The day the music died
Winstan Whitter’s film about the demise of the Four Aces is all that remains of the black music venue, says Angela Cobbinah
27 October, 2017 — By Angela Cobbinah
Filmmaker Winstan Whitter. Photo: Tomoka Suwa
BASED in an old Victorian theatre in Dalston Lane, it pioneered black music in the UK for more than 30 years before finally morphing into a main staging post for London’s rave scene.
But in 2007 the Four Aces became a victim of the wrecker’s ball, an architectural and cultural gem disappearing in a cloud of dust despite a long-running campaign to save it. In its place is a block of luxury flats so dispiriting it would make the original Philistines blush.
Since then the film Legacy in the Dust, telling the story of the club and its demise, has been doing the rounds before packed audiences, most recently last weekend when it was screened at the Hackney Archives, which ironically now occupies a building on the club’s original site.
For filmmaker Winstan Whitter returning to the scene of the crime was a bittersweet moment. “In an odd way, I am excited about it,” he tells me beforehand. “The Four Aces has gone and it won’t come back. We fought a gallant battle to save it and the film is the only thing that exists of it. That is why it is such an important archive in itself.”
How Winstan came to make the film is a story in itself. It begins in the 1990s when he was a young man with an interest in film and the dead hand of gentrification seemed light years away.
“I spent a lot of time at the Four Aces as a kid because my father worked there as a chef and my brother was on the door,” he explains. “When I began a film and video course at City and Islington College Dad suggested that I should make a film about the club. The first thing I did was start taking photos but I had no idea where it would all lead.”
Then in 1997 Hackney Council handed the club’s owner, Newton Dunbar, a compulsory purchase order. Although town hall mandarins did not say they wanted to demolish the building, known as the Dalston Theatre, they did not say what they wanted to do with it either.
“That was why I started to keep my eye on it.”
Born in Ghana but raised in Hackney, Winstan threw himself into what was to become a labour of love, making the most of his unique personal connections with the club. Aside from interviewing many of the main players, he augmented his own film footage with archive material from Dunbar and Jo Wiezcorick, who ran weekly acid house parties at the Labyrinth Club in another part of the building from the late 1980s. As luck would have it, both had extensive footage of some of the big names who had passed through the doors of No 12 Dalston Lane, from Ben E King, Stevie Wonder and Desmond Dekker to the Prodigy and the Slits.
The Four Aces in the 1980s. Photo: David Como
Legacy in the Dust charts the club’s musical journey as one of the first venues to not only showcase established black acts but also to provide a launch pad for future stars, championing Brit reggae style Lovers Rock and UK-based sound systems along the way and, in the end, shifting seamlessly into the rave music scene. Although the club came to be regarded as a cultural refuge for marginalised migrants from the Caribbean and Africa, it was frequently subject to police raids, and shots of the 1981 riots form part of the thread of social history running through the documentary.
After being on death row for two years the Four Aces finally closed down in 1999. Winstan put the project on hold and concentrated on developing his career as a filmmaker, going on to attract attention with acclaimed skateboarding doc Rolling Through the Decades and a string of musical videos involving the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Estelle.
At the same time, he joined forces with campaign group Open Dalston in an attempt to halt the council’s plans to get rid of a building that had been providing entertainment in one way or another for more than a century, first as a circus and then as a music hall and cinema before being reinvented as the Four Aces in 1966.
Winstan’s film Save Our Heritage set out the case for the defence.
“After the council boarded it up, lots of things were done to it to allow it to become dilapidated,” recalls the 43-year-old, just back from filming a documentary about a licensed cannabis farm in Oregon. “Newton collared people removing slates from the roof. You could clearly see there was an agenda. Then one day while I was filming in Ghana, I got a call from him saying demolition had started. I flew back straight away.”
Legacy… dramatically opens and ends with footage of the theatre and adjoining Georgian terraces being reduced to rubble to make way for the 550 apartments of the new Dalston Square, touted by Hackney mayor Jules Piper as a key part of the area’s overall regeneration.
Unable to be shown commercially due to copyright restrictions, Legacy… has nevertheless been screened hundreds of times since 2008 at community venues and schools and colleges.
But even as Winstan tries to raise money to obtain the royalties, he enjoys the freedom that private screenings afford him, away from the control of distributors and sponsors. It is his baby after all.
“Making the film was the best move I made,” he asserts in his softly spoken way. “I love the project. It is part of me and I feel I have done the story justice.”
• For information about future screenings visit www.legacyinthedust.net
Black History Month: upcoming events
Thursday, October 26
Journeys Through Sound join Etienne Joseph for a family drumming workshop, taking you on a rhythmic journey through the history of the drum at Dalston CLR James Library, Dalston Square, Dalston, E8 3BQ, 020 8356 3000; 2-3.30pm. Suitable for all ages but under-8s must be accompanied by an adult. Drums provided. No booking required
Hidden Figures: A heartwarming film revealing the little-known story of how three black women mathematicians at Nasa helped power America’s space race in the 1960s. Homerton Library, Homerton High Street, E9 6AS; 6-8pm. Booking essential. Contact Homerton Library with your name and phone number on 020 8356 3000 .
Sunday, October 29
My Hackney Walk: Taking you on a journey around the borough’s more recent black history. Start point: Dalston CLR James Library, Dalston Square, Dalston, E8 3BQ; 11am-12.30pm. If interested, contact Hackney Leisure and Physical Activity team on 020 8356 7459/4897 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, October 30
Our Rainbow in Our Clouds: Discover the phenomenal life and times of Maya Angelou with Sandra Agard. Stoke Newington Library (Gallery), Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 0JS, 020 8356 3000; 6-8pm. No booking required. Age 16+
Tuesday, October 31
Tribute to political activist Darcus Howe, who died earlier this year. Dalston CLR James Library, Dalston Square, Dalston, E8 3BQ; 020 8356 3000; 6-8pm. No booking required
Young Othello: The Tragedy of the White Swan by Onyeka Nubia. Theatrical reading of a drama aimed at providing a deeper understanding of one of Shakespeare’s most maligned characters. Canada Water Culture Space, 21 Surrey Quays Road, SE16 7AR; 7.30-9.30pm. Free but book via www.eventbrite.co.uk