Monthly Archives: January 2012

LEXI FOUNDER REVEALS HER INNER WILDNESS

I love the way Sally Wilton – founder of Kensal Rise’s extraordinary state of the art indie cinema, the Lexi which sends all of its profits to an eco village in South Africa – signs herself at the end of her emails, not as chief executive, but as dreamer. Yes, yes, yes. She has certainly ‘dreamed’ her cinema into a thriving community enterprise and has recently set up Nomad, a travelling pop up version of the Lexi soon to arrive at Harlesden’s Misty Moon (Movies at the Misty Moon start on March 1st with a new documentary called Lover’s Rock) which is, of course, a former cinema. Oh, the cultural satisfaction of turning a pub back into a picture house. Although it will stay a pub as well.

It’s a grim, cold, rainy morning when Sally appears on my doorstep weather-ready in hat and gloves. “We’d call it a ‘mizzly’ morning in Ireland,” she says revealing her Antrim roots. She grew up in Nigeria until she was 8. I thought she might cancel but Sally is made of sterner stuff. As we march down Anson Rd, she’s telling me how she used to put fliers about the Lexi into people’s letter boxes herself back in 2008 when it had recently opened. “I could do a PHD in the potential dangers of letter boxes,” she jests unexpectedly, “there are the ones with teeth that almost bite you, the ones that are hell to push open and the ones that say ‘No Junk Mail’. One day I was about to put a flier through one of the latter when the woman of the house greeted me with an absolute ‘No’, so I explained about the Lexi and she changed her mind instantly. I’ve never thought of Lexi fliers as junk mail.”

Sally Wilton initially appears to be shy and self-deprecating but she is also humorous. Quietly but bitingly.

Sally is a full-time philanthropist, as well as a dreamer. Having sold her business – Etc Venues, which created affordable temporary training and conference facilities – in 2006 for 21 million pounds, she and her directors became not so secret millionaires and Sally found her way to her own causes and passions without the aid of a TV programme. The Lynedoch eco village in South Africa – a community created out of the principles of the Sustainability Institute – was her first commitment destination. The Lexi – her daughter is called Alex – was the second.

Did it really result from the amazing community spirit that emerged at the time of the bizarre micro- 2006 tornado in Kensal Rise? “Well, I was already looking for a building,” she says, “although I had no idea how to run a cinema, it just stemmed from my love of film. I was out in South Africa when it happened. I thought my children were pulling my leg but I flew straight back when I realised it was true. Roofs had been ripped off, one side of a building had gone. Luckily only our house’s windows had smashed because a furniture van outside had taken much of the impact. However, the community spirit was amazing, everyone was helping each other. And the Lexi was very much born in that atmosphere. Today we have 50 volunteers from the community all helping us out, and some of them get involved with the eco village too.”

The Lexi is housed in an Edwardian building that used to be called Pinkham Hall. “Colonel Pinkham created it in 1928 as a theatrical space and as a part of the Conservative Men’s Club next door,” she says. It’s surprising we agree, that he was a Conservative but one who obviously liked the theatre so much he funded one next door. He was apparently big on snooker as well.  “I saw it was for sale,” she says, “and they said it had already been sold, but I instantly wrote a document for what I envisaged as a community cinema and I got it. I had to go and meet the Men’s Club committee which was an experience in itself. The Constitutional Club is like going back into the 1950s. The treasurer is 85 and remembers queuing round the block for the two old cinemas that used to be further down Chamberlayne Road.”

By this time, we are walking up Harlesden High St towards the Job Centre Plus, the brick abomination which was built  at the turn of the century as the very grand Willesden Hippodrome. It became a cinema in 1928 as audiences’ appetites for variety theatre diminished. During that era, there were seven cinemas in the area, now sadly there are none. “I love cinema as a place where you can be with others,” she says, “or to completely escape to, and be alone. The old-fashioned picture houses were magical and they were for the working classes not just the posh. We had two cinemas down Chamberlayne Road near  the Moberley gym, that’s where the Consitutional Club treasurer remembers the queues. Together, they had 3,000 seats, imagine that. Cinema was having its golden time. Of course, that was when we had a train going straight to Liverpool St, so lots of workers from the City lived in Kensal Rise. There were tailor shops then.”

I mention that I first came to Harlesden in the 80s when the Mean Fiddler put on brilliant bands and people travelled to come here for gigs. “I did too,” she exclaims, “I came to see Nico play there, it was amazing.” It turns out that Sally used to live in a squat in Brixton, whilst I lived in a squat in Shepherd’s Bush. That information re-modelled my preconceptions of millionaires! “It was pretty run down,” she says, “we didn’t have hot water. I love London though, it’s always interesting.”

We pass Paddy Power and I can’t help letting her know that over a year ago, I discovered that this had been a cinema called The Picardy. I looked it up on the internet and it showed a photo of the interior where you could see that the films were projected onto that wall that backed onto the street. It looked like the inside of a train and had posters for Barbara’s Stanwyk’s Golden Boy from the 1930s. Later it turned into a night club called Top 32 and I’m sure Mean Fiddler former boss, Vince Power, met his first wife there when he was a teenager! It’s all coming back to me.

There was also a cinema at 24 Harlesden High Street opposite Peacocks. Now it’s a hair shop. And then there was the Odeon – later to become the Roxy theatre where bands used to rehearse in the 70s at the same time as being a fleapit apparently – which was knocked down in the 90s and has now become a faceless ‘new’ build on the corner of Odeon Court. That’s what’s left of the history.

We stand in the entrance to the Misty Moon – formerly the cinema, the Coliseum – where there are old photos of film stars. “Tony Curtis was so sexy in those days,” says Sally in another unexpected  bit of banter. I laugh again.

She then admits what she would really like is “one of the vans that the government used to send out in the 1950s with little cinemas in them for disseminating public information. It would make a brilliant pop up cinema.” There is one out there apparently that has been restored.

I inform her that the Clash and the Slits played here in 1977. She is suitably impressed and surprised.

In the meantime, we notice the amazing statistic on the wall that in 1946, the audiences for cinema is the UK were 31 million. Wow!

What would she like to screen here? “Unusual stuff,” she says, “we don’t want to do the obvious.”

Ah there’s the rub. She explains that the most difficult aspect of screening films is obtaining the rights to old films. “We’re trying to get the rights for Pulp Fiction at the moment but it’s very difficult,” she explains. “That’s where it helps to be a newcomer, I’m endlessly optimistic. I think we can do anything. Others are more pragmatic. I’m a dreamer and I’m determined. I want Twin Peaks. I’d like to do bring your duvet nights at the Lexi like they do at Battersea Arts Centre.”

It also helps if you know a few of the right people. “I’d always wanted to meet David Puttnam,” she says. “His former chauffeur lives down the road from me. So when I was at the same awards ceremony as him, I introduced myself to him with this little fact. He has been to the Lexi and he has helped us out with rights. He’s a very nice man.”

I love that the Lexi always have someone there introduce the film. It feels old-fashioned and caring. “I was inspired by the genuinely wonderfully eccentric gentleman who runs the 600 seater Rex in Berkhampstead,” she says. “He always introduces his film. It makes it an individual experience. It’s cinema with heart. We also do newsletters where we say what we honestly feel about new films, we don’t gush without meaning it and we are critical.”

One of the recent projects of which she is most proud is working in South Africa at Lynesoch teaching schoolkids to be camera men and women. “Then we show what they make at the Lexi,” she says, “there is a 16 year who had been in trouble for violence, and is now going to film school in Cape Town.”

And what would she like at the Lexi? “A second screening room, that would really help with programming.”

The Lexi’s Pop up cinema Nomad is coming to the Misty Moon on March 1st. It’s a free event with special cocktails to buy. You can find more info about the film here and there will be other screenings over the following few months.

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DANCE WILLESDEN JUNCTION

“It does look like a wedding party, a strange one, but it does have that feeling,” says Tania, my son’s girlfriend, after she’d looked at some of the footage of myself and eight friends whirling/jigging/funking/floating around the grim industrial walkways of that sprawling railway monster that is Willesden Junction. Nov 2011

Where to start?

With the raw delight of seeing Sarah – we went to Ilkley (West Yorkshire) Grammar School together, she’s my oldest close friend – standing on my doorstep at 1 15pm one glorious autumnal Saturday afternoon, dressed entirely in scarlet. Statuesque, bold, Frida Kahloesque. Long skirt and a wonderful net wrap. Oh, the potential of that wrap!

Or Jayne’s – a newer friend – suggestion that she’d like to come for a Harlesden walk with me. With Tim, her partner, and also 5 Rhythms’ (dance created by New Yorker, Gabrielle Roth where you dance your own steps through five different rhythms – strong and flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness) teacher. And me thinking ‘yes, but why don’t we dance’. After all that’s what we do together so often and I haven’t done it in Harlesden yet. 5 Rhythms is not about showing off although it can be, it’s about dancing with an open heart.

And gradually, as the summer wended through our midst, a few more friends were invited and accepted, or even invited themselves. Others understandably couldn’t bring themselves to expose themselves in this way. This dancing-in-public-way. In fact, only that morning, I received an email from a lovely friend called Howard saying: “I feel as though I’m letting you down. Please ask me to do anything except dancing in the streets on a Saturday afternoon.” I laughed out loud.

The door bell keeps going. Helen is in a sexy, maroon dress with a red flower in her hair, Tim is in a quiet red shirt and dazzling white trousers, Abigail changes into a elegant more muted red number, and Claire too. Jayne dons a lipstick pink-red, short dress with boots. Matt is rather lumberjack shirt young with jeans. And I have a flowery flamenco dress with a suitably rose mini-headdress.  Of course, I want so be some sort of Queen. And so I cut the last blood red rose from my garden and add it to the headdress.

Even as we set off, we feel like a tribe.

Initially we gather in Furness Road. For a hand-holding pow wow. I explain gently (I hope) that this is one of my Harlesden happenings* but they don’t have to feel as though it is a performance. I know some of them are feeling nervous and it’s more important that we do what comes naturally to us.That we allow ourselves to dance with each other and alone. I suggest that we relate to passers-by too if that’s what happens, and that I hope they will be able to appreciate the landscape that we are about to enter as well. And thank them, of course, for their willingness.  Such huge willingness. To turn up. To trust me. I feel honoured.

And then we find Duncan in a white shirt on a bench. The last dancer to appear. He looks bewildered and exhausted.  He joins us anyway. After a little encouragement from us.

These fellow dancers do not know what soundtrack I have created for them! We arrive at that Not On Safari hot spot, the top of the stairs at the Harrow Road exit of Willesden Junction. Oh, what a delight. I put on ‘We Are Family’ ( the Dusty Springfield version) and we break into flamboyant dancing. Some of us are less inhibited than others. I wave at passengers on the No 18 bus, people at the bus stop look shocked in a good way. Matt, Jayne and Claire are looking embarrassed about what they’ve let me persuade them to do. Later, Jayne says she loved the realness of their awkwardness in that situation. And into our midst comes a man in shorts with a bicycle, he’s grinning widely, and the next moment, he’s joining in. He’s got the spirit, his hips are waggling like a belly dancer.

It’s the beginning of something. I can feel the air around us lifting up as if it’s welcoming our exalted intrusion. Happenings can have the spontaneous effect of raising spirits and somehow increasing the possibility of people coming together and really being together.

By the time, we get to dance down the stairs – to Bjork’s ‘Big Time Sensuality’ – my fellow dancers are realising the potential of strange objects like the alien wire fences in the narrow ratboxed walkway. And the steps – ah, yes, travelling up and down them. Avoiding passers by, welcoming them, waving them past. Some lower their eyes and rush through, others smile and want to engage. I love Bjork’s haunting voice and the way this track is so funkily nutty and sensuous. The latter feels like a contradiction here in this railway wasteland, in this industrial bleakland.

Can we be sensual here? And loving? We can, we can. We are.

Have I mentioned that my 25 year old son Marlon, his girlfriend, Tania and  friend, Paul are filming us… Another kind of contradiction – the young observing the old for a change through the eye of a camera. It adds another dimension to the dance. A less immersive one. The challenge of moving in and out of totally being in it. For another take. Plus although we are being spontaneous, we are also at times being directed.

Outside the ticket office, I have a musical shock to the senses of the dancers. ‘Anarchy In The UK’. For some of us a significant part of our history. A part of who we are – still hanging on to our tendency to rebel against authority – and a recognition of how important that questioning attitude to the establishment always is. For society. For individuals.

For others of us, they just about recognise it and nothing else. We jump up on walls, throw our fists in the air, howl with derision and relish the aggression of the spiky destructiveness the Sex Pistols brought with them. The storm before the birth. There’s a central circular wall here – it becomes a go go dancer’s dream. I’m up there, and Abigail joins me for a bizarre tango. Matt jumps ridiculously high in the air, Helen  snarls into the camera, Jayne who had initially been bemused by this track,  is shaking her head violently, Duncan  dances more slowly next to the entrance to the station, Tim  runs along walls, and Clare is still her graceful self in our midst. Meanwhile two ticket office workers stand and stare. Fixed grins on their faces.

The next stage is less public. We don’t see passers by any more.  A transition in terms of how we are with each other. The pathway wends up behind the 1960s ticket office to the other side of the station. Whoops, we’re going too fast. Our director asks us to go back and walk the last bit again. No-one complains. We find Willesden Junction blackberries to feed us, grimacing at their bitterness. Abigail puts on Sarah’s scarlet net wrap as a veil and becomes a bride. She’s picked a little bouquet-bunch of buttercups and buddleia. We become a wedding procession inadvertently.

And find ourselves wandering down an unplanned tunnel. Dark, dank and stinking of urine. We don’t notice the ‘No Pedestrian Access’ signs. I turn on the exquisite juiciness of Al Green singing ‘I’m still In Love With You’. Can we be this tender in this tunnel? We’re dancing alongside each other softly. I notice Sarah – who has recently lost her darling mother, Stella – has tears just held on the rim of her eyes. She looks so fragile and so broken open in love. I go over to dance with her, a sister in support. Tim and Abigail are holding hands like a couple in love.

When suddenly everything changes.

Our attention is diverted to a single figure two hundred yards away. In high visibility wear – he’s funking out on his own by the buses. He’s going for it. Totally.  An echo of us. Inspired by the great reverend. Helen who has Boudicca tendencies, lays chase. He runs away. The dance takes on a farce-like quality. Caught by the idea of a chase, we all run over the the buses and find ourselves dancing in the aisles of one of them. The driver simply turns on the hazard warning lights. Sarah hangs upside down and Abigail cradles her as if she’s in a cocoon. Tim lies down and four of us lay across him. There are poles and seats to play with. The driver waves. We can’t believe no-one is telling us to leave. It feels like a surprise gift.

We stop again. Waiting for our camera crew. “It is undeniably ugly this landscape,” says Helen, “but walking and dancing it like this, is making me think and feel differently about it. Like I can find the beauty in it. Or at least textures that are fascinating.”

We go up more steps to a narrow nineteenth century iron bridge. It’s a strange little channel over a wide, wide vista of railway lines and  the almighty Powerday recycling plant. Marlon shows us the small stretch of it that we are allowed to dance in. ‘Precious’ by Annie Lennox is playing, and suddenly we’re crawling over each other. There’s no room, so we find a closeness with each other. The red wrap which became a veil is now something that moves from hand to hand, that both unties us and ties us up. That unites us and individualises us. In my hands, it becomes a man net. I have Matt’s head twisted in it, caught, distorted and oddly exciting. Then I cast it over both Tim’s head and mine. The space changes and we have a hidden place to have a quieter moment.

The view is spectacular in the opposite to an undulating hills kind of way. Trellick Tower is in the distance to our left, and Old Oak Common to our right. The signal box which was here when I came with railway expert, Ian Hunt, has disappeared. Dismantled, probably. I remember the Victorian wooden adornments that looked as though they belonged to a spinning wheel.

“Oh, the pleasure of restraint,” I declare as we sit down for a mini-picnic of water melon and fruit bars. I mean that sublime freedom that comes confinement, rules, restraints, structure. The bus aisles with the poles and the narrowness of the bridge pushed us to use our imagination more. We felt the momentum of restriction giving a boost to our creativity. An excitement.

Now there’s a little walk along a path I wouldn’t walk alone even in the daylight. I just wouldn’t want to feel trapped there. The piles of refrigerator rusty bits accompany it. “Oh, I would walk here,” says Jayne and she probably would, because she runs in dark, lonely places that I’m afraid of. “No, I agree with you,” says Claire to me. And I’m aware of my own fears around personal safety and where I would and wouldn’t walk as a woman.

I lead them into the nearby industrial estate – Bi-cafe with plastic orange gerba outside, Lebanese nuts in a warehouse, an ice-cream factory – and we spot a three-legged regal chair that is looking distinctly abandonned. Helen sits on it and I realise that we have to adopt it, take it with us. It has a faded red seat and the right attitude.

And at this very moment, we feel like a nomadic travelling dance company, that will carry on. I like that feeling.

Just ahead of us is the Grand Union canal and another bridge. The film crew run ahead to set up. There’s something about this scene that speaks of another world, one where nature is managing to survive, to struggle through the concrete barriers. Where wilderness confronts the man-made.  I put on the melancholic strains of ‘Autumn Leaves’ that is sung by urban ‘castrato’ Martyn Jacques from the Tiger Lillies. And there is a serenity and sadness and fragility that manifests spontaneously amongst us. We move slowly and tenderly. Abigail embraces Matt as softly as a mother. I stretch and float with Claire in an elegant physical conversation. Duncan has the wrap that has turned into his objet de danse.  At the end, there is a silence that joins us together as one. It’s a profound stillness and I personally at that moment want to stay there quietly looking at the water forever.

We dance some more at the other side. A passing family on bikes are fascinated by us. We even do a jubilant salsa outside my flat finally. But for me, the end was on the bridge. I know I want to do it again. To dance Harlesden again. Differently. That was one of the most bountiful days of my life.


*Someone said – ‘You mean like a flash mob’ – but I don’t. Happening is more my generation of word  and has a pre-social networking meaning. Allan Kapow first used the term ‘happening’ in the spring of 1957 at an art picnic at George Segal’s farm. The key components for me are the combination of structure (the music, the route, the red, the friends) and spontaneity or improvisation with regards to contents. Happening also has more of an art precedent whereas flash mob relies entirely on the spontaneity. And I like the idea that in my case the ‘audience’ were the passers-by or the ticket office workers, the bus maintenance man and the drivers, and that they were also participants. Also that breaking down the wall between participants and audience dissolves the wall of criticism.

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