Features Food Magazine Television Theatre

Baker’s Dozen

Retracing the Fourth Doctor’s legendary Soho spree.

To be young – or youngish – in London is to have missed out on something. Missed out on what, nobody is quite clear. But wander through Soho at chucking-out time – some time after the watershed but before a nine-year-old’s bedtime – and the conversation will invariably drift towards the same place. Wasn’t there a time before this?

I’ve always felt the presence of this lost El Dorado somewhere in the back of my mind, surfacing when the pub I’m in calls last orders at half-past eight. But I’ve never been quite sure what I’m harking back to.

This was until I recently discovered an old clipping in the archives of the Sunday Times Magazine. The article is from 1978 and details a day in the life of Tom Baker: the man best known to the general public as one of the great Doctor Whos (or Doctors Who, like Attorneys-General), but also best known within the bounds of Soho as one of the greatest lizards who lounged.

The article seemed to capture a lost era of morning drinking and evening revelry, unimaginable to the modern eye. Baker himself turned 90 in January this year. It struck me that, instead of whingeing about a lost world I was born too late to encounter, I might be able to find that world by attempting to replicate this day in Baker’s life. Otherwise, at very least, my attempt to find his world might provide some expla­nation for how it was lost.

With some trepidation, then, and with a legal waiver signed accepting responsibility for whatever damage the mission might cause to my liver, I set out to replicate Baker’s day.

Baker wakes in a Soho room he does not recognise, and is ‘hit by terrible waves of anxiety. The feeling of loneliness that smacks of self-pity.’ This, at least, feels achievable. As he prepares to leave the house, he writes that ‘all you really need for confidence is always to have a toothbrush and a hundred or two in your pocket’. Later, I am told by an old acquaintance that Baker would carry the toothbrush visible in his breast pocket: an indicator to potential suitors that he was not intending to make it home.

First, he heads to Valerie’s on Old Compton Street for some coffee and to do the crossword. Valerie’s was a charming café run by a Belgian couple who moved to Soho in 1922. The wife, Esther, or Madame Valerie as she was known to punters, died some three years prior to the day we join the former Doctor.

Baker would never have known, but what happened next set in chain a series of events that would lead to a meteoric rise and catastrophic fall for what became the croissant giant Patisserie Valerie. After Madame Valerie’s death, Valerie’s was sold to new owners, then new owners again, expanding into a franchise. Eventually, some extremely dodgy accounting (read: alleged fraud) meant the whole empire crumbled. The administrators, KPMG, found a private equity firm to scoop up the remains. At this point, the metaphor for Soho feels regrettably heavy.

So, too, does this: from Valerie’s, Baker heads to one of a variety of pubs: the Swiss Tavern, The Carlisle Arms, the Coach & Horses or the York Minster. In their current incarnations, none of these are open pre-­midday. I stand despondently outside the unfortunate post-work drinks/hen-do chain bar Simmons (once, The Carlisle Arms) and watch a staff member mop up last night’s disarray. Baker, by this juncture, has had a ‘few drinks’. I have had an iced coffee from that most dystopian of franchises, Joe & the Juice.

Still, at midday, things start to pick up somewhat. Baker heads to the York Minster, now The French House, and so do I. I am greeted by Lesley Lewis – the landlady – who joins me for a midday glass of wine. Promising. Back in the day of the York Minster, Lewis explains, you could be barred for being boring, but never for being drunk. The main difference between the punters then and now, she says, is that these days people simply can’t get away with being drunk before lunchtime and then heading to work.

Lewis has more claim than most to have been at the heart of Soho’s golden age. As a young woman, she performed in a cabaret with a live python before moving in 1979 – just before Baker’s day – to manage a strip club just down the road from the French. She was fired, eventually, for pushing for better rights for the girls and trying to protect them from violent patrons. Today, the site of the strip club is Bar Swift, which rarely leaves lists of the world’s top 50 cocktail bars, and where they will serve you kombucha, blended Japanese whiskey and Belvedere vodka. Not all at once, obviously. Although I’m sure they might consider it if you asked nicely.

No such frippery for Baker, though, who heads next to Paparazzi, an ill-fated and short-lived Italian restaurant just down from The French House on Dean Street. Today, the site is home to a bubble tea and juice bar: something Lewis declares ‘not very Tom Baker’.

She’s right. We pick up a juice regardless and sip melancholically on our way to lunch at The Colony Grill Room, chosen because it is one of the few places left in London where you can order Baker’s lunch: calf’s liver with bacon. I manage about half, toying fretfully with the rest. It’s greasy, earthy and largely unpleasant. It probably becomes both more desirable, and indeed more necessary, if you’ve had three pints by 1PM.

After lunch, and after a short rehearsal at the BBC, Baker heads to the Colony Room Club, for a ‘large gin and tonic’. The Colony is long gone, now a private flat. Such had become my obsession with the task that I had been making plans to try and get access, when something remarkable emerged. Darren Coffield, a painter in his fifties and another denizen of old Soho, has set up an installation in the basement of the restaurant Ziggy Green on Heddon Street: an exact replica of the old Colony Club.

As we head inside, the afternoon suddenly disappears. It could be any time of night or day. The place is tiny, dark and wood-panelled. There are no tables, just a line of benches round the walls, to encourage everyone to make everyone else’s business their business. A phone by the bar allows contact with the outside world. Or rather, it doesn’t. By Darren’s account the phone was usually picked up by the owner, who would ask patrons whether they wanted to be known to be here to the wife/boss/debt collector on the phone. Usually, they didn’t.

My accomplices and I had been planning to drink slowly, but when we arrive, Darren and Tom, Ziggy Green’s owner, stand before us with a host of already open champagne bottles. It becomes clear to me that abstinence is not in the spirit of today’s mission.

As we drink, Darren tells me about the old heroes of the Colony Club – of whom Baker is one. Francis Bacon, too, was a loyal inhabitant. Once, outraged by the arrival of a new carpet, he ordered a bottle of champagne and promptly poured the whole thing on the floor. Happily, at some point (I’m a bit hazy as to when), someone (I’m a bit hazy as to who) accidentally knocked a bottle onto the floor, too. Then we emerged, delighted to have perhaps summoned Bacon’s half-cut, carousing ghost into a regrettably still light Regent Street.

From there, Baker returns to the York Minster ‘after a vaguely lunatic afternoon’. At the bar, I get talking to a man in his eighties, drinking a solo pint. He tells me he knew Baker. So did the man on the other side of me. That they are both still here emboldens me somewhat.

Next, Baker heads to Gerry’s, an underground late night bar on Dean Street, and then on to dinner at Madisons in Camden Lock. Like Paparazzi, Madisons – a cabaret bar and restaurant – was short-lived, so we head instead to Prix Fixe Brasserie further up the road, which Darren says is where young artists are more likely to go these days, for an entirely unremarkable dinner. Then it’s back to Gerry’s for Baker, then to Ronnie Scott’s jazz bar, then to Gerry’s again.

Except, well, here’s the problem. We are all sitting in Gerry’s and I just think… do I really want to go to Ronnie Scott’s and then back here again? I’ve been drinking all day, eating rich food all day, too. And it really would be quite nice to go to bed soon. This is not – as Lesley described our juice earlier – very Tom Baker. Not very Tom Baker at all.

And so, at about 10PM, I leave. With me, I carry the realisation that there definitely are vestiges of old Soho left. And as for those that have gone? Well, I have nobody to blame but myself.

You've reached the end. Boo!

Don't panic. You can get full digital access for as little as £1.66 per month.

Get Offer

Register for free to continue reading.

Or get full access for as little as £1.66 per month.

Register Free Subscribe

Already a member? Sign In.