The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith are fighting for survival. In 1986, Hanif Kureishi, currently shockingly unwell in Rome, wrote about spending time at the studios with David Gothard, who ran them at the time:
“I often went for a walk by the river in the early evening and then I’d sit in David’s office. He always had the new books and the latest magazines; and whoever was appearing at Riverside would be around. Riverside stood for tolerance, scepticism and intelligence. The feeling there was that works of art, plays, books and so on were important. This was a rare thing in England. For many writers, dancers, actors and artists Riverside was what a university should be: a place to learn and talk and work and meet your contemporaries. There was no other place like it in London and David Gothard was the great encourager, getting work on and introducing people to one another.”
The young Kureishi, born in Bromley to a Pakistani father and an English mother, had already had plays performed at London’s theatres, most notably the Royal Court in Sloane Square. He now had a screenplay called My Beautiful Laundrette. Kureishi recounts Gothard suggesting he ask Stephen Frears to direct it, and phoning Frears on his behalf.
“I cycled to Stephen’s house in Notting Hill, where he lived in a street known as ‘director’s row’ because of the number of film directors living there,” Kureishi recalled. It was November 1984. The shoot began the following March, in Vauxhall. The laundrette itself was fashioned in Wilcox Road, SW8.
The whole film was shot in and around that area. A few years ago, the British Film Institute visited its locations, which included Vauxhall’s complex of stations and bridges. Kureishi described a flat used for the film “which had so many railway lines dipping and criss-crossing beside and above it that inside it you shook like peas in maracas.”
Starring Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day Lewis, My Beautiful Laundrette was a work of both social commentary and comedy, weaving together themes of entrepreneurialism, sexuality and cultural variety and crossover in the London of its time, capturing a slice of the capital’s life for posterity. That’s why it makes an appearance in my novel Frightgeist, forming part of a classic London movie all-nighter, along with Blow-Up (1966) and Jubilee (1978), which two of my characters attend.
“The film was to be an amusement,” Kureishi wrote, “despite its references to racism, unemployment and Thatcherism. Irony is the modern mode, a way of commenting on bleakness and cruelty without falling into dourness and didacticism.” It was completed within six weeks, with a small budget on 16 millimetre film. “For this I was glad,” Kureishi wrote. “There were no commercial pressures on us, no one had a lot of money invested in the film who could tell us what to do.”
There should, of course, be London movies like My Beautiful Laundrette made today: low cost, high ambitions, nurtured and supported into the limelight they deserve. I hope Hanif Kureishi gets better. I hope the Riverside Studios survive.
Hanif Kureishi’s words quoted here are from his introduction to the script of My Beautiful Laundrette, published in 1986 along with an autobiographical essay called The Rainbow Sign. You can still buy it. Follow John Vane on Twitter.