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Sam’s dream: ‘I want it to be like an EastEnders cafe, but in Primrose Hill’

Helena Bonham-Carter to cut ribbon on new 'greasy spoon without the grease'

20 August, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Sam Frears and novelist Andrew O’Hagan

PRIMROSE Hill is well known for being home to the great and good but arguably its one true celebrity is Sam Frears.

The son of London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and My Beautiful Launderette film director Stephen Frears is constantly stopped in the street every time he leaves his family home in Regent’s Park Road.

On Saturday, Sam’s Cafe – a joint venture with his old friend the best-selling novelist Andrew O’Hagan – will re-open in new premises.

It has taken over the former L’Absinthe restaurant on the corner of Chalcot Road and Fitzroy Road.

Mr Frears, 48, said: “Andrew and I spent a lot of time together in Cafe Delancey and Goodfare in Camden Town. I wanted my cafe to be an easy going place for everyone to go.

For visiting builders, not just the exclusive Primrose Hill people. I wanted a kind of EastEnders style cafe, although I’m not sure you can get that round here.”

Talking about his community fame, he jokes: “Yes that’s true I get stopped a lot, but when you walk down the street with Andrew, no one says anything.”

Unlike Sam’s old cafe in Regent’s Park Road, dinner and alcohol will be served. Arguments about the extent of West Ham memorabilia – Sam’s favourite team – have yet to be settled days before actress and friend Helena Bonham-Carter cuts the ribbon at a launch on Saturday.

Peanut and jelly sandwiches will be on the menu among other more sophisticated fare.

Mr Frears, who has a rare disability and is now almost blind, has only just been able to get back outside having shielded up to August due to the Covid-19 outbreak. He had been listening to the football on the radio, quizzes and talking to passers-by through the window of the front room.

Mr O’Hagan said: “I have not seen anything like the community here, and I come from Glasgow. The news­agents, the post office – they are all giving us support. When you walk down the street, Sam gets stopped about 50 times – ‘how you doing? When’s it opening?’”

Sam’s Cafe will be open to customers next week

Mr Frears went to Primrose Hill primary school and grew up in Gloucester Crescent.

His eyesight began to deteriorate in his teenage years and he went to a specialist school for the partially sighted.

Friends of his from school will be at the launch on Saturday, and some have helped out with the new cafe. He chose West Ham as his team to bait his two brothers, after the Hammers won the FA Cup final against Arsenal in 1980.

Mr O’Hagan – who has a new book coming out in a fortnight and another about Caledonian Road in the pipeline – said the “concept at the beginning was a greasy spoon without the grease”, adding: “We wanted to open a cafe – so we started a company, it’s called Del Boy Productions. Sam is a big Only Fools and Horses fan. We can afford a bit of happy chaos.”

He added: “Mary-Kay gave me my first proper job at the London Review of Books, I met the family and we got closer and closer as the years went on. There are a lot of London Review people, and friends of Sam, who help out. Through the decades we have had many projects together, but never a cafe.”

Ms Wilmers remembered Mr O’Hagan’s arriving for his interview wearing a lurid green suit in 1990. They said the London Review of Books was booming and was benefiting thanks to the “genius” of Ms Wilmers and a “renewed taste for long-form journalism and reportage”.

Mr O’Hagan imagined “solo-interneters” following in his footsteps “writing their novels downstairs with a mug of tea”.

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