In my book, Haunted Highgate (2014, History Press) I make reference to a thwarted attempt which was made to produce a music video in Highgate Cemetery’s Circle of Lebanon:
… in the mid-1990s a Canadian music producer, who, for reasons which will become obvious, wishes to be referred to only by his first name, had a similar experience in the lane. ‘Mike’ was at that time the occupant of 85 Swains Lane, designed by the architect John Winter to complement his own ‘Modern House’ slightly further down the lane. Like the rest of the domiciles on this small stretch of track, Mike’s back door opened directly onto Highgate Cemetery West. In the mid-1990s, heavily involved with London’s ‘goth’ scene, Mike converted much of 85 Swains Lane into a recording studio, which quickly became a hangout for people of an ‘alternative’ bent. Inspired by the expansive views of the cemetery from Mike’s living room, a small group of his acquaintances devised a plot for a music video, which, with the ease of access afforded by Mike’s property, was proposed to be filmed in the Circle of Lebanon. The inevitable police presence which this would attract was incorporated into the storyboard, with the participants planning to ‘disappear’ through Mike’s backdoor into the unlit house thus avoiding detection.
This scheme was never to materialise, however. Returning home up Swains Lane late one winter’s night, Mike was alarmed to hear the distinct sound of a horse approaching at quite some speed. With a clear view up the empty lane, and with no horse corporeal or otherwise in sight, Mike ran as fast as he could towards his house and quickly locked the door behind him. Convinced that he had been “warned off” by some supernatural agency, Mike dropped all plans to facilitate this project, and returned to Canada soon afterwards.
© Della Farrant / History Press 2014
However Mike’s project was not the first of its kind. In late 1978 (at least, according to Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming of 2005) a sequence shot in the Circle of Lebanon had been completed, in preparation for inclusion in Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren’s 1980 release The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle.
The sequence in question demonstrated in my opinion extremely bad taste (maybe I’m becoming a stick in the mud in my old age!). It shows McLaren accompanied by Sex Pistols groupie and art contributor Helen Wellington-Lloyd cavorting amongst the vaults and pasting up posters on their brick lined entrances with slogans such as “God save Myra Hindley”. This is all accompanied by a rendition of “You Need Hands” – an old Max Bygraves standard, which was sung at McLaren’s funeral in his memory. At the time of filming, Highgate Cemetery had been closed to the public for three years, and was being managed by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. In 1976 David Farrant had received a two year prison sentence for being photographed in the proximity of a coffin – a damaged coffin much like one of the many in the smashed tomb which Wellington-Lloyd and McLaren emerge from in the opening frames of the relevant section of film. But who needs another high profile conviction for the crime of offering indignities to the remains of the dead, when a scapegoat has already been convicted albeit with no evidence of criminal activity whatsoever? Viewers who want to watch the cemetery sequence only may wish to skip to 4 minutes in.
The scene begins with the pair emerging from a smashed vault in the circle holding a burning torch, and culminates in McLaren, wearing his iconic tartan suit, revealing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo “Cash from Chaos”.
That the posters were already in situ and merely needed rolling down by McLaren indicates that the production team were working fast to avoid detection by the Metropolitan Police. If anyone remembers anything about the filming of that sequence and any subsequent repercussions then please do comment below, anonymously if you wish, or contact me privately. Ditto if you have any contact details for Helen (of Troy) who I would very much like to interview.
An earlier sequence in the film shows Helen and McLaren wandering around Holly Village, where the production team even managed to get away with attaching an “MM” crest above the entrance – a shield which would eventually find itself reproduced above McLaren’s grave in Highgate Cemetery East in 2013. That McLaren, whose funeral cortege was accompanied by his favourite slogan “Cash from Chaos” recreated in floral form, was forgiven by Highgate Cemetery for his 1978 misdemeanours is interesting. Highgate Cemetery remains, as we are frequently reminded, a working cemetery where the feelings of mourners are statedly paramount. Mourners with significant cash to spend on ‘interesting’ memorials, at least. As the cemetery’s CEO Dr. Ian Dungavell told the Camden New Journal in April 2013:
“We like to have monuments that are individual, that celebrate people, ones that are commissioned and are not off the peg. This is a really special monument and no other has a death mask like this. It is so much nicer than these terrible tacky things that you get out of catalogues.” Pity the poor mourner who doesn’t have tens of thousands of pounds at their disposal with which to adorn their inherited family plot. The cemetery is a working burial ground, after all, and not a museum or art gallery, or at least that is its primary object within its remit as a registered charity.
It seems that little has changed in terms of cold hard cash since 1840, when certain wits took it upon themselves to satirically review a handbill produced by the London Cemetery Company …
. . . beware of being “emboweled” in the “mother earth” of Highgate Cemetery “before three o’clock P. M.,” or “after sunset;” it will cost you, else, an additional seven shillings and sixpence. Funeral officials are asleep, or busy, betimes in the morning, and after sundown they catch cold. If there be a keen north-easter astir, you may have the “use of a large Weather-Screen” for the small charge of half a sovereign and one sixpence. If you […] are desirous of revelling in the “Privilege of placing a Head and Foot Stone to a Grave” (our quotations are exact!) you must see after the vampire “powers that be”, and with them mutually sign, seal, and deliver, “a Special Agreement.”
I am sure that this peculiar form of half-heartedly disguised snobbery and hypocrisy would not be lost on Mr McLaren. No offence intended, Ian!
Reproductions of McLaren’s “Cash from Chaos” T-shirt are available from humanade.com, a human rights charity which his family chose for donations in his memory from his fans. Malcolm died in a Swiss clinic in 2010 from a rare form of cancer. Despite all his lack of taste with regard to the cemetery in life – RIP Malcolm.
Post Script ~ Possibly as a result of the self-righteous fervour which seemed to overtake me whilst writing this blog entry, I omitted to include a quote from Johnny Rotten – now known as John Lydon – of the Sex Pistols which may give some back ground as to the choice of location for the scene discussed above. Lydon grew up in Tufnell Park, and McLaren grew up in nearby Stoke Newington. Lydon seems to have removed all references to his exploits in Highgate from his revised autobiography Anger is an Energy. My brother met Lydon in the VIP area backstage at a festival recently and tried to inveigle him into a convo about Highgate Cemetery but Lydon was too scared of “my agent woman” to say anything of interest (and perhaps a bit too ‘relaxed’!). In anycase, this is what he said in his 1994 autobiography No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs:
Dave Crowe was deadly curious about all the reports on TV and books about vampires in Highgate Cemetery. During that summer period, when we were about sixteen or seventeen (1972/3), and I was going to school in Hackney, we’d break into the crypts where the bodies were on shelves, open up the coffins and have a look. We’d see which bodies hadn’t deteriorated. Was this vampire thing real? So many people were doing it … loonies mostly, running around with wooden stakes, crucifixes and cloves of garlic … it was almost like a social club down there. We’d get bored with that there’d be this pub at the top of the road, and we’d drink a bit, then go back into the crypts later that night