One evening about seven years ago I was, as usual, behind the bar of Curzon Soho. I was excited because I had just made Martin Scorsese a gin martini (dirty). His drinking partner on this occasion was Tilda Swinton (black sambuca, straight) and as they took their seats ready to watch Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir I got ready to buy some dinner (a share-size Snickers, probably, because we were paid 14p an hour back then) a little star struck.
Walking up the stairs I noticed a white-haired man sitting in the corner. He looked like, though could not have been, Peter Cook, but he did seem to be in the middle of a conversation about re-establishing the Establishment Club - a very anti-establishment establishment, formally of just around the corner.
Confused, I threw on my jacket and bundled out and into the steamy streets of Soho immediately crashing head on into Werner Herzog who was reading a book about bears and not looking where he was going. As I hauled him up off the pavement our eyes met and something, though I don’t know what, was shared. He bowed in apology and I headed into the labyrinth of streets north to spend my hard earned money, my mind buzzing with the ridiculousness of it all.
This, like so many of the stories conjured, penned and realised within the square mile between Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue over the last 100 years, is totally made up. But it very well might have been real. Not for long.
There has been a cinema at 99 Shaftesbury Avenue since 1959 and Curzon, as it is now, has been a meeting place, writing spot and socialising HQ for people of all walks of life since 1985. For many aspiring actors, writers and filmmakers it is their second office as well as a place they can watch the best films from all over the world.
My time working there informed and inspired me as it has done and continues to do to so many others. It is a subterranean microcosm of Soho itself: fertile and bustling creative ground. Without the education it gave me I would never have been able, four years later, to make my own film Hinterland which went on to premiere there in February 2015.
The current TfL plan to demolish the site on which Curzon now stands and replace it with a Crossrail 2 ticket hall (presumably with no ticket offices…) is just one of many current proposals that will infringe on this unique and hugely important cultural space.
To me, Soho is the encapsulation of everything that makes London great. The beating, story-telling heart of the city made up of artists, writers, and thinkers of all outlooks and denominations unified by a love of the arts as well as a good pint.
The gradual erosion of its independent spirit and collective creative terrain by continued ‘development’ will be devastating for its inhabitants, for its visitors and for London. When it is gone we will never get it back.
As Martin, Tilda, Werner and the ghost of Peter Cook know: some things are more important than ‘streamlining’ and ‘modernisation’. Soho, and all the stories it has to tell, is one of them.
Let’s save it.
Harry Macqueen is the director of acclaimed film Hinterland (and a former staff member at Curzon Soho). You can watch his film and other great films that defined the history of Curzon Soho in the Save Curzon Soho collection on Curzon Home Cinema.
The project for Crossrail 2 has been given the go-ahead by the Government. This means that Curzon Soho is in real danger of getting knocked down to make room for this TfL development.