In the 60s, when Barrie Stacey owned the As You Like It coffee shop, it was a hotbed of theatrical gossip. Dan Carrier is charmed by a book that recalls those heady days
15 July, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Barrie Stacey during the As You Like It’s heyday
THE West End coffee house has long been seen as a key component in the capital’s culture. In the postwar period, such venues provided actors with sustenance and a place to source the next big job, novelists with affordable caffeine to ponder their unpublished masterpieces, artists to seek supporters, musicians with a stage and everyone in between with a space to mingle.
And to be a proprietor of such a place gave you the chance to be a patron of the arts, nurture a range of contacts and observe human nature in all its glory.
For Barrie Stacey, running the As You Like It in Monmouth Street, in the 1960s, became the key to the door of the world of theatre.
He has told all in an autobiography, A Ticket To The Carnival, which charts the 92-year-old’s life and sashays through London of the mid-20th century onwards.
Barrie was born in Bournemouth and moved to London after completing his National Service. It was the late 1950s and he opened the “As” before moving into theatre, acting as an impresario, agent, promoter – and making friends with the comfortably famous and uncomfortably unknown.
In a foreword, Quentin Crisp writes: “Mr Stacey can be trusted to tell all in a manner that will entertain everybody whilst wounding no one.
“Because he is such an uncommon man, everybody who knows him has his own, often repeated, story to tell. Now we shall know how many of these tales are true.”
And what tales.
He paints a picture of the West End shaking off the darkness of the immediate postwar years and beginning to swing.
Barrie appeared as a new wave of liberalism emerged, yet still bound by an older generation’s shackles, facing a mixture of stiff upper lips, homophobia, protection rackets and draconian licensing laws.
His story begins with a Bournemouth childhood, which saw him soak up the town’s entertainment delights – and gave him a life-long love for the stage. He was a regular at the Boscombe Hippodrome (“an oasis for me… for a few well-earned coins I could savour good and bad theatre or more correctly, variety and vaudeville”).
He saw the tail end of the music hall period – catching such acts as Old Mother Riley – and the established big bands such as the Joe Loss Orchestra.
Conscripted, he made a poor soldier, being knocked to the floor by its recoil whenever he shot a rifle – “it is doubtful I would have been accepted for Dad’s Army, let alone the Royal Engineers” and then moved to London.
“One lived on cups of tea in reasonable cafés, and the whole of Shaftesbury Avenue was a scene of complete wonderment and intrigue,” he writes.
Barrie answered an advert for a typist with some theatrical knowledge working on scripts, and in the evenings got a job at the Coffee House in the Haymarket to help make ends meet. Here he caught the bug, meeting the likes of The Outsider author Colin Wilson and other names that have carved themselves on the period.
After being awarded £1,000 following a car accident, he looked for a café of his own.
An advert for a place in Monmouth Street caught his eye and the As You Like It opened – and what a hive of intrigue and den of gossip, served up over well-stewed tea, it was.
“Lunchtime patrons were a mixture of office workers, Tin Pan Alley types, ‘resting’ actors, and would-be pop stars, plus a whole company of theatricals working in the area,” he recalls.
“Staff from the British Museum made up the rest.”
He priced the menu so a diner could eat a whole meal for six shillings, and also struck upon the idea that he would do a good trade if he delivered sandwiches to theatres and the ballet during rehearsals.
Barrie describes the tenants upstairs, as well as other shop-keepers on the stretch: “Opposite was a second-hand shop of amazing calibre, owned by a Mrs Pusey.
“She kept her money in her long red knickers which she wore each and every day, and if you wanted an adventure you tendered her a five pound note and stood back.”
After a time, Barrie had a flourishing little café business with entertainment at night and a closed-door membership policy after 8pm.
His interest in speech and language, communication and storytelling fitted well with his job – and it shines in every paragraph.
Describing a house he shared in Kilburn as a young man, he writes: “Although the flat was a little reminiscent of early Priestley, it was home.”
Such stylistic flourishes abound.
And while the footlights dazzled, he explains how he also became involved in horse racing. He spotted an advert in the Daily Express for a quarter share of a horse and his interest was piqued. It started a foray into the world of racehorses, which he recounts with glee, retelling the disasters and triumphs.
“Everyone knows what backing horses and theatrical ventures have in common,” he says. “You can lose the money, or your knickers, with no trouble at all.”
• A Ticket To The Carnival. By Barrie Stacey, Austin Macauley, £9.99.