For some time now, I’ve been wandering around Notting Hill attempting to get under its skin. For many years, even before I moved to London, there was something that struck me about both the level of contrasts in the area and how such contrasts were reflected in film history and locations. Even recently, I have been engaged on a film project set around both Ladbroke Grove and Kensal Green, so the area and its boundaries have been seeping into my mind for a while. For the area has always been defined as arguably the first full zone of gentrification in London, the moving out of people for and through capital. Even more poignantly, such a transition has been mapped out by two films that were shot a stone’s throw away from each other: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), and Roger Michell and Richard Curtis’ Notting Hill (1999). Between walking the two locations of these films, with reference to the changes in history captured in both of them, so much of what is still happening in the area comes to light.
I have been visiting Powis Square where Performance is filmed now for some time. The house, which sits on the very corner of the square, is where burnt-out rock star, Turner (Mick Jagger), lives with two women, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton). This is where gangster and protection racketeer, Chas (James Fox), comes to hide when on the run from his bosses, a place he overhears from a musician travelling up to Liverpool. I’ve written about the narrative implications of Performance here so won’t detail them now. Instead, what I want to point out is the Notting Hill on show in the film. In the late 1960s when Performance was filmed, the area was not the affluent zone it is today. Instead, as seen in the film, it is a working-class area and, most importantly, an area housing a multicultural community. This element of race is key as Performance and many others show and document how much this was a black community, even if the film in question focuses on a handful of white characters.
Performance is haunted by race; from the owner of the room that Chas stays in, to the soundtrack of the film. The Dead Poet’s song “Wake Up Niggers” features in the soundtrack – an early hip-hop foreshadow – and the very musical leitmotif for Powis Square is Ry Cooder’s rendition of “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground”, a song first performed by Blind Willie Johnson and derived from an African Gospel Hymn. In other words the film acknowledges the social character of the area in the film (and shows it variously whenever showing outside). It does not attempt to rewrite any of the elements that have since been lessened today. Performance is one of a number of films that grows out of this community, two others being Pressure (1976) by Horace Ové and Burning An Illusion (1981) by Menelik Shabazz; both set around the Goldbourne Road side which was a hotbed of black activism and the fight for equal rights in this period. It is worth highlighting this point: that the first British film directed by a black man was set and filmed in Notting Hill.
In early June, I wandered to this first location of Powis Square, venturing down Portobello Road once more on a pilgrimage I had made many times. The houses are tidy and neat, undoubtedly worth impossible amounts of money today. There were very few people about and this point struck home because it was a Saturday. Perhaps, so I thought, Portobello had drained the square of people for the day. I was walking and exploring with my girlfriend who was over visiting from France. She hadn’t seen Performance but was keen on visiting another location that was meant to be near: the blue door famously seen in Notting Hill. The door actually finds its way into Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired A Contract Killer (1990) too in a far more run down depiction. A quick search revealed how oddly close the two doorways were; Powis Square being virtually adjacent to Westbourne Park Road where it lies. We wandered through the heat and the people back at Portobello to find the door from Notting Hill.
The 1999 film did not cause the gentrification of the area, the forced evolution of it into the unnerving, contrasted and contradictory place that it is today, but it was symptomatic of its effects. After all, such social processes are psychological as well as physical. What the film does that Performance did not was to focus and build upon the area’s gentrified visions; it’s almost an estate-agent’s advert for a future property portfolio in parts. This is not to say that Notting Hill is a bad film, but the choice in hindsight is not a deft one. This is a rose-tinted view of the area that desperately hides the great financial divide between white people and people of colour, between the middle-class (and probably upper-middle-class) and the working-class, even if it is build on the even bigger divide between Hollywood and Britain. Though the film does have several people from different ethnic backgrounds (played by the likes of Clarke Peters and Sanjeev Bhaskar), the elements important to the film are clearly the middle-class, tidy areas and lives; nice things in British rom-coms seemingly cannot happen anywhere that doesn’t conform to heterotopic niceties. Like so many of these romantic London films, their London is stretching itself in its attempt to hold its waist in. The list of these films could be numerous but there’s little point. This is the contrast in the two visions; from two eras and arguably two Notting Hills no matter how much graffiti is seen on screen.
Two weeks after my visit to Powis Square and the “blue door,” the news broke of the tragedy of Grenfell Tower; a stark reminder of the inequalities still present and even more exasperated today. This is the endpoint of hyper-gentrification as a whole, where costs are cut to the bone, just so long as the affluent can turn away and not have to witness the inequality around them. This is the act of occulting required for gentrification, and the money spent on such similar actions knows no bounds all over the city. It was a horrific moment seeing the news unfold and even more horrific that, at the time of writing, information is still so lacking. On the same day as dozens of people lost their lives because of the such a lack of care, Anita Pallenberg passed away at the age of 75. It felt as if, briefly, two worlds long since separated had made some connection again, but in most tragic circumstances conceivably possible.