“I’m in Cannes on a yacht,” announced Johnny Daukes on his Facebook page, “it’s not my yacht but it is a yacht and that’s a start.”
Bella Freud can’t make it today. A shoot, you know. So I message post-Cannes Johnny and we’re off. Sometimes, it’s great to be able to be spontaneous. Mr Daukes – I was thinking on my way over to his Longstone Avenue house, is a bit of a whirlwind Harlesden polymath, but not a Stephen Fry one, less Cambridge, more Camberwell and Didcot and autodidacticism, anyway, he started off as a film editor, became a musician, wrote comedy for TV and radio, and has now completed his first feature film ‘Acts Of Godfrey’ which is all in rhyming verse and stars Simon Callow and Harry Enfield, not only that he’s got an CD of his own songs, A False Parade, ready to go, and four more film projects in the pipeline, oh my goodness, how does he do it? – introduced himself to me via the quirky and robustly opinionated web magazine, Sabotage Times, because he had read my walking interview with Alexei Sayle on there. He said ‘hello, I’m in the neighbourhood’. I like that kind of spirit.
“For the first two days, I was in agony,” he says of his Cannes experience. “It was excruciating. I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. But in the end, I just started opening my mouth.” He was trying to get producers interested in his next film projects, trying to raise £4.2 million. That’s serious, Johnny. Reassuringly, he flew Easy Jet and stayed in a chain hotel by the motorway.
Johnny has comedian written on his heart. “The apex of the trip,” he declares, “was being invited to an Italian starlet’s party on a yacht. It was an extremely Eurotrash event. I was with Jordan Stone who has produced Sophie Coppola films, he knows everyone and even if he doesn’t, he’s on his feet introducing himself at every opportunity. He’s a one-man SWAT team. I learnt a lot from him.“
A few weeks, a woman with a leg injury, came up to me in Park Parade. “You write that blog,” she said. “You should find the morgue at the back there because it’s an amazing building, and there’s this guy who tells stories and will take you round it.” I was so shocked at being recognised that I forgot to find out any useful, geographical information. So this, I decide, is a fine opportunity to start the search. With post-Cannes Johnny. But not quite yet.
We are walking up Longstone Avenue past Roundwood Park and Johnny is telling me that he runs several circuits of park in the week. I can tell he does something sporty. Cycles, runs. He’s lean. “The circumference is exactly 1km,” he says exposing a mind that loves this sort of minutiae, “and so that is very useful. In fact, I had a strong sense of deja vu the first time I went to the park, it’s just like the municipal park where I grew up in Camberwell. It must cost an arm and a leg to maintain. I see workers with leaf-blowing machines, that’s insane, it’s as though Homer Simpson has moved in.”
We have a look down by the alleyway by wooden Roundwood Gospel church and nursery – “It could be Tennessee,” muses Johnny at the wooden building – as we’re on our way to the Longstone allotments. I had intended to go on an allotment tour with Bella. A lady in a striped woollen hat is just leaving and locks up. She looks at us suspiciously. As though we might be intending to break in and steal lettuces and tomatoes.
As some kind of illogical riposte to this thought, Johnny decides to do his best Tim Henman impression. He furrows his brow wildly and removes his sunglasses. He looks more like Tom Waits. Somehow. Maybe, his soul is mirroring the Waits’ one.
We’ve wandered into Ambleside Road now, and I remember there’s a bit of a mystery for me down there. Why are the houses named after southern coastal towns? Romney, Hastings, St Leonards, Wichelsea – they are are all here in the middle of Harlesden. Why? As ever, Johnny has his own theories. “Well, they obviously can’t spell Rodney,” he suggests for the Romney one, “or perhaps ex music journalists have inspired names cos James Brown has a house in Wichelsea, David Quantick is in Hastings, and Kate Flett is in St Leonards.” It’s a flawed but equally delicious argument.
Suddenly, our attention is drawn to a row of plastic squirrels on one of the window sills. We’re astonished. “Next door have narrower sills, “observes Johnny acutely, “they’d be better off with stoats.”
It’s that kind of a day.
And then I ask that question. Well, almost ask it. A man is lying next to his car in the repair man position. I ask him how long he’s lived here. “A year,” he says in an Eastern European accent. I know my question – Do you know where the morgue is? – is doomed. I don’t ask.
A teenage boy goes by on a bike. “You know what drives me mad about them,” says Johnny emphatically enjoying the pause while I muse on the possibilities of his opinions on youth in the neighbourhood, “is they never oil their chains.”
Do you know what Oldfield Road is famous for, I ask stupidly? Deliberately. “Did Mike Oldfield record Tubular Bells here?” he says knowing this is not the answer.
On the Royal Wedding Day – April 29th 2011 – Oldfield Road had the only street party in Harlesden. My friend, Amanda, lives down here. So I was here. There was not one bit of bunting, not one Union Jack but there was a lot of vodka, Red Stripe, and huge sound systems. It was more like carnival. I talked to a couple of people. “I was in bed with my own Prince this morning,” said one woman in a splendid red, gold and black dress, “but I think it is all about remembering Princess Di today.” Her daughter, Evita, agreed and talked about how she loved the sapphire ring that had been passed on from Di to Kate. And finally, Rudolf, a gentle-looking Rasta, professed to an abiding affection for Prince Charles. “He stands up for issues when he feels they are important,” says Rudolph, “ he has courage.”
Oldfield Road – a bastion of Royalists. I never would have known.
I see a lollypop lady near Leopold Primary School and try the dreaded question. “A morgue,” she exclaims, “I’ve lived round here for 27 years and I’ve never heard of a morgue near here.”
“There’s the temple up the road,” adds another woman unhelpfully. No, I don’t mean Neasden Temple.
We’re meandering down Essex Road towards Irish pub, The Burren – “My mate, Brown, wanted me to go there, I was like ‘what on a lose your teeth night’ “– and I find out that Johnny is one of eight children. The fourth to be exact. Yes, a Catholic family who lived in Camberwell to start with. A one bedroom flat with four children at the time. “They liked to fill space,” he jests seriously, “we got to lay down on the bedroom floor like dominos.”
We tip our heads – it’s 3pm – inside the door of The Burren. It’s dark and quite dingy. “They’re going to think we’re location scouts,” says Johnny, “dressed like this.” I’ve got a couple of maroon fake flowers on my head a la antler stylee, and Johnny is all leather jacket and shades.
I’m still determined to find this morgue. We go into the funeral parlour called E C Mills. A gentleman in tails – it turns out to be Simon Mills – greets us. I ask the question and mention the man who hopefully will regale us with tales of the building. “That could be my father,” says Simon who has quite a menacing way with his eyes, and subsequently suggests putting their business video on my website. Imagine that. But their morgue is in Bolton Road and doesn’t fit the beautiful building bill.
Then we’re spotted – I’ve got a camera round my neck – by a large bloke called John. He’s eager to talk in the manner of someone who has endless time on his hands. Ex-army, he’s obviously a keen local history fan. He doesn’t know the morgue I’m talking about, but he does know about the shop that used – Futters, apparently, used to be in the High St – that used to sell bizarre espionage equipment. Military buttons with compasses inside, vinyl records that break to reveal maps. I’m not sure whether his an over-active imagination or not. We escape.
Craven Park Road and Johnny has launched into his theories on the shops here. “Full of pharmacies and shoe shops,” he says, “I once made a video down here about a bloke with massive feet. I’d got hold of a huge, huge pair of shoes, put them on and it was all filmed in a shoe shop down here.”
Oh, Johnny has done everything. “Shall we cut through St Marys Road and then wiggle through Drayton Gardens?” he wonders aloud. Wiggle through Drayton Gardens? “It’s a technical term,” he says unconvincingly.
The houses down here at big. As in enormous, with churchy-type porticos. “It’s quite Tufnell Park down here,” we agree pretentiously and hoot with derision at ourselves. This is the first time I’ve ever walked here.
St Mathews Church is on the left and Johnny starts to talk about his early life as a Catholic. “When I was a teenager, I looked into what they had to say about masturbation,” he says, “and it was all about Onan spilling his seed. And that apparently is evil. Basically, I realised the Catholic Church had cherry-picked whatever suited their moral theories out of the Old Testament. I argued with the priest about it and got nowhere. The only answer he came up with, was you have to have faith. I obviously wasn’t a Catholic.”
As we ‘wiggle’ back to Longstone Avenue, his first feature film, ‘Acts of Godfrey’ comes back into the conversation. “The main character is called Vic Tims and he is a Catholic insurance man like my father was,” says Johnny. Vic Tims probably says it all. There is a lot of autobiography in this film.
And the man at Cannes. The one Johnny actually went to meet. He’s about to take it to the people who decide about the film festivals in Toronto and Venice. ‘Acts of Godfrey’ is on its way to London. Perhaps even the Lexi.
And I haven’t found that morgue yet…
‘Acts of Godfrey’ the debut feature film from writer/director Johnny Daukes, starring Simon Callow and Harry Enfield, has been selected in the ‘Breakthrough’ strand of the London UK Film Focus at the BFI from 27-30 June.
See the trailer: