In his reminiscences of London and its culture from 1939, Gordon Deighton offers a personal view of how Britain recovered from the devastation of war, got back on its feet and became an influence for him in the arts, design and publishing, the three main areas in which he carved out a fascinating career which he describes in a memoir called For Better, For Worse.
Michael Darvell reads on…
Starting at 1939, Gordon Deighton provides an almost 60-year timeline of the major world events in politics, society and the arts, and then makes it more personal by going back to his own beginnings in the north west London suburb of Mill Hill, to which he has, ironically enough, lately returned after his global adventures came to a halt.
From an early age he seemed to have mapped out his future. Eschewing the family transport business, he studied music from the age of four, and this subsequently led to a junior scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Even as Hitler was bombing London and Vera Lynn was boosting morale, young Gordon, perhaps oblivious to the war going on around him, carried on with his piano studies.
However, another interest was forming when he started collecting bits of fabric and various remnants to provide curtains for the toy theatres he used to make. Luckily for Gordon, his family adored the theatre. There were also dance halls and tea dances at the time, something that also fascinated him, little knowing then that one day he would himself be presenting tea dances at The Ritz!
In all his involvements with music, theatre and fashion, his family encouraged him, perhaps knowing that these interests would later lead to a successful career – or even three!
The Deighton family may have been considered bohemian by others at the time, but they certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. Gordon recalls all the parties and celebrations because many of his father’s family were gifted musicians who would provide music for dancing.
There would also be the latest records from the likes of Glenn Miller, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman etc, and plenty of alcohol to go with the music and dancing. The family also enjoyed nights at the music hall or the many palaces of variety that existed in the 1940s in and around London’s West End.
Gordon’s musical career continued to flourish and he joined the junior choir at the Royal Academy of Music as well as the junior orchestra as a percussionist. He was also attending grammar school where he appeared in school plays and at the time was inspired to write to David Lean when the film director was looking for a boy to play Oliver Twist. Reply came there none!
However, music eventually took a back seat as Gordon began to concentrate on his love of textiles. He first took a job with the Mayfair fabric shop of Jacqmar where he learned his trade and cut his cloth accordingly backstage in the Export Department. A year later found him front of house in the Jacqmar retail shop whose customers included Shelley Winters, Farley Granger, Lauren Bacall and Princess Margaret.
If the fabrics were a daytime job, Gordon’s evenings were taken up with music and theatre. Jazz at the 100 Club on Oxford Street presented the likes of the Humphrey Lyttelton and Chris Barber bands, and it was where Joan Collins was a frequent visitor.
Nightlife offered Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward at the Café de Paris, while the theatre of the 1940s and 50s saw the arrival of the big American musical shows such as Rodgers and Hammerstein [pictured]’s Oklahoma!, Carousel and The King and I, Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam, and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, Can-Can and Silk Stockings among others – not forgetting 1957’s groundbreaking West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Following his National Service, Gordon found a job with John Heathcoat, a Savile Row fabrics firm specialising in synthetic materials. One day, using a roll of gold fabric, Gordon asked his sister-in-law to make him a cloak which he wore to a New Year’s Eve Chelsea Arts ball at the Royal Albert Hall.
Making friends from Oxford during National Service saw Gordon paying regular visits to the university city and at one point he was commissioned to write incidental music for a student production of Hamlet.
The nightlife scene was burgeoning again with the arrival of rock‘n’roll and Gordon tells of exciting nights in a club near Portobello Road and of a houseboat party with members of the Royal Ballet including Rudolf Nureyev. After the frantic 1950s, however, came the swinging sixties when Gordon moved into publishing, selling advertisement space for Man About Town, the trendy men’s magazine that covered fashion, theatre, films and food and drink. Published by Michael Heseltine it was, however, going through a lean period.
Quickly promoted from selling space to being Merchandise Executive, Gordon selected menswear for inclusion in the magazine until he was subsequently made Fashion Editor, the only one in London for menswear.
The photographers he used for the fashion shoots included David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, while the models were Jean Shrimpton, Paulene Stone, Liese Deniz and Rudolf Nureyev again. The magazine eventually changed names, becoming About Town and then just Town. Many of the then current film and theatre stars also modelled for the magazine including Tom Courtenay, Kenneth Haigh, Van Johnson, Jeremy Brett and Hugh Williams.
As often happens, all good things come to an end but it wasn’t long before Gordon secured a position at Simpson, the famous Piccadilly emporium where, with the name of ‘Trend’, the menswear department under Gordon created new styles to fit in with the times, remembering that those were the times of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield etc. Some of Gordon’s ‘Trend’ designs for his silk shirts and trousers are in the costume collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.
‘Trend’ also gave Gordon an entrée for meeting the likes of Mick Jagger, Dirk Bogarde and Michael York [pictured]. Later on Michael York would introduce Gordon to James Ivory and Ismail Merchant when they were planning their film The Guru, for which Gordon designed the outfits for York and Barry Foster.
Of course, again one thing led to another, which seems to sum up Gordon’s adventurous life. His work in the rag trade brought about his being asked to lecture at the Fashion School of the Royal College of Art where he met Ossie Clark and David Hockney.
After his departure from Simpson of Piccadilly, Gordon eked out a living as a freelance events organiser with friends Gary Loftus, who ran a model agency, and Peter Tear, a PR man with Aquascutum. They called themselves ‘Group’. This led to The Body Show, organised by Janet Street-Porter at the ICA. Then Joan Littlewood asked Gordon to stage it at her Theatre Royal in Stratford East. This was the first of several shows that ‘Group’ became involved with in E15.
Theatre began to loom more in Gordon’s designing career with Off the Peg, a revue at the Arts Theatre, and later on Emu in Pantoland, with the irrepressible Rod Hull, for which Gordon was costume supervisor.
Then television reared its head and, perhaps against his better judgement, Gordon joined Thames Television – well, it was work and he got to meet Eamonn Andrews, Cyd Charisse, Stéphane Grappelli, Vera Lynn, Van Johnson, Ian McKellen, Peter Ustinov, Sophia Loren and Diana Rigg.
Throughout the 1970s Gordon was regularly occupied in organising various charity events, while the freelance television work kept him busy until the arrival of the 1980s when things started to look up again and cabaret returned in a big way to The Ritz.
It all began in 1982 when Michael Duffell, the then general manager of The Ritz, wanted to stage fashion shows in the Long Gallery during Thursday’s cocktail hour. It became a weekly event to which Gordon invited top fashion designers, showgirls and musicians for a parade of clothes by the likes of Valentino, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Muir and Ungaro etc. The idea worked a treat, the shows received untold publicity, and everybody was happy to see The Ritz back on the map.
A year later Duffell asked Gordon for further ideas to promote The Ritz’s legendary Dining Room. That was how The Ritz’s tea dances were born. As well as the dancing and the serving of afternoon tea, there were two cabaret spots by carefully selected singers and accompanists including Belinda Lang, Richard Denning, Guy Siner, Christina Matthews and Joe Mydell. The Sunday tea dances ran for all of five years.
Meanwhile, other plots were being hatched at The Ritz. Following a successful New Year’s Eve party with Fenella Fielding providing the cabaret, Gordon initially set up Wednesday night supper cabarets which offered a light meal and then a cabaret show at 11.30pm. From single Wednesdays in March 1984, and then for three nights a week, the shows finally went on for five nights with a change of artist every month.
As Entertainments Director Gordon played host to some of the best talents around including Steve Ross, Julie Wilson, Bertice Reading, Marion Montgomery, Richard Rodney Bennett, Tim Flavin, Clare Leach, Adelaide Hall, Jackie Marks, Salena Jones, Lon Satton, Josephine Blake, Helen Gelzer, Angela Richards and Libby Morris. The cabarets ran for several years but inevitably when there was a change of management, the first things to go were the entertainments. End of story…
However, all was not lost because then Gordon transferred his cabaret bookings to other venues such as Hamilton’s at the Hotel Inter-Continental, Hyde Park Corner, the Dolphin Square Hotel, the Landmark and the Churchill Hotels, and HQ, the Camden Lock restaurant.
He booked fine jazz artists such as Maxine Daniels, Stacey Kent, Clarke Peters, Elaine Delmar [pictured], Rusty Taylor, Claire Martin and Ian Shaw. Then, from 1993 he instigated the Jazz Brunches every Sunday at the Victoria & Albert Museum which became so popular they were almost too successful for their own good. The caterers then asked Gordon to do the same at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in the restaurant overlooking the Thames.
Throughout all these activities there were still fashion shows and charity events to organise until in 1999 Gordon decided to move to New Orleans, taking his grand piano with him. He could still, from a distance, make bookings for UK venues, even if some of his clients missed his personal ‘hands-on’ approach.
However, without a Green Card, Gordon had to return to London every three months, so he then relocated to the south of France. After enjoying the peace and quiet of Arles, Agde and Nice, Gordon eventually came back to London which had, of course, changed immeasurably.
As he retraced his steps around the London places where he had worked and been entertained, many of them, except for The Ritz, were no longer there. But even The Ritz has little or nothing to offer in the way of entertainment now, not even the occasional tea dance…
So… was it a life for better… or for worse? Well, Gordon Deighton has had an impossibly enjoyable life – one might even say at least three or more lives – and it’s doubtful that he regrets most of it very much.
Still, it’s all there in his memoirs which provide an endlessly engrossing picture of London’s social life over the past 70 years, offering an entertainingly engrossing picture of one very lucky man’s life.
For Better, For Worse by Gordon Deighton is available from Amazon UK in paperback and as a Kindle book