What links best-selling novelist, ex con, failed Mayoral candidate and former Lord, Jeffrey Archer with John Barry, Frank Sinatra, George Segal, Bernie Ecclestone, Glenda Jackson, Michael Caine and The Clash’s Paul Simonon? Answer: an anonymous fifteen-storey, 1960s office block on the Albert Embankment, originally known as Alembic House and since converted into apartments and renamed Peninsula Heights (what Peninsula?). I had always assumed that the name, Alembic, was some clumsy 60s melding of the words Albert and Embankment but no. An alembic it seems is a kind of still, an allusion to the distillery that once occupied the site. Completed in 1964 the building was originally all offices and was once, allegedly, home to MI6 who now reside just along the road in the Terry Farrell-designed SIS Building by Vauxhall Bridge. Farrell’s probably best known for the Charing Cross Station / Embankment development and Camden’s TVAM building. Think egg cups. Less well known is his book, Shaping London: The Patterns and Forms That Make the Metropolis, a beautifully illustrated and very readable account of the physical development of London from pre-historic times to the present.
To return to Alembic house (I can’t take the name Peninsula Heights seriously) at some stage the top two floors were converted into a penthouse and it’s this that became home to John Barry. Soundtrack genius Barry is of course, principally known for writing the music for the best of the Bond films including Dr No, Thunderball, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever. As well as for Midnight Cowboy, The Ipcress File and the Roger Moore / Tony Curtis TV series The Persuaders.
Now, you can’t deny there’s something intrinsically Bond-like about living in a penthouse with floor to ceiling windows, looking out over the river with all London spread out beneath you. It’s tempting in fact to picture Barry at the grand piano composing away with a tumbler of something golden at his elbow and beyond him the twinkling lights of the city. Fitting then that the aforementioned SIS Building should make an appearance in a number of Bond films – Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, though none have any Barry involvement (his last was 1987′s The Living Daylights). All four date from the unmemorable Dalton / Brosnan era with unmemorable theme tunes to match from the likes of U2, Madonna, Garbage and Sheryl Crow. John Barry died in January 2011 so wasn’t around for 2012′s Skyfall [DVD], the most joyfully London-centric of Bond films and the most recent to prominently feature MI6 HQ .
Of course Barry wasn’t just knocking out Oscar winning soundtracks during his time in Vauxhall, on several occasions he hired out the penthouse for filming purposes. It’s an obvious choice with its riverside balconies appearing to float over the Thames, as if suspended mid-river. The most intriguing of the film shoots was for 1967′s The Naked Runner. This lost spy drama directed by Sidney J Furie featured Frank Sinatra in his only London film playing opposite non other than Peter Vaughan or, if you prefer Grouty from Porridge together with Edward Fox. Apparently Sinatra wasn’t hugely enamoured with London and disappeared part way through filming to marry Mia Farrow in Las Vegas. He subsequently returned to The States for good before filming was completed, with the film’s final scenes cobbled together in his absence. Unsurprisingly the finished product didn’t get great reviews and has effectively been buried, never being released on DVD and never appearing on TV. Shame.
Next up was Joanna (Joanna [DVD + Blu-ray]) a swinging London caper billed as The Female Alfie. You might want to have a word with Trading Standards about that. It’s ok as far as it goes but like a lot of films of that era, is more concerned with atmosphere than details like plot. It is, however partially redeemed by its 60s London scenes among them the ones filmed at Alembic House. The following year, 1969 saw, filming of a proper classic, The Italian Job (The Italian Job – 40th Anniversary Edition [DVD] ). Remember despite the title at least a quarter of the film takes place in London, jumping as it does from Noel Coward’s Mr Bridger in the Scrubs to Michael Caine’s Portobello Road batchelor pad and from there to the scene where the robbery is planned round a big table in John Barry’s living room. That takes us to 1973′s A Touch of Class [DVD]) with Glenda Jackson and George Segal. Another film that doesn’t get much of an airing on TV but, is well worth a look. These days it would be billed as a rom-com, but it’s a charming, witty film with an awful lot of 70s London in evidence, much of it around Soho and Chinatown. In this instance the penthouse doubles as George Segal’s office. From around the same time Vincent Price’s Hammer Horror outing, Theatre of Blood [DVD]
features more of the flat’s interior than we’d previously seen. The flat looks fantastic inside with it’s fabulous river views and 70s furniture. Good film too, with an excellent cast Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry, Diana Dors, Michael Hordern, Eric Sykes and Arthur Lowe, whose decapitated head ends up perched atop a pint of silver top on the doorstep. Barry emigrated in 1975, or thereabouts, and settled in Oyster Bay, New York, having apparently sold the penthouse to F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Bernie evidently didn’t hang around and shortly afterwards sold it on to Jeffrey Archer. In 1976 Archer revived filming in the apartment when he had the mob from The Sweeney in for their big screen debut, er, Sweeney! (don’t forget the exclamation mark!) This time it’s the turn of Barry Foster (or Van Der Valk, if you like) to use it as on office in his role as devious, blackmailing, political secretary Elliot McQueen. It’s a decent enough film, as TV spin offs go. The plot’s a bit ropey but the locations and cast, the regulars plus Ian Bannen, Colin Welland, Diane Keen and Brian Glover are great. Plenty of running about and smoking fags too. Sweeney! was box office gold on its release in 1977 and was inevitably followed up the following year by, what else? Sweeney 2 (Sweeney!/Sweeney 2 [DVD]) – happily now available as a double pack.
As for Lord Archer he seems to have spent the ensuing decades becoming Conservative Party Chairman as well as dashing off a series of thrillers with banal titles – First Among Equals, Not A Penny More, Not a Penny Less, Honour Among Thieves, Turned Out Nice Again, A Bird In The Hand, that sort of thing. Trouble was, evidently he wasn’t just pursuing things literary. In 1986 the Daily Star splashed with “Tory Boss Archer Pays Vice-Girl”, alleging an associate of Archer’s had tried to pay Monica Coghlan, a Sheperd’s Market prostitute, £2000 on his behalf to go abroad. Archer sued the paper and won, being awarded damages of £500,000. He then went on to side-step a potentially damaging, insider share dealing allegation in 1994 before being nominated Tory Party candidate for the newly created position of London Mayor. Unfortunately around the same time it emerged the “vice girl” allegations were in fact true all along. The Tories disowned him and in a new trial Archer was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to four years in prison, of which he served around two. He was released in 2003.
Of course the other notable thing about Jeffrey Archer is his art collection. Having parted with several million pounds’ worth of Warhols in the late nineties, he still maintains a collection that might be the envy of the Tate just across the river. According to the “Jeffrey’s Art Collection” section of his official website (jeffreyarcher.co.uk, since you ask) he’s still got works by Picasso, Miro, Hockney, Dufy, Bonnard, Warhol and Sisley, as well as seven paintings by Vuillard and five by Lowry. Perhaps it was Archer’s love of art that led him to open his door to Paul Simonon ex of the Clash. Simonon, having swapped his bass for an easel, some brushes and no doubt a bottle of linseed oil, was at the time busy painting a series of pictures of the Thames. Speaking about his time at Archer’s penthouse he told Sean O’Hagan in an interview for the Observer ‘I was there for a week. I think he got a bit pissed off with this hulking great bloody canvas in his kitchen every morning, but, I have to hand it to him, he didn’t go back on his word and chuck me out.’
Obviously when a rock star chooses to turn his talents in a new direction the natural response is to bury your head in your hands and make a swift exit. Or, as Simonon himself put it in the same interview, ‘I’m not mentioning any names, but most so-called art made by rock stars is fu**ing dreadful’. These however are pretty decent. There’s something pleasingly old fashioned about them, with their muted greys and blues they look as if they could have been painted during the war or immediately afterwards.
The finished pictures were eventually shown in an exhibition at The Hazzlitt, Gooden and Fox Gallery in St James’s entitled “From Hammersmith to Greenwich”. Prices averaged around around £4000 and Peter Ackroyd wrote the catalogue notes. One of the picture subsequently ended up on the cover of Ed Glinert’s excellent The London Compendium.
Of course there’s more to Vauxhall than Alembic House, MI6 and some gay clubs (have a think about that sentence). Immediately opposite Alembic House Tate Britain occupies the site of the former Millbank Prison from whence convicts would be transported to the colonies. The prison was in existence for much of the nineteenth century and vestiges of it remain to this day. Young’s Morpeth Arms (corner of Ponsonby Street) still has cells in its basement, for instance. East of here stands the 118 metre high Millbank Tower, built
in the early 60s for Vickers (they of the Viscount, VC10 et al) and originally known as, go on guess… The Vickers Tower. Like Alembic House this skyscraper too has its place in popular culture. In 1973 it formed the setting for Vault of Horror [DVD] with a right thespian motley crew: Curd Jurgens, Glynis Johns, Terry Thomas and Tom Baker, Robin Nedwell, Arthur Mullard and more. It also stars in a very early Dr Who episode and the closing scenes of Flowered Up’s mini rave epic Weekender, as well as in the background of pretty much everything filmed at Alembic House.
Oddly Millbank Tower has housed both Labour and Tory parties in recent years and as such was the focus of 2011′s student demo when it was partially trashed. Which just leaves Tintagel House back across the river and immediately next door to Alembic House. These days it’s empty and decaying, awaiting either demolition or conversion to apartments. In its past, however Tintagel House was home to The Metropolitan Police. In the early 70s it was here that they chose to locate the “Police Computer” (yes they only had one). You know the sort of thing, size of a well-appointed bungalow with an equivalent processing power significantly less than that of your iphone. For this reason it became the target of a bomb attack in May 1971. The Angry Brigade swiftly claimed responsibility in a phone call to the Press Association and the words “This is The Angry Brigade. We’ve just done the Police Computer. We’re getting closer”. There were more bombs that Spring with attacks on Biba in Kensington as well as at the offices of British Rail and Rolls Royce in Paris. The bombings only came to an end the following year with a series of arrests in Hackney followed by one of the longest trials in English legal history. For a proper insight into the Angry Brigade, Stuart Christie’s Granny Made Me an Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me makes for a fascinating read.
Much of the information for this piece came from Ian Sinclair’s excellent 1997 book Lights Out for the Territory. If you want more, Michael Crick (Newsnight, Channel 4 News) knocked out an Archer biography in 2000 (Jeffrey Archer: Stranger than Fiction) that you can now pick up pretty cheap. Oh and I couldn’t leave you without a nod to Genevieve — Special Edition [DVD]. That lovely, perennial Sunday afternoon film with John Gregson and Kenneth More whose veteran car chase takes place through post war south London and along a very undeveloped Albert Embankment. A beautifully evocative portrait of 1950s London. Sit back and enjoy.