Come with me on a flight of fancy just for a moment. Imagine that the film director Woody Allen had set his film “Midnight in Paris” in London. In which period of British history would Allen have time-travelled: what moment in time represents London as its most nostalgic? I thought it would be fun to have a go at a British version of the film, so here’s my take of “Midnight in London.”
For those of you who haven’t seen the Woody Allen romantic-comedy, scroll to the bottom of this post for a quick synopsis.
(Midnight in Paris: the film opens with a tableau of Parisian street scenes. Sidney Bechet’s Si tu vois ma Mère plays in the background).
Our film opens with a montage of London. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square by Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson plays in the background. Hutch was a darling of the London set and a favourite of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII). Press Play and start scrolling through the London montage below.
Photo credits of London in the rain: Left Stephen Shingler, Centre Victoria Johnson, Right Paul Bence (Flikr)
The Mysterious Mah-Jongg
(Midnight in Paris: Gil and his fiancée Inez visit Giverny, painter Claude Monet’s house. The museum is located about an hour outside of Paris. Gil starts to fall in love with the romance of Paris).
I’d like to think that Gil would have travelled an hour outside central London to sumptuous Eltham Palace in Greenwich. It wasn’t built by an Impressionist painter, but this Art Deco folly is fantastically wonderful. It’s the sort of place of which Hercule Poirot would approve, and where ghosts of 1930s past are sipping martinis and discussing the impending war with Germany.
In the 14th century, Eltham Palace was the most frequented royal bolthole in England, with Edward III and Henry VIII spending much of their childhoods here. Millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld took over the property in 1933, and proceeded to modernise the house whilst trying to retain as many period features as possible. They installed mod-cons such as a centralised vacuuming system, underfloor heating, a loudspeaker system which could broadcast music to the ground floor and a private internal telephone system.
The couple entertained royalty at their state-of-the-art home (Queen Mary visited twice) and held lavish parties for an eclectic group of friends such as composer Ivor Stavinsky and the actress Gracie Fields. The Courtaulds weren’t alone in the palace: their pet lemur Mah-Jongg, purchased from Harrods, lived and travelled with them and even had his own quarters with underfloor heating. He died at Eltham Palace and is buried there.
(Midnight in Paris: Gil and Inez are staying at Le Bristol Hotel in the chic fashion district of Paris).
When I think of Le Bristol in Paris, I always think of The Carlyle in New York and Claridge’s in London. The delightfully opulent Claridge’s is sometimes referred to as the annexe to Buckingham Palace. It’s been a home to politicians, royalty and Hollywood stars since it opened its doors in 1856. In the 1920s, the hotel was the go-to for the Bright Young Things, in 1945 Winston and Clementine Churchill moved in, and Spencer Tracy is quoted as saying: ” …not that I intend to die, but when I do, I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s.”
The hotel you see today was designed in the late nineteenth century by Harrods architect C. W. Stephens with such luxurious novelties as en-suite bathrooms, lifts and electric lights. The Art Deco touches such as the Lobby and Lalique door came later. The hotel bar is more twenty-first century, designed by my favourite designer, the late David Collins. Today, Claridge’s has the last man-operated lift in London. It also serves my favourite afternoon tea.
A Vintage Classic
(Midnight in Paris: Gil and Inez have dinner with Inez’s ignoble parents in Michelin-star restaurant, Le Grand Vétour.)
Let’s head over to Rules restaurant now for dinner, open for discerning diners since 1798 and London’s oldest eatery. Gil makes the faux-pas of discussing politics with his would-be father-in-law, a staunch right-wing Thatcherite. Inez’s bombastic friend Paul walks in with his wife, Carol. He is spending a cultural summer in London whilst guest lecturing at the London School of Economics. They’ve just been to the exhibition “Traditional jewellery and dress from the Balkans” at the British Museum.
So what’s on the menu at Rules? Specialities of the house include their famous oysters, mackerel rillette, steamed steak & kidney suet pudding, Kashmiri pheasant curry and Golden Syrup steamed sponge (with custard of course). You can wash all of this down with a Black Velvet (Guinness and champagne) or Kate Middleton’s “Royal 29” (gin, vodka, Lillet & crystallised violet petals).
Charles Dickens, H G Wells, Evelyn Waugh, Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin are only some of the patrons who dined in this star-studded restaurant. Rules has made several appearances in Downton Abbey: Edith meets Michael Gregson for lunch here, and Mary, Edith and Tom take Rose for lunch to Rules before her wedding.
Off with their Heads
(Midnight in Paris: Gil is coerced into spending the day at the Chateau de Versailles with Paul and Carol).
Heading south west from Claridge’s, past Harrods into Chelsea and then through Richmond Park, Gil and the terrible trio arrive in Hampton Court Palace, once home to notorious and deadly wife swapper Henry VIII. They wander around the Puzzle Maze and the spectacular Privy Garden whilst discussing Gil’s book, set in a nostalgia shop in Notting Hill.
The original manor house was acquired by the ill-fated Cardinal Wolesley who transformed it into a flashy palace, installing 3 Royal suites and 40 guest bedrooms with en-suite lavatories (latrines). By 1528, Wolesley had fallen from the king’s grace, and Henry appropriated the bishop’s home for himself and his 6 queens. By 1540, the king had upgraded the palace, installing tennis courts, bowling alleys, pleasure gardens, 36,000 square feet of kitchen, a lavatory which could seat 28 people at the same time and the tapestry-clad medieval dining room, the Great Hall.
The palace maintained its royal connections with Elizabeth I, James I (William Shakespeare performed for the royal court here), and Charles I who was held prisoner here prior to his execution. In 1689, a Chocolate Kitchen was installed for William and Mary and used extensively by the Georgian kings for a hot cuppa cocoa.
(Midnight in Paris: Gil, Inez, Paul and Carol visit the Musée Rodin in Central Paris. The house displays an extensive collection of sculptures by Rodin as well as paintings by Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh).
Let’s now head over to the Holborn area of London and to the John Soane Museum. I call this London’s House of Curiosities, and I know Gil would adore this place. Of course, Paul would be a walking Encyclopaedia Britannica about the inhabitants of 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields as well as London architecture in general.
John Soane was one of the most influential and notable architects of his day, with the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Bank of England also taking pride of place in his portfolio. Built in 1792, the museum was originally his home, although he would eventually buy up Numbers 12 and 14 to house what would become a treasure trove of over 6000 pieces.
The collection includes the sarcophagus of Seti I, discovered in a necropolis in Thebes; a selection of Canalettos and Turners; architectural drawings and models; clocks, sculptures, and furniture; and other rare gems.
My favourite nook in the museum is the Picture Room: secret walls conceal The Rake’s Progress, a series of 8 paintings by William Hogarth. The guide will fold these out and recount the tale of Tom Rakewell, a man who inherits money and squanders it all on prostitutes and gambling. He eventually ends up in debtor’s prison and then Bedlam Hospital for the insane.
In 1833, John Soane negotiated his own Act of Parliament in order to ensure his house and contents would be preserved just as he left them. The house is now free to the public, with candlelight tours every first Tuesday of the month (free entry for the first 200 people).
It’s Gin O’Clock
(Midnight in Paris: Gil attends a wine-tasting event with Paul, Carol and Inez’s parents on the roof terrace of Le Meurice Hotel. Frustrated with the group, he decides to head off into Paris for a late walk).
Our social get-together isn’t an al-fresco one but takes place in the Soho Bar of the Groucho Club in Soho. It’s an exclusive members’ club for media and theatrical types, actors, artists, eccentrics and the odd backgammon player. I organised my husband’s 40th here, and let’s just say it was a night to remember.
The name is a play on Groucho who is misquoted as saying: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” The club has an impressive art collection and a maze of rooms, all of which swell with party revellers after 6pm. And yet, the Groucho feels strangely intimate: it’s the sort of place where everyone knows your name, where you can really let your whiskers down. Cameras and phones are not allowed which means you can get away with some serious misbehaving – which club members do.
So who might Gil bump into at The Groucho? Stephen Fry, Damian Lewis, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Lily Allen, Kate Moss and Benedict Cumberbatch might very well be there….but I couldn’t possibly comment.
Get me to the Church on Time
(Midnight in Paris: Gil is lost and stops for a rest on the steps of the St Etienne du Mont church).
Gil leaves the Groucho Club for a walkabout in bustling Soho and then heads back to Claridge’s. He stops for a rest in Hanover Square on the steps of St George’s Church.
St George’s has been a Mayfair landmark since 1725. Handel had his own pew in the church and Theodore Roosevelt married here (the only American President to marry outside the USA). Other celebrity weddings included Capability Brown’s daughter Bridget in 1773 and John Nash in 1798. In My Fair Lady, Alfred Doolitlle invites his daughter Elliza to his wedding at St George’s, scene of the famous song Get Me to the Church on Time!
(Midnight in Paris: At the stroke of midnight, a vintage Peugeot drives up with a group of revellers dressed in 1920s clothes. Gil gets in)
A peacock blue Rolls Royce Silver Ghost pulls up outside St George’s. A young man beckons Gil to join him in the car and swiftly hands him a Martini glass. The man is wearing teal silk pyjamas and a white fur cape. There are two women in the car, both dressed in men’s midnight blue tuxedos.
Midnight in Paris Synopsis
Screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) and his fiancée Inez (Rachel Adams) are in Paris with Inez’s conservative parents staying at a lavish hotel and eating in Michelin-star restaurants. They visit museums with Inez’s bourgeois intellectual friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife, Carol. Disillusioned Gil is in love with the past and is writing a book about a nostalgia shop. As he wanders around Paris on his own, a mysterious car rolls up towards him at the stroke of midnight. To his surprise, Gil has time-travelled back to 1920s Paris and meets a who’s who of the Jazz Age: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali, to name a few.
Gil returns to modern day Paris but spends most of the film travelling back to the 1920s and to Belle Epoque Paris, falling in love with Picasso’s mistress Adriana (Marion Cotillard) along the way. He splits up with the unimaginative Inez, and the film ends with Gil walking off in the rain with another nostalgia fan, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux).
Sources: Wikipedia, IMDB.com. Cover photo is by Leo Hidalgo – Flikr
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