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INTERVIEW: The men behind The Demise of Denmark Street

Daniel Gumble
INTERVIEW: The men behind The Demise of Denmark Street

Filmmakers Alex Jackson and Roman O’Toole-Howes tell Daniel Gumble about their upcoming documentary film The Demise of Denmark Street…

Earlier this month, UK independent film studio RoundBoy Pictures unveiled the first trailer for its upcoming documentary feature The Demise of Denmark Street. As its title suggests, the film delves into the key issues surrounding the on-going erosion of the iconic location at the hands of developers looking to renovate area. The film also brings to the surface the individual stories of those who have spent their lives plying their trade in Denmark Street and takes an unflinching look at how businesses and livelihoods have been obliterated by the continued gentrification of one of the UK’s, if not the world’s, most famous musical landmarks. To find out more about the project, MI Pro editor Daniel Gumble met up with filmmakers Alex Jackson and Roman O’Toole-Howes to discuss their findings and to get their take on the changing face of Denmark Street...

Daniel Gumble: How did the project come about?

Roman O’Toole-Howes: “We used to spend a lot of time in Denmark Street and we got to know all these great characters – musicians, artists, guitar makers – and it was really enchanting for us. So, we knew all these characters and one day one of the guys, a guitar maker called Phililppe Dubreuille (Dubreuille Guitars) – he’s made guitars for Iggy Pop, Prince, Eddy Grant – took us down to his little workshop, which was a very small little cellar, but it had all this amazing gear and machines down there that he used to design and make these guitars. And we thought 'maybe we should do a mini documentary on this guy'.”
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Alex Jackson: “We both thought it was a great opportunity, especially being at film school at the time. It was perfect; it was a place so close to our hearts and is steeped in such history and incredible culture. We just looked at him and thought he was an incredible character – it was a match made in heaven. That’s how the project began.

“There are so many places on the street like his. You can walk along a dirt road and see a small hole where the ants go down, but if you took a cross section of the land underneath you would see the most incredible catacombs and ant hills. That is what his place felt like."

 

DG: Do you have a background in music and/or a personal connection to the area?

ROTH: “I play guitar, and Denmark Street has always inspired me to play more. People jam together there; it’s so organic and you don’t really get that nowadays.”

AJ: “I don’t think you have to be a musician to have a vested interest in music. A lot of people went there because the community was incredible; it was a chance to be involved with the music without having to play a musical instrument. That was part of the allure. I’ve never been a musician, but I feel very involved in that scene. You could go there any night of the week and see bands and learn about music and history that you might not have know about if not for that community of people."

 

DG: Having spoken to many of Denmark Street’s characters and business owners, what is the general consensus with regards to the developments taking place in the area?

AJ: “The area has changed so much over the past 30 years. It’s been constantly changing and the music industry is one that changes so much because of technology and the rise of the Internet. And the most popular music isn’t just based around drums and a guitar, so the people of Denmark Street have suffered from that side of things. But there’s also been a huge influx of money into the area. Denmark Street is on the very edge of Camden Borough, so the end of Denmark Street where Charing Cross Road dissects it, is the Westminster Borough. The other side towards High Holborn is all Camden, so they’re in a bit of a dead spot. It’s been threatened for a long time.

 

"No one holds a freehold who actually works on Denmark Street. Not a single person – it’s all under leases. So, there was a slow decline as the money moved in and little by little people have been moved out. I think where there’s ‘big money’ and ‘small people’ it’s very hard for them to win. Everyone is looking out for themselves at the end of the day; when it’s your livelihood it becomes less about a culture and a scene and more about ‘will I be able to afford my rent to continue living?'.”

ROTH: “The Crossrail Development has been a key player in the gentrification of Denmark Street and Soho. It’s a catalyst."

AJ: “They’ve come in and the landlords – and there is only a select few in Soho that own all of the freeholds – have seen an opportunity to charge a lot more than the reduced rent that was previously being charged in Denmark Street.”

ROTH: “The footfall the area is going to get from the new Crossrail is going to send the property prices sky high, as they already are going.”

 

DG: Do you think more/anything could have been done to prevent this from happening?

AJ: “If we had a system like they do in France, where the Government protects places of cultural importance, such as Denmark Street, then maybe. I don’t think this would have happened in Paris. They would have certain rules and regulations to stop it from happening and protect against rental rises."

“The shops in Denmark Street aren’t making any more money. They can’t start charging twice as much for a guitar because they are being charged twice as much for their rent.”

 

DG: How optimistic were the people you spoke to about the future of Denmark Street?

ROTH: “I think there’s been a bit of divide and conquer with the developers and the businesses there. They tell them different things – ‘you’re going to have three months’, ‘you’re going to have 12 months’ – and no one has had a chance to band together and fight the developers as one. That hasn’t really happened, which is a shame. But I think what the developers have been doing is very clever.”

AJ: “They play each other off of each other and it becomes a very convoluted struggle between people who should be banding together but end up becoming so separated because they are told one thing and someone else is told something different. Then, everyone wants to keep themselves to themselves because they are worried that anything they do say might be played against them or might affect their future on the street.”

ROTH: “The developers have so much power over the businesses because they’ve all signed clauses to allow for them to be kicked out sooner than they would have been beforehand.”

AJ: “Whereas there would usually be a six month or a year notice, the businesses now have no guarantee that at any point they could be told they have two months left, which is a devastating thought for those people. How can they plan for the future if they don’t know if they’ll still be there in six months?"

ROTH: “We’ve seen a lot of people change during the making of the film; a lot of emotion. There were a lot of people who were so up for filming at the start, who have completely switched and don’t want to be seen on camera. It’s really upsetting to see these people who you’ve become friends with affected like this. We’re like flies on the wall; we’re cruising around with a camera asking questions, but we can’t directly feel the effects of what’s happening, we can only see it.

“One of the guys, from the PA Centre, his business went under and he’s got a family and everything. It devastated him and it was really sad to see.”

 

DG: Did you speak to any of the developers?

ROTH: “We tried and no one wanted to say a single word. But our film is more about the people of Denmark Street and their stories.”

AJ: “It’s a celebration, really. That’s the point of the documentary. It changed from the start. It was originally going to be a character study of five different people, but it changed and became The Demise of Denmark Street. We wanted to follow a journey and show what it was like to be right here, right now. There was a lot of talk about looking more at the history and the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols but, while that is an interesting angle and one that could bring in the viewers, for us it was about seeing such an incredible place and celebrating it with a voyeuristic look at something most people would never be involved with. And, already with the closure of Denmark Place, The Enterprise and The 12 Bar. it’s something people will never be able to experience again.”

 

DG: What would you say to those who might argue that Denmark Street hasn’t been quite the culturally vibrant, thriving hotbed of musical activity that some like to think it is for a long time? 

ROTH: “It may not have been thriving as it was back in the day, but young musicians were always able to go their and play their first shows at The 12 Bar; you could go and meet people to form a band with, buy guitars and rehearse there. It’s a hub; it’s a real community and that’s what’s being lost. This catalyst for people getting into music is being lost, and music and rock ‘n’ roll is very important to London. It’s deep set in its culture and Denmark Street is a big part of that. I think it still has a role to play in British culture."

AJ: “It had it all. It had the potential for you to go there, buy an instrument, have it looked after for the next ten years, you could find a band through talking to people, you could go and listen to music, you could become influenced by people and you could go and rehearse and play gigs. The 12 Bar gave so many people a platform to play music. And you can move the venue – The 12 Bar has been moved to north London – but you can’t retain the essence of what it was and where it was.”

 

DG: There have been a number of campaigns aimed at preserving the area. Can you tell us about these and any current schemes in place to fight the developers?

ROTH: “There were squatters that went into The 12 Bar after it was closed – Bohemians for Soho, something like that. I understand they were trying to do a good thing and save the building – it’s a listed building, they had good intentions – but for me, going in and filming it was a bizarre feeling. A week before, I’d been in there drinking and I knew everyone, now it was full of people we’d never seen and the entire community was gone. Dissipated. It was a really sad moment.”

AJ: “It’s a separate thing, but there’s the Save Soho campaign and there have also been squatters taking up buildings in Soho. Anarchism and that style of protest is a stand against the system, but has it ever worked. Maybe, but what Denmark Street really needed was a coming together of musicians and high profile people, as well as numbers. We live in a democratic world in the UK and I think we can fight against things so much, but sometimes you have to be in tune with what is actually going to make a difference. And in this sense, a banding together of the people on the street, a banding of high profile musicians and people that used to be on the street, could have saved some of it; could have saved all of it, or the profile of it.”

 

DG: How convinced are you by the developers’ promises to maintain the cultural identity of the area?

ROTH: “I don’t think so. Money talks and those building are going to go and they are going to change and it’ll be another Oxford Street."

AJ: “London has a certain grittiness about it, as do a lot of cities, and you can redevelop and redesign and modernise places but you have to retain the importance and the things that make London London. There are different ways of cleaning a place up or modernising it rather than totally redeveloping a place to the point that it becomes unrecognisable.

“We’ve already seen the massive development at the other end of Denmark Street. The Intrepid Fox has gone and there are the massive Google buildings that look like Lego buildings. I mean, look at it. It’s an eyesore. It’s garish orange and green, it’s not what you expect when you come to London. You see beautiful architecture and it’s gorgeous. You look up at the building in Denmark Street and they are great buildings. They could maybe do with a bit of DIY, but if you totally change it it’s unrecognisable and it loses its heart.”

The Demise of Denmark Street is due for release in 2016. Check out the trailer here.

Tags: Retail , denmark street , Crossrail , Tin Pan Alley , interview , Interviews , the demise of denmark street , Alex Jackson , Roman O’Toole-Howes

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