Was it me or did Valentines Day feel as if it was on steroids this year? Never before in London had I seemed quite so many anxious looking males rushing home from work with bouquets. Some ranged from the ideal (fifteen dusky pink roses tied with a velvet ribbon) to the dumpable (eight yellow carnations wrapped in thin cellophane, which was dotted, confusingly with white spots, carried by a clueless chap on the Victoria Line). On February 15th, at 8am, I passed Marks & Spencers in Bond Street station. They were taking down the ornate, heart-shaped boxes of cheap chocolate and replacing them with ornate, bunny-shaped boxes of cheap chocolate. No sooner is Valentines Day over, and suddenly it’s Easter. The store staff were agitated and desperately promoting Easter / Egg / Dead Messiah themed confectionery. In a recession with a flat-lining economy, every festival is just one more vital opportunity to stay above water.
Up in Hampstead, on Valentines Night, there were no tables to be had at any pub. When I say no tables, that is a slight lie. I had booked a table at The Flask, a sort of unloved Youngs pub next to the best second hand designer shoe shop in London. The Flask had had the only spare table in the district at 7pm. But when I arrived I found our table in miniature form, pushed against the wall and accompanied with two tiny stools, the same size that you see in a nursery playspace. I walked around the dining room, and everyone else had chairs. Everyone else was not about to be sat at a three year old’s dining table. I asked if we could have some chairs at our table and a man with complicated facial hair told me that no, I could not have any chairs. I must sit on stool. I considered the high chairs, before abandoning the nursery corner at The Flask altogether. It was a shame, because I would have missed the group singalong of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round” after nap time. Around the corner, Cafe Rouge sat – open and empty, with short, tiny red candle lights on each table giving the place an unsavoury, gothic aspect. A sign outside told me I had to pre-book if I wanted the Valentines menu. The man inside said that if I wanted to eat there at all I would have to have the Valentines menu. The Valentines menu was a pile of shit cobbled together and trying to look Parisian. Carluccios had the same, austere, terrifying nonsense going on; a four course Italian meal at £25 full of the kind of food (beetroot pasta anyone?) that no one in their right mind would want to eat. I might send the yellow-carnation-cheap-cellophane-probably-has-halitosis man I had spotted earlier there, but only as severe punishment for his floral mishap.
Thank God for Pizza Express. It was the only sane building in the district, with its champion site halfway up Heath Street. This building used to be a sort of steak and ribs shack called Kennys. We went there once to meet one of my brother’s girlfriends in the early 1990s. It was an odd evening. My brother had got a couple of sisters mixed up and inadvertently asked out the wrong sister out over the phone so was a bit off his ribs that evening. For reasons that are not clear, he continued to go out with the wrong sister for three months, but I don’t think Kennys had anything to do with it. Now Pizza Express is there, sticking to what it knows best and accompanied by the usual hardy, but small, wine list. There was no danger of being force fed a Valentines menu designed to wreck your constitution, and fill you up with so much fat, chocolate and lard that any attempt to have Valentines sex once you got home would result in indigestion, dyspepsia and /or a coronary. There were a couple of comedy waiters who kept dropping things, but Pizza Express can absolutely always be relied upon to do exactly what it does on the tin, and the garlic bread is still as astonishingly good as ever.
Onto the lurve-in at The Everyman, then. One of London’s leading independent cinema groups (along with the Curzons) were showing Breakfast at Tiffanys with free prosecco as a Valentines special at three of their cinemas – the Hampstead, Baker Street and (new) Maida Vale Everymans. The Belsize Park and Renoir Everymans were deciding not to put Baby in a corner on Valentines Day, and were showing Dirty Dancing. For the anti-Valentine cynics who think that love is nothing more than a deadly disease, there was Fatal Attraction at the Everyman Screen on the Green (no free prosecco with that one, only a T Shirt claiming All Women are Desperate, Psychotic Man Eating Numpties Who Will Kill Your Rabbit Rather Than Keep Their Dignity). At Hampstead there were lots of couples of the down-at-heel, shabby chic variety getting smashed on the free prosecco. Well, the prosecco ought to be free when you have paid £25 a seat. However, The Everyman is a fantastically luxurious experience. It may be £25 a seat, but it’s actually £25 for a cushioned, velvet armchair (big enough to curl your legs under you when you’ve kicked your shoes off) a table, waiter service which brings you your drinks after you’ve placed your order in the lobby so you don’t have to carry them, and one of those special buttons with a picture of an usherette on it, which you press when you require a fill up or a food order, which makes you feel like you are in a First Class section of an aeroplane. Chocolate raisins were dispensed in those white, square cardboard containers that people in American films eat Chinese food out of. In the foyer, they allow you to taste artisan chocolate for free. I love the Everyman.
Breakfast at Tiffanys is one of those films whose magic made a ludicrously significant impact on me because I saw it at my most impressionable age. I’m not sure whether these sorts of experiences are serendipitous or disastrous, but the truth is the impressions films leave us with in the adolescent years embed themselves with great fondness for, it seems, ever. The day Audrey Hepburn died in 1993, BBC2 went on an Audrey-o-thon. I had seen stills from Breakfast at Tiffanys of course, as so many elements of popular culture had harnessed the style and attitude of the film, that you felt you’d seen it before you’d seen it. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I adored it. My choices for eyeliner and hair and how to smoke a cigarette were formed that evening, and stayed, as if preserved in early sixties aspic. No sixteen year old with a sense of style can watch Breakfast at Tiffanys without being seduced by Holly Golightly’s elegance and style. We didn’t look beyond the surface, of course, as the whole $50 for the powder room thing kicked the tale into an unpleasant, adult arena, but the impression made by the artifice of Lula Mae / Holly’s self-made character launched a thousand liquid eyelines. But – and here’s a confession – I never rated Audrey Hepburn that much as an actress. She looked striking, she had doe-like eyes, and an undeniable grace and charm, but as for actually bringing home the acting bacon? I sort of always gave her a B Minus. George Peppard, I thought, was entirely made from stone cladding, or marble, or some other water-resistant, heat-resistant matter so impermeable that no emotions or acting could ever get out. He sort of plonked himself about with his strong jawline and his Action Man hairdo throwing out unblinking stares of unyielding emptiness. But none of that had ever detracted from the essentially wonderful Breakfast at Tiffanys for me, with its illuminating colour frames and its gorgeous slinkiness.
How wrong you can be. After twenty years of watching B of T on televisions small and large, on digital format and VHS, I had never really seen it. Not in its true guise, and not as the director intended. All of a sudden, parts of the film unrevealed began to reveal themselves; the quality of the carpet in the communal hall of the brownstone building, the shockingly awful, tiny gold telephone that Paul’s old lady lover has shoved into their rococo apartment, the tiny baubles of glass like a vertical string of pearls that make up the stem of the martini glass of morning milk for Holly, the fact that her cat is seriously overweight, the remarkable heaviness of the make-up on every woman except Hepburn, and the delightful fact of the teeth. Actors teeth look like – well, teeth. Some of them are crossed. All of them are that charming shade of off-white. They are slightly nicotine-stained. They are not overwhelmingly white. There is a grandeur to the sharp, sparse set design that comprises Holly’s small apartment. The decor is (with the exception of Paul Varjak’s bizarre flat) one of muted browns and matt creams and plain black and white, all of which contrasts and frames the sharpness of the classic tailoring worn throughout. Apart from the legendary black Givenchy dress, there is the astounding tailoring of Patricia Neal’s royal blue and black check two piece – the two pieces being a knee length skirt and a voluminou cape which clasps at the neck – which announces itself violently and stridently, much like her character.
But the most alarming revelation was the acting. The acting ability of Hepburn and Peppard absolutely wins through. Yes, she looks remarkable, but she is acting her socks off, and the romantic narrative of the film suddenly comes alive. Her face is not suited for television, because she is so overwhelmingly cinematic. She has the most amazing skin and his face actually seems to move if you put it on a cinema screen. It was like watching a film in colour for the first time having only seen it many times before in black and white. The cinematographer’s work is able to be seen. There are shadows, shapes and nuances which the television is ill-equipped to project. The best discovery of all is that the substance of the plot near-outshines the style of the film. Bearing in mind this slice of dedacent post-war Americana is probably the most stylish film of the second half of the twentieth century, that’s some competition. The other revelation was, obviously, the eyeliner. Basically, I went into shock and had to be given Merlot. Here’s the thing : I’d been doing it wrong since 1993. The eyeline of the 1961 Hepburn eye doth not flick out and up. It flicks out in a straight line some 3mm beyond the outer rim of the eye and it is very thin. Flicking “up and out” is very 50s. Hepburn announces the new 60s line. Then there is some complicated grey-blue eyeshadow business going on (impossible to absorb, more Merlot) before a riot of mascara completes the whole lot until we’re left with classic, gamine, eyelash-batting Hepburn a la mode.
After the lights went up, various people were either snogging or asleep, depending on their ages. The chairs were deliciously comfortable and hard to stand up from. Once I took a cursory shufti at the audience I realised that only about four of them looked old enough to have seen this film when it first came out, nearly fifty years ago, young and excited on a first date. Christ, they looked old now, though, shuffling about and dropping sweet wrappers and fumbling for reading glasses. Age happens everywhere, except celluloid where, in this instance, everything was as buff, shiny and beautiful as new, fittingly returned to it’s original genre.
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