Gillian Smith explores how the arts in Soho coped with lockdown #1 and how the re-boot is faring. How are our music clubs, theatres and cinemas enticing the public back?
Well, here we are in the final quarter of 2020. A year that feels like two decades rolled into one, with an unhealthy dose of elements from centuries past we rather hoped we’d seen the back of, like plague. We’re not even at the end of it yet (the meteor missed us though, so that’s something). But as ever, Soho is not just enduring it’s evolving to keep pace with events, despite the massive financial hit the area has taken.
Much attention has been directed towards the hospitality sector, and rightly so given its paramount importance to the whole of Central London. The businesses the bars and eateries serve however, have been very much engaged in their own day-to-day struggle for survival. Many of these are at the heart of the Soho arts and culture industry – film and TV production, music, art and radio. So what kind of chameleon acts did they pull off to stay afloat? After all, the area is nothing if not creative to its very vitals.
A quick shuftie round the neighbourhood brought me to the doors of Soho Theatre, mercifully wide open even if they’re unable to mount full productions with an audience. Back in March, Creative Director David Luff, faced with overnight closure, was forced to consider his options.
“We quite quickly focussed our attention on our digital platform, Soho Theatre on Demand. So as opposed to retreating into a sense of hibernation we thought at least we can try and give people the opportunity to watch live comedy and theatre on that platform.”
Just up the road on Newman Street The Farm Group founders Nicky Sargent and Vikki Dunn, two of the best known faces in the TV post production business, were similarly quick off the mark once lockdown became a done deal. As Nicky told us, “We literally had 60 edit suites operating out of people’s back bedrooms within a couple of weeks. The technical team were unbelievable. If it was five years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible but now editors can be sitting in their homes cutting footage from The Farm’s huge data storage.”
Online smarts worked well too for artist Daniel Syrett, proprietor of the Runway Gallery, who usually curates for the The Century Club and Blacks. “The curating side and all the events, they stopped immediately. I literally haven’t run an event since Fashion Week, which was February 14th. Because my gallery doesn’t have a physical space though – I’m inside other venues – I was ahead of the game.”
Oddly enough Syrett’s online art business took off like never before, “My sales in April, May, June and July were over 1000%, better than the year before. Remarkable.” Now however, things are a lot quieter as buyers take stock of the future.
The Piano Bar Soho, with its library and music production spaces was also able to access web resources, but their principle addition was more on the physical side – a black kitten called Alfie given to proprietor George Hudson, who lives in a flat above the club. Alfie’s ascension up the corporate ladder – which let’s face it, he’s pretty well equipped to climb – has been impressive, he’s now Head of Public Relations. But like many of the young today, he’s always on his Instagram account (@sohojazzcat). Important to stay connected of course.
Communication has never been more vital. The precarious, day-to-day nature of the lives of creatives, be they musicians, actors or artists has been laid bare pretty starkly over the past few months. The desire to do whatever possible to help out was universal.
Daniel Syrett has banded together within his group of artists to put aside 5% of every sale so that everyone can have some money at least for materials if their work isn’t selling. The Piano Bar’s George Hudson set up a digital school for musicians to teach classes online.
Soho Theatre was fortunate enough to have access to some big hitters and used their digital platform to release Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag for the benefit of several Covid-related charities, alongside a special support fund for freelancers.
A more immediate lifeline for Soho residents during the early months – and beyond – was provided by Soho Radio and Clare Lynch’s The Soho Hour, which often provided the only link with the outside world for locked down locals. As Clare says, “I just cobbled together a working studio from home and we managed to make it work somehow. At the height we covered everything from where you could post a letter to getting a pint of milk. We had shared local news and stories, pandemic poetry, experts giving legal advice and virtual book launches on air. There were so many people who were not having any contact with anyone so it was a way of staying in touch.”
As for the future… frankly who knows?
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This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 issue of My Soho Times.
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