Over the years, the Magdala was fortunate to attract some first rate comedic and musical entertainers. For years the large function room on the first floor was home to the Alpine Comedy Club which played host to a procession of well-known stand ups. This room was also the venue for classical concerts. The shows in 2013 featuring the works of Joseph Haydn were quite extraordinary. A month or so previously two musicians had met for the first time in the bar and after chatting agreed to join forces.
Not out of the ordinary maybe, except that the musicians in question happened to be Rusen Gunes, the lead viola player with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Bernd Gradwohl, the conductor, concert pianist, and considered by his peers to be the finest violin player in Austria. Not Camden – AUSTRIA!!! With a narration given by Andrew Hobday – the actor, musician, lead singer of the rock band ‘Thousand Mexicans’, and for forty years a stalwart of the Mag – the evenings were outstanding.
For many years, the saloon bar was graced by the presence of the superb musical conductor and festival director George Vass. He was especially renowned for building the Presteigne Festival from a relatively small scale Welsh borders event to a festival of national importance. Also the world renowned concert pianist John Lill was an occasional visitor.
One of the real regulars was the man whom the Independent described as ‘British poetry’s glam, spangly, shape-shifting answer to David Bowie’ – Jeremy Reed – whose fans have included Bjork, Seamus Heaney, and Pete Doherty. Over the years he composed some of his best poems while sitting in the saloon bar. The internationally known French photographer and doughty defender of ‘pre-fab’ housing Elizabeth Blanchet was also a regular and her extraordinary camera work recorded many of the Mag musical events.
During the 1990s the public bar was the centre for weekly Irish folk music sessions, while the saloon bar housed Roger Howsam. Roger doubled as a barman and pub pianist who specialised in playing the works of Noel Coward, a man close to his heart. Roger was on duty one evening when probably the worst pub fight since the 1960s broke out in the public bar. The temporary manager who had only arrived that day attempted to halt the trouble, ended up in hospital, and was never seen again. Roger, in the middle of warbling ‘Mad about the Boy’, took one look at the mayhem, fled to the Gents lavatory and locked himself inside.
Such an event was a real rarity in the calmer days of the new century. Although Roger departed, the multi-talented Indo-Jazz pianist John Southgate fortunately took over the early evening musical duties to warm things up.
Another highlight of Magdala music involved the excellent piano work of John Croucher accompanied by Rigsby the Singing Dog. Rigsby had a feeling for the blues that many a soul singer could envy. His performance was filmed and currently is still available on Youtube – an experience not to be missed.
[In the 1990s the White Horse on South End Green – the possessor of Orwell’s clock – had a folk club in its basement. It was run by a real star of folk music called Julie Felix.
Although American by birth, Julie had been a national figure in the Britain of the 1960s and 70s when she had her own BBC TV series, starred at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival (the Dylan one), and was famous as the girlfriend of successively Paul McCartney, David Frost, and Leonard Cohen. Through her numerous contacts she was able to bring in some star names of the folk circuit, one of whom was Ralph McTell, the writer and singer of the lovely ‘The Streets of London’. During his performance McTell related one memorable story.
After a gig south of the river he had gone to an Indian restaurant with the comedian Jaspar Carrott. Having finished the meal, they climbed into McTell’s car, drove off, and (in those pre Sat-Nav days) missed their way and ended up circling aimlessly around the maze of roads. Jaspar Carrott stared at McTell in disbelief and said:
“Here I am – driving all round bloody Lambeth with the man who wrote ‘Let me take you by the hand and I’ll lead you through the streets of London’ and we’re completely fuckin’ lost!!”]
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