Vic Naylor’s, Hazy Daze and Dov Simens
Having literally visited thousands of bars during the course of my life, I have no hesitation is saying that Vic Naylor’s Bar and Grill on St. John’s Street, Farringdon, was without doubt my favourite.
However, it wasn’t the incredible assortment of drinks from all around the world, the high quality brasserie, its no advertising policy, its famous clientele or the Amsterdam brown bar feel which set Vic’s apart from all of its trendy London competitors – it was its owner, Peter Spanton.
The first time I visited Vic’s, where both Ray and Chris were working at weekends, I was introduced to Pete, who was sitting at the bar in an expensive suit, nursing a large vodka and tonic whilst reading The Guardian.
As we shook hands and looked each other in the eyes, I instinctively knew that Pete was a kindred spirit; a genuine maverick, with a voracious appetite for life worth living.
Since Ray was giving up his job behind the bar, I put myself forward for the position, despite never having done any bar work before. Pete took me on solely because I was a hungry screenwriter.
Rules of Engagement
Pete was very open and honest about the rules which applied to everybody who worked at Vic’s:
1. You had to be engaged in doing something interesting with your life, independent of the job in the bar.
2. All drinks were free to you and all your friends, in order to prevent thieving from the till.
3. If customers were rude or obnoxious, you were to eject them from the premises by any means necessary.
When I started working for tips, drinks, food and giggles on Friday and Saturday nights, from 5 pm till 1 am, I had no idea what I was doing and almost got sacked after just a couple of weeks.
However, once I managed to cope with having dozens of people waiting to be served all night long, sometimes with only two people manning the bar, working at Vic’s was an unbridled pleasure.
In the run up to Christmas in 1996, I was invited to run a ten day intensive stand-up comedy workshop, at an arts centre in Hemel Hempstead, where Screaming Blue Murder ran a successful comedy club.
Whilst it was very different from the weekly workshop I had already been running in Beckenham since the summer of 1995, it was also immensely enjoyable for all concerned.
At the end of the showcase before a packed and very appreciative audience, it suddenly became abundantly clear that one of the graduates didn’t want the night to come to an end. If truth be told, neither did I.
CR was very pretty, fiercely intelligent, compulsively generous and incredibly funny.
During a very slow and careful courtship through the early months of 1997, we were seeing each other two or three times a week, usually for dinner and a movie.
A few months before we met, I had moved out of my Thamesmead bolt-hole to live with my sister, in a two bedroom flat on Leyton High Road, during the final year of her Tourism and Town Planning degree at Westminster University.
Despite the fact that I was very settled in my room with a prison view, where I had written two hit plays and three drafts of a screenplay, Joanne didn’t want to live there, or move somewhere else on her own.
So I agreed to live with her in Leyton, until the end of her degree the following summer.
During the spring of 1997, a very insecure but amazingly bright fourteen year old girl joined my stand-up workshop in Beckenham. Her name was Josie Long.
Josie had a somewhat endearing habit of apologizing for herself, at the end of just about every sentence.
However, since there was no way that would work out well on a stand-up comedy stage, my first job was to help her stop doing it.
When she got up in front of the class of half a dozen wannabe comics to tell her first five jokes, it was obvious that Josie had extraordinary comedic talent.
Nevertheless, at the end of each embryonic gag, she apologized profusely, sometimes before we all had the chance to laugh at it, so I knew I needed to intervene:
“Josie, the first thing I have to say is that your material has amazing potential. But even better than that, your comic persona complements it perfectly.
The only problem is that you keep saying sorry at the end of every joke, when you’ve got absolutely nothing to be sorry for.”
To which Josie replied:
“Oh my God! I’m so sorry!”
The room then burst into laughter, causing Josie to laugh at herself.
I’m not suggesting that the problem was cured overnight, as it was another two years before Josie truly overcame her lack of confidence in herself.
However, from that point onward, I can’t remember a single occasion when she killed another punchline by apologizing for it.
A Comedy Legend In The Making
Just six weeks later, Josie performed her first stand-up comedy gig at The Studio, in front of an audience that was completely blown away by her imaginative, surreal and witty routine about living in Bromley.
After the gig, Josie ran up to me, smiling like a Cheshire cat after a bowl of double cream and exclaimed:
“Oh my God! They like…laughed! Kind of…all the way through!”
To which I replied:
“You’d better get used to that Josie because you just stormed your first ever stand-up gig and you’ve only just turned fifteen!”
Within another six weeks, just about everybody from Josie’s school turned out at the next showcase at The Studio.
It was therefore perfectly understandable that she was much more nervous than she was before her first gig.
About five minutes before I was due on stage to warm up the crowd for her set, I found her in a state of nervous exhaustion in the green room.
In simple terms, she was convincing herself that the room was full of people who hated her just a few weeks previously, so there was no logical reason why they weren’t going to hate her that night.
Knowing exactly how she felt, I calmly reassured her:
“Josie, those people down there are buzzing with excitement because everybody who saw you perform six weeks ago has been raving about how brilliant you are to everybody they know.
All you really need to do is calm yourself down, breathe deeply and remember to enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about the audience because they’re all going to love you.”
Love To Laughter
Ten minutes later, as I watched Josie raise the roof with raucous laughter from her peers, as well as the forty-odd people who she’d never met, I saw how much she was enjoying herself.
As all great comics know, the amount they enjoy themselves on stage, is directly proportionate to the amount the audience enjoys their act.
It wasn’t just her vivid imagination, surreal stories of her extraordinary experience of the mundane and her effortless charm which made audiences love Josie so much.
First and foremost, everybody fell for her remarkable comic persona, which dictated that most people would love her the moment she walked out on stage in her green school uniform.
In my experience, all the best comics have one thing in common:
A disarming and seemingly effortless ability to make a room full of strangers love them.
There was no doubt that Josie Long had this quality in abundance, so I naturally set out to assist her progress in any way I could.
Following my sister’s departure from London in the summer of ’97, CR and I temporarily moved into two flats in North London, which were a couple of miles from each other.
I say two flats for brevity, but mine was admittedly a dingy bedsit on the boundary of Stoke Newington and Finsbury Park. However, my window looked out on to a reservoir, surrounded by trees, so it was a good place to write.
The problem was that I was toiling over a fourth draft of the screenplay for ‘The Truth Game’, which I just didn’t believe in any more, despite having a committed cast of actors already champing at the bit to turn it into a film.
Whilst I greatly enjoyed my weekly trips to the increasingly popular stand-up workshop, throughout most of 1997, I felt mired in the first and only creative quicksand I ever sunk my feet into.
In all honesty, I really didn’t know how to pull myself out of it, but my instinct guided me to learn all I could about making films the hard way – without a cash budget.
Vic Naylor’s Highlights
In no particular order, the highlights of my fifteen months at Vic Naylor’s Bar and Grill were:
- Being one of four bar staff who served £17,000 worth of drinks to a packed audience, at the only music gig that Pete ever hosted there, when Mick Jones and Big Audio Dynamite tore the place apart on a Saturday night.
- Serving various drinks to ‘Withnail & I’ director, Bruce Robinson, over the entire course of a quiet Friday night. He tipped me £50 just before he left and thanked me for being so sensitive to his profoundly wistful mood.
- Letting the customers serve themselves one reasonably busy Saturday night, whilst myself and the other barman sat at a table, discussing life, the universe and everything. They not only diligently paid for every drink, they left us £175 each in tips!
- Compering at Vic’s for Johnny Vegas’ Perrier-nominated act, half of which he performed whilst standing on a table in the dark.
- Getting recognized by Pete as the only man who he couldn’t drink under the table.
An Honour Which Might Have Killed Me
Whilst I still love Pete to this day, he would completely understand and appreciate that I had no realistic comprehension of exactly how much I was drinking, till he bestowed upon me the honour of comparing my consumption with his own.
In the event I had been born just after WWII, this would have been akin to comparing my alcohol consumption with the legendary boozers, Richard Burton and Oliver Reed.
Nevertheless, Pete and I were both self-possessed enough to know that we had to stop drinking as much as we were, or we would both meet with the fate as virtually all our cultural heroes.
This naturally meant that the heady daze and hard-drinking nights at Vic Naylor’s Bar and Grill would inevitably draw to an end, to prevent that eventuality transpiring for all concerned.
In his own inimitable style and with his usual panache, Pete went on to quit the booze, sell Vic Naylor’s and found Peter Spanton Drinks, which has widely been described as the best soft drinks producer in the world.
Kick Up The Proverbial
However, my main problem wasn’t that I was addicted to any of the substances I was consuming, or that I didn’t want to stop, having already realized that it was merely my hedonism which was expanding with my intake, not my consciousness.
In truth, I was engaged in forgetting about my long-term creative malaise, in a psychotropic oblivion which was ironically of my own making. But I knew I would give it all up as soon as I had a good enough reason to.
Inevitably, CR laid that reason on the line, after being woken up one too many times at 5 am, when I rolled into her flat, off my nut on E’s, Charley and JD, following an all-night party in Clerkenwell.
It was clear that I was in no fit state to communicate rationally, so she let me roll around in bed, trying in vain to get to sleep for a few hours.
When I dragged myself up around midday, not having slept a wink, she delivered an incentivized ultimatum:
If I cleaned up my act, she would move into a new flat with me and we could build a life together. But the relationship would end if I refused to accept that there was no other way forward.
After I happily agreed to knock the hard boozing and drug taking on the head, CR soon afterwards presented me with an advertisement in The Guardian for Dov Simens’ 2 Day Film School, whilst we were having tea at her flat.
Initially I refused to even look at it, after she told me that it would cost much more money than I could afford at the time. CR then literally took the stubborn Geordie bull by the horns and said to me sternly:
“Well, since I expected you to say that, I’ve already bought you a place on it. So now you’ve got no excuse for not going!”
That was the kick up the arse I needed, simply because we both knew that I would never throw such well-meant generosity back in her face. In fact, I will always be eternally grateful for it.
Dov Simens 2 Day Film School
It’s impossible to overstate the impact the Dov Simens 2 Day Film School had upon my life, during a remarkable weekend in the Autumn of 1997.
On the way to the venue at Burlington Place, I met a Brummie producer called Tony, who had traveled from South East Wales to attend Dov’s legendary film school.
We spent the better part of the next two days together, as Dov told a theatre full of wannabe filmmakers what they didn’t want to hear:
“It doesn’t matter how great the script is, how bankable the actors are or how committed and talented the crew are. The entire industry is run by accountants, lawyers and crooks, so even if you somehow manage to get the money to make your film and secure worldwide distribution, you’ll still be lucky to make a dime because the producer almost always gets screwed by the distributor!”
He then proceeded to teach all who were paying attention how to make low to no budget films in sixteen hours of tuition, proving beyond doubt that, just as Dov claims, he was and remains the best film teacher in the world.
Given that graduates from his course include Will Smith and Quentin Tarantino, we could not have wished for more successful alumni.
The Creative Malaise Finally Lifts
At the end of the course, we were all presented with certificates, confirming that we had graduated Dov’s course as Line Producers.
In theory, this meant that we were qualified to complete the following tasks, on any low to no budget film:
- Compose an accurate production budget.
- Schedule pre-production, production and post-production.
- Hire any and all necessary crew members, book equipment and buy film stock.
- Manage the entire production, from pre-production until delivery to the distributors.
However, Dov also taught us how to:
- Secure domestic and international distribution deals.
- Identify which contract terms should be avoided.
- Express our projects in language that should hook potential investors, as well as buyers.
By the time I headed back to Stoke Newington on the Sunday evening, I felt completely exhilarated. Before Tony got his train back to the Welsh valleys, we had agreed to collaborate on ‘The Truth Game’.
All I could think about was how I was finally going to be able to turn it into a screenplay that could be made without a substantial budget. Plus, I was no longer working on my own, which felt great.
Fueled by adrenaline, rather than nefarious cocktails, I sat down in my bedsit with a reservoir view and wrote the best fifteen pages of dialogue I’d ever re-written.
Finally, the creative malaise which had clouded my life for what seemed like an eternity had lifted and I actually started feeling much more like myself again.
Were it not for the generous, compassionate and timely intervention of a woman who I’d known for less than a year, who knows how long I would have continued down the Road of Excess, which led me to a nihilistic wilderness of oblivion, rather than the palace of enlightenment.
Moreover, there is no doubt that CR’s forthright challenge forced me to confront the self-evident truth I was hiding from myself:
Only hard graft, blood, sweat and tears and a steely determination to overcome all adversity will take me where I need to be.
I therefore had no choice but to stop relying on other people to do all that for me and get on with doing it for myself.