The first picture I see as I look through a new coffee table books shows the Queen shaking hands with Marilyn Monroe at a film premiere. Both are radiant and lovely, and Her Maj’s hair is perfection. They really don’t make ’em like that anymore. The next image is of Liz Hurley in that horrible dress with the nappy pins, which no one needs to see ever again. And then there’s one of Paula Yates looking like Myra Hindley in lace, which makes you think, it really does.
The book is called The Glamour of Leicester Square, and we will be the judge of that. It’s just been published by the W Hotel group, who never miss a trick, and it’s all quite ironic seeing as their hotel is among the reasons Leicester Square is London’s primest shithole.
Its entrance is a bejewelled hippo’s mouth luring you into a wonderland of naff: a zeppelin’s worth of shiny surfaces and glitterballs
W Leicester Square looks like Kim Kardashian designed it. It’s a mass of obnoxious nothingness with staff trained in a language dreamt up by people who say “Top line thoughts” and mean it. Its entrance is a bejewelled hippo’s mouth luring you into a wonderland of naff: a zeppelin’s worth of shiny surfaces and glitterballs (see! Glamour!) with lighting that’s brighter than your average UV sunbed. There’s noise everywhere, and that scent assaulting your nostrils is smelling is probably called Calvin Klein Abstract Noun.
But it’s what lies beneath that really gets to the horror of Leicester Square’s raison d’être. Holding aloft the gurning weight of the W like an Atlas with type 2 diabetes is M&M’s World, the reason guns aren’t legal in Britain. It’s the most cynical of hells, created for the worst of humanity – sheep in acrylic clothing, with brains of a similar consistency to that addictive mush inside a delicious crispy shell – and if you enter of your own volition you do not deserve nice things. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like M&Ms. I also quite like sand but you will never, ever find me in Saudi Arabia, let alone carrying a bag around town advertising the fact I’ve been.
Leicester Square was once beautiful but fell into the grasping hands of the entertainment industry from the late 18th century when it became home to the Holophusikon, a museum of curios, mostly from Captain Cook’s voyages, that cost 5s. 3d. to get in. A whole bunch of bric n’ brac n’ knick n’ knack later, it became the poster-square for the reason my parents still vote Tory: 1979’s Winter of Discontent, when refuse collectors went on strike and used it as an overflow dump, earning it the moniker “Fester Square”.
It’s the most cynical of hells, created for the worst of humanity – sheep in acrylic clothing, with brains of a similar consistency to that addictive mush inside a delicious crispy shell – and if you enter of your own volition you do not deserve nice things
And here our analogy comes full circle. Now it’s a dumping ground for popular culture’s lowest common denominators: an insipid playpen hemmed in on the north by smelly Chinatown, on either side by Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, and on the south by Trafalgar Square. A selection of the world’s most depressing brands is here – Costa, Burger King, Bella Italia, Yates’s Wine Lodge, a Pizza Hut hole-in-the-wall – alongside some shanty “food” outlets that milk their dregs, a casino called the Hippodrome (which, laughably, has a dress code), and one of those slot-machine emporiums where people go to get touched up. It’s not that the standard of amenity is low, so much as that there just isn’t one, merely a cornucopia of brightly-lit mediocrity. But that does mean, saving Chinatown, things can only get better as you leave.
Oh, but you know what? To be fair, there are some actually enticing titbits if you know your stuff. All of them happen to be on Leicester Place, a thread of a street that connects the square to Chinatown. Here is Notre Dame Church, with its 1959, Annunciation-inspired mural by the rude and wonderful Jean Cocteau; the Prince Charles Cinema where you can watch good, old films for barely any money; and the Leicester Square Theatre where you can watch good, old people doing turns, like Joan Collins, the late Joan Rivers and the later Elaine Stritch. And I think there was a decent gay club somewhere for five minutes. But that really is it.
In spite of an average of three makeovers per year, Leicester Square remains irremediably grotty. At the moment the “gardens”, those threadbare quadrants, are hedged in by a… what are we calling this? A balustrade? In any case, some waifish sort of silver (glamour!) creation. Over there, plonked by one of the lawns, is a pig-ugly hut that sells cut-price tickets for dreary musicals. There’s a statue of Shakespeare that’s heritage listed, more out of desperation, you feel, than anything. And everywhere you look there’s colour and movement and BK greaseproof wrappers rolling along in the popcorn-scented wind.
It’s a grotto of crap tricking the currency out of foreigners, flotillas of them, identifiable by their fabrics: shiny black for Italians, reflective white for former-Soviet, that sort of thing. Oh, and Aunty Carol, over from Western Australia, who was mesmerised by that dumbass Swiss clock thing yet indifferent to Westminster Abbey down the road. Right?!
There are, of course, cinemas for all the sexy-glamorous premieres, as far as the eye can see, and when they’re not hosting zoos so fans can gawp at their heroes and appreciate it, goddamnit, they revert to being overpriced picture houses for morons willing to cough up the price of one of the smaller Fabergés on a pick ’n’ mix tub of designer-imposter sweets. There was the inevitable attempt at a hand-print walk-of-fame, à la Tinseltown, a while back, swiftly brushed it away the next time the Square underwent one of those makeovers. (Mind you, the Hollywood Boulevard original is also soulless and dour, and should only be trod upon when you’re going to the Musso & Frank Grill for the oldest stodge in LA.)
The premise of this W book, should you choose to accept it, is that Leicester Square is glamorous because of those film premieres. Which would mean that my local greige Italian caff, Antonio’s, was also glamorous, since Engelbert Humperdinck once popped in for a tiramisu (and Antonio’s has a signed photo to prove it). But Leicester Square is not glamorous. Glamorous people just go there for promotional reasons sometimes, then leave. It’s only exciting if your idea of exciting is sending in pictures of your hedgehog cake to mid-morning TV shows or queuing up for The Breakfast Club. Sure, there’s character if you chip away at the patina of crap, just as there is at that other must-visit destination vying with Leicester Square for the title of London’s shittiest shithole, Oxford Street (not you, Selfridges, you’re lovely!). Look up in these places and most of the facades of most of the buildings are charming – but, like that lost ’n’ listed statue of Shakespeare on Leicester Square, the charm is shortlived. Architectural oddities are not the stuff of which money-grubbing fortunes are made, so nothing much is going to change in a hurry.
There aren’t enough gifs to convey the disdain of True Londoners should anyone mention a night out in Leicester Square; you’ll only find them going to see a film there if all the cute independents – your Curzons and your Everymans – are full (even then, it’s likely to be undercover). But TLs don’t hate those that do frequent Leicester Square: they just pity them, as you would someone who leaves the little gold sticker on his overpriced baseball cap to show it’s “genuine” (bless).
So what purpose Leicester Square? It is a glimpse into a Zolaesque otherworld, a cut-through without which the walk from Soho to the National Portrait Gallery would be a good three minutes longer. And therein lies your silver lining, folks. That’s as glamorous as this place gets. C
The Glamour of Leicester Square is available now from whotelsthestore.com, $36
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