A Swansong for Soho?
The recent closure of Wardour News, one of London’s cultural institutions and communities, really hit a nerve for me. Due to rising rents in Soho [London's advertising capital] and with no apparent succession plan, Raj Patel, who ran the shop for 30 years, declined the offer of alternative premises “He’d done his time on the shop floor”. It was a sad day for many locals, and of course the vast numbers of creative magazines such as Dazed, that had been supported and given exposure over the years by Patel.
A few doors up, two iconic buildings of British film industry history are also soon to take another form. Mentorn House (Home to Freefolk's London office), Film House (Deluxe) and 20 St Annes Court will be a relic of London’s film, VFX and post production past. The building names alone indicate their place in the heyday of Soho’s media hub. In two years they will be gutted, leaving only their familiar façades and developed into another large hotel in Soho marking the end of another era in its cultural history.
When the news broke and press picked it up, everyone I bumped into mentioned it - and some still do to this day. Likewise, so many people attending sessions at Freefolk have worked in our building - back when it was Radical Media or Mentorn Films. There is many a story that has been lived or created in these walls. Freefolk has certainly benefited in locating right in the heart of Soho’s creative cluster. Starting out in our little Poland Street office among the hub of creativity and collaboration made this area a remarkable place to work.
There is little dispute that Soho has now gone under the developers' sledgehammer as a walk down Broadwick St will quickly illustrate, and every week another mainstay seems to close or a resident who’s lived here for 30 years has been forced out. But let’s not forget most of Soho used to be fields and the house in Soho Square a hunting lodge! It continues to change, but there’s always been a ‘quarter’ or an industry congregated in Soho. The ‘French Quarter’ of the persecuted Huguenots who had fled France (back when the UK opened arms to refugees), the sex industry, restaurants, textiles, advertising and of course, the film industry. If you look at this old BFI film from 1959 you see it was even more charming then, bustling as a ‘cosmopolitan’ international hot spot.
As we contemplate where Freefolk will move to, in an age of digital delivery and offsite operations, does it matter where we work? Do we need to be in a ‘cluster’? A client coming into Soho could hop between production, sound, edit, post... With digital production this has somewhat diminished. We no longer need to run tapes and film cans around from the lab to edit suite, sound and post house, and there is less client attendance now that work can be viewed remotely. But the hard to quantify benefits such as the flow of ideas and/or ‘knowledge spillover’ that comes with physical proximity shouldn’t be underestimated.
Most importantly, will it impact on the work? We know that competition drives up quality, agencies and production companies have reaped the benefits of Soho’s fierce competition, creating better work all round for a long time. We have a global reputation for high quality – so you could argue without the Soho magnet it wouldn’t have become as good as it is.
Ideas and knowledge are now shared in more abundance with social media and platforms like LBB, but the thing I’ve always loved about Soho is the randomness of bumping into an ex-colleague on the street and ending up in a conversation about VFX, being down the pub and meeting people old and new, the network that keeps on giving!
Time will now tell about Soho’s future output. In reality it’s already declustered with many of the advertising post houses no longer in Soho. So maybe in two years time we’ll reach for the advice of decluttering queen Marie Kondo, thank Soho for its service and kiss it goodbye too...
Justine White is managing director of Freefolk