred in a tea caddy.
Whereas Bronco tended to haunt the Village area, ‘The Biscuit Man’ stayed mostly around Belsize Park. John Rhodes was also conspicuous by his dress, invariably wearing a battered hat, bedroom slippers and using a tree branch as a walking aid. He had been raised in respectable fashion, his father being a popular crime fiction writer who lived near South End Green, and Rhodes himself having had an Oxford education. After spending time in jail as a conscientious objector, he became a writer with a huge output of poems, novels, and plays. Unfortunately he never found a publisher for any of this work. After he was banned from the Flask pub for showing a barmaid an erotic poem, he dashed off an indignant letter to the Spectator magazine. This is believed to be the only occasion on which he was published.
His Belsize bedsit, devoid of modern devices and heated only by an elderly gas cooker, was piled high with the unpublished work. He became a regular visitor to St Peter’s Church in Belsize Square, not through religious conviction but because if he arrived five minutes before the end of services it allowed him to consume all the biscuits intended for the congregation. Hence his name ‘The Biscuit Man’. Although ubiquitous at any literary events in the neighbourhood, Rhodes was a solitary figure whose world became even more solitary due to the amount of pubs from which he was banned. It was rumoured that he had been banished from one Hampstead bar because he had corrected the landlord’s grammar.
South End Green and its hinterland has been (and is) home to an army of the famous. Not surprisingly, writers in particular have been drawn to the area. It is one of the very few places in the world where one can be reading a book in one’s front room or in a café and when you glance out of the window you spot the author walking past. Just to name a few from the recent past, the doyen of Caribbean writers George Lamming (who rented a bedsit on Parliament Hill), the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes (who lived in Roderick Rd prior to moving with Sylvia Plath to Primrose Hill), John Le Carré (East Heath Rd), Margaret Drabble (Heath Hurst Rd), Deborah Moggach (writer of ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’) and the Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst (Tanza Rd).
At one time there was a veritable literary nest near to the Roderick Rd footbridge where one could find the homes of Maggie O’Farrell (Somerset Maugham prize winner) and her husband William Sutcliffe (author of the wonderful novel about New Age travellers in India ‘Are You Experienced’); the biographer Ann Wroe (‘Pilate’ and ‘Being Shelley’) and her novelist son Simon Wroe (‘Chop Chop’); plus Charles Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter and a considerable poet and author in her own right Ruth Padel.
On the Heath, one might have seen another celebrity couple, the novelist Margaret Forster and her husband Hunter Davis (the biographer of the Beatles, amongst much else). The critic Al Alvarez was often in evidence, as was the novelist Fay Weldon. Also around were Jon Hillaby (the man who walked across Britain and wrote some fascinating books about his travels), and John Healy (a remarkable writer and man who survived a former life of chronic alcoholism, prison, and 15 years as a vagrant on the Camden streets, to become a chess champion and the author of a superb autobiography ‘The Grass Arena’, now a Penguin Modern Classic). The director, ‘Beyond the Fringe’ performer, writer and general polymath (once memorably described as ‘looking like a bereaved moose’) Dr Jonathan Miller could also be spotted on the Heath occasionally.
With this background it was not surprising that in 2005 Parliament Hill became host to an extraordinary sculpture by Giancarlo Neri called ‘The Writer’. It consisted of a thirty foot high table and chair that loomed over the Highgate ponds. Its aesthetic meaning remained obscure but it provided a practical setting for the couple who, using ropes, managed to climb on to the table surface in order to consummate their passion under the stars – allegedly.
In the early 1970s, the South End Green pub the Railway (now the Garden Gate) was home to a group of Americans who were on the run from the Vietnam War and at risk of being drafted into the army back in the USA. They were a colourful crowd led by a huge bear of a man called Rich, and his sidekick called Ritchie. One man who hung out with them was Sam Shepherd, later to become a respected playwright, Hollywood actor, and writing collaborator with Bob Dylan on his song ‘Brownsville Girl’. Coincidentally at this time, the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was a regular at the High St pub the King William.
A major television event, John Le Carre’s famous spy series ‘Smiley’s People’ was rooted in SEG. The opening scenes were of a murder on the Heath, while the star Alec Guinness was filmed in the old phone box by the fountain and mentioning his location as ‘South End Green’. Guinness was an intensely private man who hated being recognised outside of his professional life. During the filming of ‘Smiley’s People’ the production company installed him in an upstairs flat at the Railway (Garden Gate) pub. After one day’s shooting when Guinness appeared at the door of the pub the entire clientele rose to its feet to applaud him. Horrified he ran through the bar and scurried up the stairs. Subsequently he flitted through the public bar like an apprehensive ghost.
The list of resident actors around South End Green, past and present, is lengthy. Just the mention of a few names show the range – the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch (‘Sherlock’); Gemma Jones (a stalwart of the screen from ‘Duchess of Duke St’ to ‘Bridget Jones’); that master of the lupine stare John Woodvine; the cinema actor and redoubtable defender of the local library Lee Montague; the lamented star of ‘Young Winston’ Simon Ward; and Dame Janet Suzman (the epitome of beleaguered motherhood in both of her main films ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ and the epic ‘Nicholas and Alexandra’). It is no wonder that the local MP from 1992 till 2015 should have been the film star Glenda Jackson.
[Built and opened in 1914, SEG had its own (later three screen) cinema situated on the site of the current Marks and Spencer food store. It was closed in 2001 leading to an anarchic interregnum over control of the empty auditorium. A group of artists led by Daisy Campbell and her remarkable father, the actor and director Ken Campbell, tried to establish the space as an ad hoc arts project featuring actors, a picture gallery, writing workshops, jugglers and a café.
This laudable attempt was interrupted when up to 400 revellers broke into the building for a weekend of what was reported as ‘rave dancing on the stage, drinking in the aisles, dope smoking, and sleeping in the foyers’. After a forty eight hour binge the raiders departed. The Arts Project picked up the pieces and were about to present their main theatrical event when the new owners Marks and Spencer ordered them to leave before it could be performed. The only drama that did take place (and the very last performance in the cinema’s 87-year-old existence) was a one man show about Oscar Wilde.
Daisy Campbell mentioned one story about the amazing life and world of her father Ken Campbell. She managed eventually to persuade him to try and catch up with modern technology and buy a laptop computer. Ken went out to buy it but discovered on the way that for the same money he could buy a parrot – which he bought instead. An acquaintance said that three pictures allegedly painted by the parrot have recently been sold to a collector.
In reference to the Everyman in the village, the comedian Michael McIntyre (a new arrival) commented: “Hampstead is the only place I know where the local cinema provides you with your own sofa.”]
In a more eclectic group, over the years, the Green has been home to such figures as the pop singer Lynsey de Paul (Oak Village, off Mansfield Rd) and her boyfriend the Hollywood film star James Coburn; her neighbour, Monty Python performer and celebrated world traveller Michael Palin; the comic and actor Russell Brand (Courthope Rd); the jazzman George Melly (Savernake Rd); the guitarist John Williams (Parliament Hill; the outstanding historian Eric Hobsbawm (Nassington Rd); the comedian David Baddiel (also Nassington Rd); the impressionist Jon Culshaw (Parliament Hill); the author and dogged champion of the Arts Lord Melvyn Bragg (Hampstead Hill Gardens); the father of the Kenyan nation Jomo Kenyatta (South Hill Park); and the comedian and creator of ‘The Office’ Ricky Gervais (Willoughby Rd).
Until his sad death, the film director Anthony Minghella (‘The English Patient’, ‘Cold Mountain’) regularly ate his breakfast at Polly’s Café on the Green; where also the BBC’s Piers Plowright, the master producer of great radio for decades, would sip coffee and peruse the newspaper. In the 1980s the virtuoso violinist Nigel Kennedy once gave a private performance from the top floor of the house next to Orwell’s one-time bookshop, the sound of Vivaldi floating down to the Fountain below.
The poet Adrian Mitchell (Roderick Rd and later Parliament Hill) was one of the most popular figures of SEG till his death in 2009. Mitchell was known both for his fierce left-wing attacks in such poems as ‘Tell Me Lies About Vietnam’ and for his gentler love poetry as in the splendid verse to his wife Celia:
“When I am sad and weary/ When I think all hope has gone/
When I walk along High Holborn/ I think of you with nothing on.”
He also wrote a verse drama called ‘Mind Your Head’ based around life on the 24 bus – the venerable route that links SEG to Pimlico and the Thames Embankment. It included the lines:
“There’s the garden where Keats heard the nightingale/
There’s a scruffy little pub where they still serve ale” (the Magdala Tavern).
South End Green, in short, is star-spangled. A place where a pub regular can boast without exaggeration that: “My dog has had his head stroked by Bill Oddie, Emma Thompson, two Dr Who’s, and Alistair Campbell. And his lead once got tangled round Gwyneth Paltrow’s right leg.”
To see other chapters – go to top of page and, under the main title, click on the small heading ‘Under Ken Wood’
Feb 28: 1 South End Green – Prologue
Mar 7: 2 Where Eagles Dared
Mar 7: 3 Murder and the Magdala
Mar 14: 4 The Hepburns
Mar 14: 5 Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho
Mar 21: 6 Garland and Mercer
Mar 21: 7 Laureates and Spies
Mar 21: 8 The Silver Fox
Mar 28: 9 The Hoffmeister and Kelly
April 4: 10 The Harvey Brothers
April 4: 11 The Journos
April 11: 12 Five Funerals and a Resurrection
April 18: 13 Scallawag
April 25: 14 Crime and Punishment
May 2: 15 Good Companions
May 9: 16 Sasthi Brata
May 9: 17 Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat
May 16: 18 Eddie Linden
May 16: 19 The Branch Offices
May 23: 20 The Mulls Kid
May 30: 21 The Musos
May 30: 22 Closing Time