Battle of Soho takes a rose-tinted look at the magic of Soho before London’s greedy developers took hold of its free spirit and radiant soul. 

Back in July of this year, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Mayor Sadiq Khan called for London’s LGBT+ venues to be preserved at the hands of skyrocketing rents forcing them out of the city. This year has seen the loss of over half of the capital’s 58 gay venues, to a tragically low figure of just 53 open for business.

Following the closure of Madame Jo Jo’s, the underground cabaret institution, it seemed to director Aro Korol that Soho’s very soul had been ripped out. Inspired by the anger amongst the queer community which followed its closure, Battle of Soho features voices ranging from Stephen Fry to drag artists, eccentric residents and aged rockers. Here, he explores the beleaguered area, from its dangerous historical reputation during its Victorian notoriety, to its modern, and very gentrified, existence as a location for eating at Pret, visiting chain coffee houses, shops and characterless social spaces.

https://youtu.be/o4zYK89rDE0

Battle of Soho was recognisably shot on a low budget, something that’s clear from the somewhat erratic shooting style and inconsistent editorial eye. With a transfixing voiceover accompanying the opening credits, a slow meander through the streets of Soho that’s more poetry than narration, the film begins as it means to go on. It’s a slow-moving, rose-tinted look back at the glitzy past of the LGBT+ hub so under threat.

Where it excels is in its characters. From the glittering enthusiasm of the anything-but-ordinary Daniel Lismore, the effervescent free spirit, Lindsay Kemp, and actress Jenny Runacre, a picture of everything that Soho has lost is illuminated in equal parts depressing and inspiring terms. Once an offbeat haven for the extravagant and unique, the film argues that Soho is losing everything that makes it special.

Madame Jojo's. Photo: Aro Korol

Madame Jojo’s. Photo: Aro Korol

Much of the blame is placed on the Mayoral post held by Boris Johnson, and which point in the early 2000s the tide of redevelopment allegedly took hold. It’s a process that hasn’t slowed. The Curzon theatre, built in 1912, is facing closure at the hands of the new Crossrail service at Tottenham Court Road. With a depressing precursor in New York City, where the closure of CBGB was seen as the death knell for LGBT+ social spaces and unique cultural identity, director Aro Korol believes that it’s not yet too late to save London.

It’s undeniable that the film sees the history of the area through rose tinted glasses, taking a view that clubs such as the Raymond Revuebar were bastions of a idiosyncratic culture to be celebrated rather than a place for the subjection of women to the eyes of eager raincoat brigaders. It’s also not a new phenomenon, despite what the interviewees might tell you. The gentrification of London has been in action for decades, and Soho was arguably lost long ago.

Raymond Revuebar. Photo: Aro Korol

Raymond Revuebar. Photo: Aro Korol

That said, it’s difficult to watch Battle of Soho without wishing you could do something to undo the legacy of unbounded capitalist greed, rising rental prices and creeping corporatism so responsible for the cultural catastrophe that is the decline of London’s most quirky social spaces.  The voices presented in this moving, if untidy, documentary are demonstrative of why the reversal of that process is so important if London is to remain a tolerant, and indeed celebratory, place of vivacious art, performance, and culture.

Battle of Soho is showing at Bertha Dochouse on Saturday 28th October, followed by a Q&A session with director Aro Korol. Click here for other screening locations. 

★★★☆☆