The film ’23 Paces to Baker Street’ (1956, starring Van Johnson, Vera Miles and Cecil Parker) is not exactly a subtle piece of work. Firstly, it owes much to Hitchcock and you could say that it is an overt copy of his particular genre. The story revolves around a blind playwright who overhears a suspect conversation in a London pub. The police dismiss him when he makes a report to them, and in true movie style he undertakes an investigation himself. His old flame turns up as the love interest/assistant – of course she is perfect in every way and is absolutely devoted to him. It’s all very Jimmy Stewart/Grace Kelly. And even though the film is set in London, the American influence shines through strongly. Both of the lead characters are American – and the third star – the City of London – is that of the American tourist. Think of a London stereotype and it’s probably there on the screen for you. The pea-souper fog; the Routemaster bus; a red telephone box and a boat trip down the Thames. Near the beginning of the film, Van helpfully points out the Houses of Parliament for us. Thanks, Van. Glad you cleared that up.
But in spite of these old chestnuts, I did enjoy the film. Perhaps it was even because of these old familiars, which acted like a comfort blanket one cold afternoon. If I were to pick out the scenes which appealed the most, it would be those taking place in the pub. The old British ale house is rapidly disappearing from our streets. Those that survive must branch out – serve food, let families in, put up enormous TV screens to show football matches and create fake atmosphere. The pub in this film does none of the above. There is a bar, a few stools, a few tables and a pinball machine. It looks incredibly sparse to the modern eye, wonderfully conducive to concentrating on your drink. Our hero first sits himself in front of a screened off area, with a connecting door which declares it to be the Ladies Room. I feel quite sure that this is now an obsolete form of pub annex, and one that is as evocative of a bygone era as a mention of the snug in Coronation Street’s Rovers Return.
The barmaid too gave my eyes cause to mist over with nostalgia. Go into a pub these days and more often than not, the girl behind the bar is a student – inexperienced in life and too worried about her debts to make herself the soul of the place. Our barmaid in ‘Baker Street’ is a proper old school professional, able to identify her drinker’s requirements and deliver just what they need – a sympathetic ear, a bit of banter or just to be left alone – and do it with sensitivity. I felt nostalgia for some distant memories of my own. And I don’t mean childhood drinking trips – we weren’t allowed in the pub when I was young! But one of my Grandmothers was a barmaid of the variety just described. She worked at two Sheffield pubs over a number of years. I remember as a small child being taken to say hello to her of an evening, and being snuck in through the off-licence door like a bundle of contraband goods. I was often given a small cardboard box of chocolate raisins and perched in a corner, out of sight. My memories of the peeps through into the bar support my view that this film is a good representation of how pubs used to be. The floor was tiled, the walls sparse, no television and maybe a dartboard for entertainment purposes. That sort of pub is a real bit of England which is disappearing fast, if it hasn’t already gone.