‘Bal-ham’ gateway to the south …

7 10 2011

‘Swallows and Amazons’ author Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) referred to it as ‘the ugliest and most abominable of London’s unpleasing suburbs.’  

The late, great ‘Goon’, Peter Sellars, mocked it in a 1958 comedy sketch ‘Gateway to the South’, which parodied popular American newsreel travelogues of the day.   

It is Balham, or ‘Bal-ham’, as intoned by Sellars in his satirical voiceover, forever home to the thriving industry of ‘toothbrush holesmanship’!

Half a century later Balham is now an up and coming, fashionable, trendy, south of the river location, home to celebrities, fine dining restaurants and upwardly mobile young journalists…

Daughter number two, Gem, a features writer with ‘Love It’ magazine has just moved up in the world – well a little bit. Actually she’s moved up the Balham High Road, vacating her flat above the ‘Ego’ hair and beauty salon in exchange for a larger ground floor ‘apartment’ in ‘Du Cane Court’.

Before I went over to help her move in, bubbling with enthusiasm (that’s her not me!), she assured me, “You’ll love it Dad, it’s Art Deco and it’s got a really interesting history – your sort of place!”

I do, it is and it has.

Du Cane Court  built in 1937 and marketed as ‘a magnificent up to date building providing distinctive accommodation’, is a classic building of the Art Deco genre and the largest private block of apartments in Europe, with 676 in all. 

Central heating, constant hot water, water softener and a radio with choice of two programmes came as standard.

In addition a large restaurant provided regular dinner dances and a licensed club offered membership at 5/- per annum.  Can’t have been bad!

During the Second World War, Du Cane Court housed much of the Civil Service. It’s distinctive layout, as seen from the air, was reputably used by German bombers as a navigational landmark – turn left at DCC and then head straight for Germany. That may be why it managed to escape from bombing at a time when Balham High Rd was regularly used for target practice.   

There was one  notable near miss in In 1940 when a bomb struck Balham Tube Station, just a couple of hundred yards up the road, bursting water and gas mains and causing the deaths of 64 people who had taken cover underground.

This incident features as part of the storyline in Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel ‘Atonement’ , and the 2007 film of the book starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. 

Although there is no documentary evidence to support the claim, a widely believed urban myth has it that Hitler had placed spies in Balham and, had he been successful in his invasion of Britain, Du Cane Court had been ear-marked as his seat of government. Thankfully we’ll never know!

More recently Du Cane Court’s 1930s architecture has seen it used as a location for ‘Agatha Christie’s Poirot.’ The dapper Belgian detective with the waxed black moustache and the ‘little grey cells’, played by David Suchet, came to call while filming the ‘Plymouth Express’ episode in 1991.         

That is not the only Agatha Christie connection.

Over the years there have been a number of celebrity residents at Du Cane Court. One of which was actress Dame Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972) who became synonymous with Christie’s amateur sleuth, elderly spinster Miss Marple in the 1960s.

She was 70 years year old when she first took on the role. In 1963 Agatha Christie dedicated her latest mystery, ‘The Mirror Crack’d’, ‘to Margaret Rutherford in admiration.’     

Tommy Trinder (1909-1989) the popular, pre and post war, stage, screen and radio comic, with his trademark trilby hat and ‘You lucky people’ catchphrase, was resident from 1939-55.

Trinder, the first ever compere of ITV’s ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, was a lifelong Fulham football fan and chairman of the club between 1959-76, during which time he hired and fired Bobby Robson – who later became England manager.   

Du Cane Court has always been popular with comics. Another who lived there was one of my early childhood favourites Richard Hearne (1908-1979), better known as Mr Pastry. It’s hard to believe now that this slap stick comedian, with the walrus moustache and bowler hat, was such a huge star and the first on BBC TV to have a series named after him. He even appeared across the pond, on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show.

Amazingly, Mr Pastry could have changed the course of ‘Dr Who’ history. Following the departure of Jon Pertwee from the series Richard Hearne was seriously considered for the role of the fourth Dr. But he was only interested in playing the part in the style of Mr Pastry so Tom Baker got the nod instead.     

It’s hard to imagine Mr Pastry taking on the Daleks!

Another former inhabitant of Du Cane Court gained status celebrity for a very different reason. She was a key figure in one of the defining moments of the swinging sixties, the 1962 political sex scandal that rocked a nation and brought down a government – the Profumo Affair.

Her name, of course, was Christine Keeler.

Christine Keeler (1942-), model cum top of the range call-girl, was pursued by John Profumo, War Minister in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, and struck up an illicit relationship with him at the same time as she was also involved in an affair with a Soviet naval attaché known to MI5 as a spy.

This happened at the height of the Cold War, shortly after the Cuba Crisis, when the West had its nuclear missiles pointing directly at Moscow and the Soviet Union had its trained on Washington and London.

The idea that the War Minister of the USA’s biggest ally was sharing his bed with the same woman as a known Soviet spy, and at a time when fingers, on either side of the World, were poised in readiness over nuclear buttons was… explosive!

The British nation was enthralled and appalled in equal measure as the story of the affair – a heady cocktail of sex, spies and scandal – was revealed in sensational style by the press.

Lewis Morley’s 1963 photograph of ‘model’ Christine Keeler straddling a back to front chair has become an iconic image. By association, the Arne Jacobsen 3107 design chair has itself become an iconic model.  

Profumo was forced to resign and Christine Keeler, labelled a tart and a traitor, was imprisoned for perjury. In 2001 she tried to set the record straight with her version of events in her autobiography, ‘The Truth At Last’.  

For those who of you still around in 2046, all may or may not be revealed when the official papers surrounding the affair finally come into the public domain.

Currently living in Du Cane Court is self-styled ‘Bard’ and ‘Night Mayor’ of Balham – “I don’t do days!” –  alternative comedian and ‘grumpy old man’, Arthur Smith.

Arthur famously danced naked on the Balham High Road, singing the Moldovan national anthem, after losing a bet!

In 2009 he threw open the doors of his palatial pad inviting audiences into his home for a series of live broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 , ‘Arthur Smith’s Balham Bash!’  

I’m sure he kept the noise down.











One response

7 10 2011

manonmona reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.

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