Following WWII, London’s cosmopolitan quarter – Soho – was to wage a war of its own. Similar to the British film industry’s battle with television in the mid 1950s, the area strived to rebrand itself nationally and globally. This was in large part due to the sensational reports made by the popular press in the run up to the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 alleging the increase in prostitution in the West End and Soho fostering a “climate of disgust over the state of the metropolis.”[i]
One solution to counteract this negative publicity was to stage a fair. Chronicled by Burt Hyams’ half-hour documentary Sunshine in Soho (1956), this pseudo travelogue, in consonance with the inaugural Soho Fair of 1955, transports us to a gloriously sunny square mile filled with parades and fairgrounds projecting localized spaces where flower market traders, bakers, restaurateurs, dancers and jazz musicians congregate in celebration of their Cosmopolitan roots.
In July of 1955 the Mayor of Westminster officially re-launched Cosmopolitan Soho to the world. The fair was co-organised by the Soho Association and the proprietor of the York Minster pub Gaston Berlemont who conveyed to a reporter from The Spectator that he got the idea at the deconsecration service at St. Anne’s, Soho’s parish church until it was bombed. He recalls to the reporter: “Now there was no church […] there should be a fair in her honour.” [ii]
Soho’s multifarious reputation in the public sphere as a cosmopolitan space continued to publicly obstruct the new planning philosophy and technique which was transformed during the Second World War. Drawing on Soho’s reputation for cultural and ethnic diversity the fair’s organisers were able to “create an idiosyncratic mood of celebration that could be marketed to local and national audiences via the media and entertainment industries”[iii]
The week-long Soho Fair was recorded by Pathé News in the form of short newsreels such as Soho Goes Gay! (British Pathé, 1955) and was screened in British cinemas throughout the summer. “A good place which can do fine things” declared a promotional piece published in The Observer titled “A Fair Week’s Run for the Real Soho.” The same publication would later report: “The idea that Soho is a romantic little ‘Continental Quarter’ in the heart of innocent England – a myth – almost became reality yesterday afternoon.”
Further “absurdities” included a competition for the best float design in the street parade, a waiter’s race and various theatrical and dance performances throughout the day. Sunshine in Soho presents a somewhat over-extended sequence of dance students from the Italia Conti School who perform routines called “The Impression of Paris” and “The Dance of the Big Top” to a large crowd in Soho’s Golden Square. Interestingly Burt Hyams had directed a number of documentaries throughout the immediate post-war period which included a children’s music and dance revue Kiddies on Parade (1935), a showcase of a boxing tournament at a London Casino Rainbow Round the Corner (1944) and the International Horse Show at White City aptly titled Jumping for Joy (1950).
David Gilbert and Fiona Henderson who discuss “London and the Tourist Imagination” in their book Imagined Londons suggest the “complicated negotiation between the changing city and the cultural expectations of insiders and outsiders” intensifies “the significance of the lowly tourist guidebook in cultural contact and exchange within the city.”[iv] Hyams’ uses his lens to act as the outsider’s gaze in order to re-construct a Soho topography that reinforces its function as an entertainment and leisure centre with continental roots. Soho has historically existed as a fascinating subject for travel writers wishing to capture the essence of its foreignness. At turn of the twentieth-century, writers weaved a fictional Soho fabric full of romance, confusion and foreigners:
A sharp turn out of Wardour Street and the frontier is passed. A moment ago, our eyes rested only on English names, and only English words fell upon our ears. Now the names over the shops are all foreign…all mixed up in the brouhaha of chatter that mingles day and night…[v].
Besides documenting performances and events, Sunshine in Soho also provides us with a fascinating odyssey through the area’s diverse range of food industries. As we rapidly move through food markets, cafés and delicatessens, Crawford declares, “Yes, the epicure in his element in Soho. Every kind of sausage…the rarest food the world produces…every kind of shop has its own display of tempting things from foreign lands. Soho is like a big open door for all our continental friends.” We then swiftly cut to shots framing pubs and restaurants offering French, Swiss, Hong Kong, Italian and Turkish drink and cuisine. One fairly unexplored element of the Soho Fair in scholarship was the opportunity taken by Hollywood and British film studios to implement cross promotion and gimmicks to bolster public interest for upcoming film releases, exceptionally targeting foreign and European markets. This included the film Miracle in Soho (Julian Amyes, 1957). The film which follows the Gozzi family who live on a fictional Soho lane was written and produced by Emeric Pressburger, a film following his separation from filmmaking partner Michael Powell.
Although the Soho Fair offered a narrow view of its migrant populations, Sunshine in Soho does conduct a welcomed odyssey through the area’s diverse range of food industries. In one segment filmed inside Good Luck Chinese Restaurant we observe cooking technique before being told by the film’s narrator Howard Marion-Crawford that we should really “do as the Chinese do.”
Jingan is the founder of Cities in Cinema. Her PhD was on London’s Soho in British cinema.
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[i] The popular press were instrumental in fostering a climate of disgust over the state of the metropolis. See Stefan Anthony Slater, “Containment- Managing Street Prostitution in London, 1918–1959”, The Journal of British Studies 49 (2010), 332. I note this reported increase in prostitution led to the Wolfenden Committee investigation in homosexuality and sexual behaviours culminating in a report was published in September of 1957 and is a large component of my final chapter on the film West End Jungle (1961). See John Wolfenden and Great Britain. Scottish Home Department. Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. Cmnd 247. London: H.M.S.O., 1957.
[ii] “There are many absurdities at the Soho Fair”, The Spectator 195, no. 6629, July 15, 1955, 85.
[iii] Frank Mort, London and the Making of the Permissive Society (New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press, 2010, 198).
[iv] Pamela K. Gilbert and Chris Hamnett. Imagined Londons (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 124.
[v] George R. Sims describes the “turn” into the foreign unknown during his journey through Soho in “Trips about Town”, Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly 29 (1905), 275.