INTERVIEWEE: ALLAN WARREN
Allan Warren is a British portrait photographer based in Covent Garden, primarily known for his images of high society including stars of the screen, celebrities and royalty. Allan also happens to be a great character, raconteur and bon vivant. Allan has photographed Mae West, Salvador Dali, Prince Charles, Roger Moore, Joan Collins and many others. Here, in a transcript of their interview, his friend – Country Squire Magazine’s Dominic Wightman – asks Allan about his shoots, adventures and opinions on the Great British Countryside. Interspersed in the transcript are some of the more famous photos Allan has taken.
Q: How did you get started as a photographer?
Allan: Initially my career began as a kid actor, doing little bits on television. I then got a job as a junior presenter in a children’s television show called ‘The Five O’Clock Club’ which only took one day a week to film. Leaving the rest of the week to do other things – bits and pieces, like TV commercials and whatever. It all paid extremely well. So by the time I was fifteen, I was renting my own apartment, at thirty five guineas a week, at 88 Lexham Gardens, Kensington. It was considered a luxury pad because it had both central heating and fitted carpets, which in 1964 most places didn’t. Most places had either rugs, or linoleum on the floors, and were heated by coal, gas fires, or paraffin heaters. As a result many buildings smelt of paraffin or worse – damp. But not mine, it was bright, airy, warm and dry. I initially moved in with my Mum. We had been living alone together since her divorce many years before. Her dream was to live in America, and so with my new found wealth I bought her a one way ticket to New York and gave her five pounds spending money. Now I was home alone and enjoying it. As were many of my mates who moved in. One of them was Toby Tyler, a would be, budding pop star. Every day and most nights, he would strum his guitar and sing Bob Dylan songs. He wasn’t bad, so I decided to manage him and try and get him on the show. We signed a contract and I had a couple of recordings made and some photographs of him taken. But sadly there was no interest from the show’s producers, or even EMI records.
Q: Weren’t you a little young to rent your own flat?
Allan: True, but I was nearly sixteen and had become the breadwinner. So I saw myself as rather grown up.
Q: Was it legal to rent a flat at fifteen?
Allan: As it turned out it wasn’t. I had only been there for about three months, when there was a loud knock at the door. When I opened it, I was completely taken aback. Standing in the doorway was an extremely tall, rather intimidating figure, dressed in a long dark overcoat, a pin striped suit, with a white starched collar and old school tie to match. He was in his mid-twenties, at least six foot four, with thick blonde hair and the bluest of eyes. In other words, very good looking, like a movie actor, like a young James Fox. As I peered up, he had no choice but to peer down, as at five feet eight, I was a dwarf by comparison. He introduced himself as David Kirch, my landlord. He had come to evict me, claiming at fifteen I had no legal right to rent a flat, let alone on a long lease. I didn’t reply, I just stood in the doorway looking up at him. As I did so, his once pallid complexion had changed to to a bright strawberry red, caused I suspect by the fact, which I made no attempt to disguise, I was flirting with him. When I invited him in, he was absolutely horrified at the thought. It was clearly too much and he promptly turned on his heels and headed back down the stairs to the street and safety. As he did so, he mumbled, ‘If you don’t pay your rent on time, you will definitely have to go!’
Q: And did you?
Allan: About six months later, the show came to an end and so I couldn’t meet the rent. All I could offer by way of payment were a few pounds and I threw in my contract with Toby Tyler. Assuring Kirch, if Toby ever became a success, it would be worth more than three months’ rent. As there was nothing else on offer, Kirch accepted it in part payment. About a year later Toby Tyler’s mother burst into his offices and accused David Kirch of having done nothing for her son. David agreed with her completely. Saying he was a property man, not a manager, he tore up the contract and threw away the recordings.
Q: So that was the end of Toby Tyler’s career?
Allan: Yes it was. Toby changed his name back to his real name, Marc Felds. Then to Marc Bolan and formed a group called T.Rex. If David Kirch had kept the recordings, he could only have added to his fortunes. Only recently somebody discovered them on Ebay or somewhere and released them. Nonetheless, I don’t think Sir David is too concerned. Recently he was knighted for his work as one of England’s greatest philanthropists. Having given away one hundred millions pounds to help the elderly of Jersey, where he now resides. Also every year, he gives every pensioner on the island one hundred and ten pounds for a Christmas box.
Q: Did you keep in contact with Sir David?
Allan: Oh yes, we became great friends. After Lexham Gardens, he offered me another, if somewhat unusual, apartment, at 46 Princes Gate. To reach it, you had to trudge down a long gloomy hallway in a basement. At the end, was a large door. Whereupon opening it, the gloominess of the hallway immediately disappeared. Beyond that door was an apartment with no windows. Yet it was bright and sunny – lit solely by skylights. It had been built as an artist’s studio, in what was once the garden. I loved it, it had character and , more importantly, was only eight guineas a week. And as I had just got a part in a new Alan Bennett play called ‘Forty Years On’,’ it was easily affordable. It soon became popular, not only with my friends but also friends of friends, and friends of theirs. Especially with actors, writers and entertainers – there were all sorts. People dropped in at all hours, it was like a continuous party.
Q: When you say all sorts?
Allan: Well The likes of Lionel Bart, Brian Epstein, Tennessee Williams. Tennessee never spoke very much – he would just lie around in the small hours, listening to Marlene Dietrich records. The most he said was ”Fix me another drink and play that record again.” Whereas Johnny Mathis, who rented a flat around the corner, was content to bring and play his own records and also sing along to them. James Baldwin, the writer, would do readings and discuss things that were far too erudite for me. After all I was still in my teens and it was the swinging sixties. In that flat, there was never any shortage of entertainment but not all of it could be described as cultural – hedonistic would be a more apt description.
Q: Did you photograph the evenings?
Allan: A few times, as I had just bought a Rolliflex camera for a hobby, but I didn’t know how to use it. So they were just drunken shots in the early hours, usually over-exposed or out of focus. However that was about to change and very quickly. There was an American named Mickey Deans, who often stayed over, but I hadn’t seen him for about a year. Then out of the blue he rang to say he was getting married. He heard I had a camera, and asked if I could take some photographs of his wedding reception. He then offered me twenty pounds to cover the ceremony. In 1969, that was good money. So how could I refuse? When I then asked who the lucky bride to be was he replied Judy Garland. He then gave me the address and the time to be there and hung up.
Q: What was it like?
Allan: It was a sad affair, held at Quaglino’s restaurant in Jermyn Street. Apart from members of the press, Johnny Ray the singer, myself and Mickey Deans, hardly anyone turned up. Even I ended up dancing with Judy Garland, while a one-armed trumpeter and a three piece band played ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’.
Q: And the photography?
Allan: The pictures were not great but at least they came out. A couple were used in the papers, so my first venture into the world of photography was a minor success. It gave me the idea to get out of acting altogether, before anyone found out I couldn’t act. Also by now acting had become a nightmare with cattle calls. I got a part in a film called ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ where there were nearly five hundred boys all auditioning for the same part. Thanks to being in ‘Forty Years On’, other actors in Alan Bennett’s play asked me to take their photographs. So I did, and again for a fee. To add a little cache, the actors would embellish the truth when asked who took the photographs, and say. ‘I had these taken by Judy Garland’s photographer’. So it was a false cache for them and a case of real cash for me. It wasn’t long, through word of mouth, before other actors began telephoning for pictures. So I was soon able to give up acting altogether. Here was a job, where I didn’t have to audition, or even have to leave the house, nor get up before midday. After all I had a ready-made-for studio to come to and nobody wants to be photographed in the morning anyway!
Q: So from then on your life has been one great photographic adventure?
Allan: I suppose in a way it has. I must say photography has been very good to me but I haven’t always been good to it.
Allan: Oh I used to have a rather cavalier, lackadaisical attitude towards it. My priorities were more about where I was lunching or dining than who I was photographing. Setting up lights and sorting out exposures or loading cameras didn’t seem half as much fun. In the seventies, I stood quite a lot of stars up in favour of a good lunch.
Q: Such as?
Allan: Oh it’s a long time ago now. Lets see…Groucho Marx, Joan Collins, W.H. Auden, Bette Davis, oh yes and also Joan Crawford. To be fair I didn’t stand her up. I just couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed.
Q: Was that in your studio?
Allan: No, it was in New York. Having party-ed all night at Studio 54. I had crashed out on the sofa where I was staying. About 9am, the phone began ringing. It then stopped and started again. Whoever it was, was mighty persistent. I tried to ignore it but it just went on and on. So I eventually picked it up . It was Joan Crawford on the line asking were we still on for a shoot at 10 am. Well there was no way I could have got to her apartment in time, also by now the room appeared to be spinning. When I said that I couldn’t manage 10am, she then suggested 10.30. Then 11am, but I still declined even when she stretched it to 11.30. I made an excuse that I was ill. Which in a way I was, although self-inflicted, due to a hangover and lack of sleep. Instead I told her I would ring her back but I never did. That week I also rescheduled a shoot with W.H. Auden. As I decided to accept a friend’s invitation to lunch at the 21 club. A day later I headed off to Los Angeles and agreed to take Auden’s pictures on my return a week later. He wasn’t pleased and in a deep gravelly voice said ‘Okay ring and fix a time when you are back’. While I was in California, Christopher Isherwood invited me to his home in Santa Monica to take his portrait. However, I was too lazy to drive, so I got him to come to my hotel in Hollywood and photographed him on the roof instead.
Groucho Marx’s secretary rang me to confirm that I would be keeping my appointment the next day at 11am, at his house in Beverly Hills. The next day at 11am I was still asleep and never stirred till lunchtime. When I returned to New York, I rang W. H. Auden to fix a time. To my surprise, instead of Auden answering it was someone else, who seemed very upset. They said it wouldn’t be possible to do the sitting, as he had died the night before.
Q: Oh dear. Most unfortunate. How did you feel about that?
Allan: Well naturally I was sad for him but also sad for me, because at the time I was compiling my first book entitled ‘Nobs & Nosh‘. I had planned to have Isherwood and Auden on opposite pages but it wasn’t to be. And it was my fault entirely. On another trip to Hollywood I stood up Bette Davis. I was due to take her photographs at her home at 3pm on a Wednesday but at 3pm on that particular Wednesday I was still lunching in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel. I had made the mistake of starting lunch with a Bloody Mary then went onto a mimosa before the white wine. By the time brandy was served it was 4.30.
A decade later in the eighties I rang Bette Davis because I was doing an exhibition and wanted to include her. I was convinced she would have forgotten me after ten years and I was right, or so I thought. She was extremely polite and then said, “Can you write me?” And so I did, I dropped a note by her house explaining what the exhibition was about. I waited a couple of days but heard nothing. So I rang her again, and asked if she had received my note. In a very hushed tone, she said she had and then added ”Listen carefully, I am going to say something to you.” ”Oh really? What is that?” I replied. Then she screamed, ”Forget it…Asshole!”
Q: Were you upset?
Allan: No, I roared with laughter, after all she was right. I must say I never had that same reaction from Joan Collins. Who I would have expected it from. After all, at the time she was known for being a bitch, not least because of her role in Dynasty. She even starred in a film entitled The Bitch. I had cancelled a couple of sittings. On the third time, I rang to apologise, to my surprise, in a calm and sweet voice she replied ”I’m here when you want me darling” and hung up.
Q: Any regrets about the way you behaved?
Allan: Yes and no. I had had a lot of fun and all work and no play, if it doesn’t make Jack a dull boy, it would certainly make for a dull life. I am glad that I was never too ambitious but there are some opportunities that I regret not taking.
Q: Such as?
Allan: Well, I was in New York in the late seventies. I was lunching with Gloria Swanson in her apartment off 5th Avenue. The following day I was heading to Los Angeles. Gloria asked where I was staying and when I told her a hotel, she insisted she ring her great friend and I should stay there. The friend was another mature actress and at the time I had my fill of mature actresses and singers. Having photographed quite a few.
Q: Such as?
Allan: It’s a long list , let’s see. Dame Edith Evans, Dame Gracie Fields, Phyllis Calvert, Dame Sybil Thorndike, Barbara Murray, Dame Cicely Courtneidge, Mae West, Carol Channing, Hermione Gingold, Hermione Baddely, Vera Lynn, Lilian Gish. I cant remember now but the list seems endless. Don’t forget I was still in my early twenties and naturally wanted to be out with people of my own age group. So I turned down Gloria’s kind offer and foolishly stayed in a hotel. Foolishly because the friend she wanted me to stay with was Mary Pickford, and the house was the famous ‘Pickfair’ where Mary had lived with Douglas Fairbanks Snr. I could have taken any portraits I liked of this great silent screen star. It was probably worth a million dollars in royalties and Gloria knew it.
Q: Why was Swanson so kind to you?
Allan: She had befriended me, a few years before, when I had taken her pictures in her apartment in New York. As she was a night owl, we took them at 4.30 in the morning and she loved them. So much so, when my ‘Nobs & Nosh’ book came out, she flew to London to attend the launch party at my flat. It was a very glitzy night – all sorts turned up . Margaret Argyll, Rod Stewart with Britt Ekland, Liberace, poor Carrie Fisher – all kinds, including my neighbour, who by now had become a friend, Lord Mountbatten. Swanson was very excited to meet him, but it nearly went horribly wrong. When I introduced them, Mountbatten looked at her and said,”Hello, I’ve admired you since I was a very, very small boy!’ Swanson seemed horrified, and there was a pregnant pause, before she replied ”Oh really? I never realised I was a child actress!” They then both laughed. After that the party went off splendidly apart from Liberace couldn’t get into the bathroom, so he got a friend of mine, who had just arrived in his finest fur coat, to shield him with it, as he peed in a plant pot in the hallway. The plant must of loved it as it thrived for many years.
Q: Did you ever take any lessons in photography?
Allan: No, not at all, I just picked up a camera and was grateful if an image came out. I still am. I remember once when one didn’t, it nearly got me into real trouble. I was chatting to Rod Stewart who was in my local hairdressers. We were chatting, while he was having his hair cut. The door to the salon opened, and a young lad put his head round and shouted ”I don’t believe it!.. it’s Rod Stewart, it’s Rod bloody Stewart!” With that, he walked in and asked Rod if he could take his picture. He said he was from Manchester and his girlfriend would never believe him otherwise. Pointing to me, Rod answered, ”I can do better than that. We can have one taken together. He is a photographer.” As the boy handed me his camera, Rod added. ”But I have to warn you he’s not a very good one”. The boy looked somewhat bemused but still handed me his camera. It was a small, amateur, plastic thing, very simple to use, in fact idiot proof. Rod put his arm around the boy, they both smiled, and – click – the deed was done. The next day Rod was back at the hairdressers. After he had finished, we went to the pub next door for a quick drink. Suddenly the double doors of the pub burst open and in marched the boy from Manchester. In a very menacing manner, he walked straight up to me and shouted ”You trying to take the piss mate?” He then threatened to punch me. Rod tried to calm things by asking what the problem was. The boy calmed down a little, then showed him the snaps of them I had taken from the day before. They were really good, completely in focus and perfectly exposed. You could clearly see Rod’s arm around the boy’s shoulder and there was a very good shot of their necks. However, from above the neck there was a bit of a problem, there was nothing! I had cut their heads off. What I hadn’t realised was that with some amateur cameras, you have to fit the image within a line, as anything outside of it is cut off. On seeing the results, Rod loved them and roared with laughter. By now the boy appeared even more agitated. Then Rod hugged him and said, ”I told you he was a lousy photographer!” Somewhat nervously, I offered to take them again. The boy hesitated, used a couple of threatening expletives and handed me his camera. This time I made sure, on threat of a beating, I would keep their heads in. Presumably, the boy scampered back to Manchester, well pleased. Luckily I was never around the second time to witness the results.
Q: You have photographed many celebrities, politicians, aristocrats and even royalty. Who out of them all was your favourite?
Allan: That is difficult to answer because so many of them have been interesting or fun to work with. When I did a shoot in Paris with Salvador Dali, when he answered the door, he came out in the hallway and said, ”In there today is a Spanish speaking day only!” When I told him I didn’t speak Spanish he replied, ”That is why!” After the shoot, he insisted on giving me an English high tea, with cucumber sandwiches and lashings of fruit cake, at the same time babbling away in Spanish. As I left he came back out in the hallway and said in perfect English ”Come back tomorrow and in there we speak English. It will be English speaking day”.
One of my favourites was Cary Grant. We met at the Lancaster Hotel in London and afterwards he gave me lunch. When I sent him the results, by return post on Fabergé note paper, he wrote ‘You have taken the best pictures of me in twenty five years”. Looking back, I was lucky enough to meet some marvellous characters and I still do.
Sir Noel Coward was good to me, he who used a photograph I took of him in 1973 – it was in his suite at the Savoy hotel – he used it as his Christmas Card. We did another shoot in Switzerland that September, at his home in Les Avants. We did shots in different rooms but my favourite was a shot over lunch, having all downed far too many champagne cocktails. Sadly that session turned out to be the last portraits taken of him professionally. It was thanks to Coward’s photograph I met Lord Mountbatten. When Lord Mountbatten saw Noel Coward’s Christmas card, he arranged a sitting. Luckily we lived in the same street in London. He then befriended me and not only helped promote my books by attending the receptions but also fixed up a sitting with Prince Charles.
Q: Was anyone difficult to deal with?
Allan: When I photographed Mae West she hadn’t sat for a portrait in nearly twelve years. When I did the shoot it was in her apartment in Hollywood. Everything in the living room was white – the furnishings, the walls, everything. So I thought some low key lighting, with some fast film, would be good. As Mae West entered the room, dressed in a black evening gown and a white fur, I had just set up the lights. She took one look at them and turned to leave, shouting ”I don’t like the lighting!” Like Nureyev, I leapt across the room, grabbed her by the arm and garbled, ”That is because you don’t understand the lighting. This is British lighting!” I was talking English, British and rubbish all at the same time, but it did the trick. She came back into the room. She then pulled the lights as close to her face as she could, so they would be as bright as possible, bleaching out every wrinkle. It was a nightmare, as it played havoc with my exposure. Afterwards she gave me tea on a silver tray with a blueberry pie she had just baked. As I went to leave, she told me to wait while she swaggered off into her bedroom. When she returned, hanging over her arm was a selection of different coloured ties. She told me to pick one. And so I picked the white one. As she handed it to me she said ”Good – white is my favourite colour.” Then just as she closed the door, she chuckled and said, ”Remember come back and see me sometime!” Paraphrasing her own famous line ”Come up sometime and and see me!” From her film She done him wrong, with Cary Grant.
Q: Wishing to be mathematic rather than rude in any way, I suppose many of the legends you have photographed have now died?
Allan: It seems to be heading that way.
Q: Well, Leonard Bernstein, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, you have mentioned all of them. They all sat for you. Including Debbie Reynolds?
Allan: Debbie Reynolds. It is so sad how Carrie and Debbie died within twenty four hours of each other. They were both lovely characters. When I first met Debbie Reynolds, it was when Carrie Fisher brought her around to my flat. At the time Carrie was at a theatre school in London and we became friends, because someone had brought her to one of my parties. I’ll never forget it when she was telling me she was learning to tap dance. Debbie cleared all the cups and plates off my coffee table and began tap dancing on it. Then the pair of them did a time step in unison. Debbie was incredible – just like the dancing she did in ‘Singing in the Rain’ with Gene Kelly. She made no secret that she hated Gene Kelly, as he was really tough on that set to the point her feet bled but he still forced her to dance. When I photographed him he was charming. We spent at least an hour afterwards drinking in an empty bar, but then it was in in his house and he was the only one at home.
Q: I see by your studio you are still taking photographs of well known people.
Allan: Yes but you can’t really call people these days legends. They are more in the category of famous personalities or celebrities, but I wouldn’t call them legends – there is no such thing any more. I don’t just photograph famous people, I photograph all sorts of characters. From the homeless to budding actors.
Q: You live in Covent Garden, so I suppose you are real townie, or do you ever venture out into the countryside?
Allan: Well I’ve always been a keen gardener, so I appreciate being able to experience the changing seasons, which in a city isn’t quite the same. Soon, I’ll be moving near the river in Hammersmith, where I will at least have a garden. I love the countryside but I don’t think I’m brave enough to move there yet. I think I would feel cut off from humanity. So for me, Hammersmith will be the perfect compromise between rural and urban life. A few years ago, I photographed every Royal Duke in Britain. One being Gerald Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster, who sat for me on three different occasions. Our first shoot took place at Eaton Hall, his country seat. I had him lying around under trees looking very much like Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited. A few weeks later we did another session in town. Afterwards, over coffee in his study, we got chatting about photography. Then suddenly apropos of nothing, he said, ”Of course you like the countryside don’t you?” This was obviously more of a statement than a question. But already I could envisage myself stuck on a motorway for hours on end while heading for the glories of Cheshire and Eaton Hall. Only to return to London on one of those wet dreary Sunday evenings, stuck in a traffic jam staring at the windscreen wipers. So before he could elaborate further why there was a change in the subject, or worse, proffer another invitation to revisit Eaton Hall. I told him that I liked the countryside very much, but I didn’t like going there. When he asked why, I enlightened him. I told him it was because I didn’t own anything in the countryside. So for a weekend away, I would have to be yet another guest at the mercy of their host’s whims. The duke looked somewhat perplexed, and so I elaborated. I told him whenever I had been to the country for a weekend, although an unwritten law, it was nonetheless compulsory to take all the right clothes and more importantly, be on your best behaviour. So as to fit in with the other guests, no matter how dull, arrogant or uninspiring you found each other. I told him that I discovered that the grander the house, the less patronising the host was likely to be. But even so, there would be other drawbacks. These would usually arrive, at an indecently early hour, like 11pm or even earlier. When the host would politely but firmly turn to you and say something like, ”You must be tired from your long journey”. Or if that didn’t work ”You look terribly tired, it must be all this good clean country air. Perhaps it’s time we all retired”. In other words it’s time for bed. In reality, I was often still wide awake but mentioning that minor fact was like asking for a final night cap – the request would just fall on deaf ears. As with most of the grand country houses, usually the rule of the house is, ‘Early to bed, early to rise’. This is often due to the fact that the host and the other guests would be up by the crack of dawn to go shooting, hunting, riding, fishing, or whatever other antisocial behaviour they could think of doing at such an unearthly hour. So one had no choice but to go to bed, bored and alone. Usually there wouldn’t even be a television let alone any central heating come to that. So there I would be, with only myself to keep myself amused, whilst shivering under a couple of well worn blankets, until dawn broke.
Whereas at a weekend back in London, in my lovely warm flat, if I decided to retire to bed early it didn’t necessarily mean it was the end of the evening or any of the jollity. After all, the phone could still ring, with a good-looking friend offering to come and join me for a petite dangerous liaison. There could even be a knock on the front door, or perhaps a stone thrown up at the bedroom window by a passing friend, somewhat inebriated and feeling frisky. While I rattled on with my views and experiences of life in the English countryside versus the town, Gerald Westminster listened attentively but said nothing. He just quietly sipped his coffee. When at last I paused to draw breath, he took a last sip of coffee, placed his cup and saucer back onto the silver tray on the table in front of us and said nothing. He then stared at me for a moment and grinned. He leant forward and said, ”Has anyone ever told you, you are a complete philistine!” ”No” I replied, but I would take it as a compliment if they did”. He gave a broad smile and said ”Well I suppose in a way you could take it as one!”
Q: Thanks Allan. Always a pleasure.
Allan: Thanks old mate. Happy New Year to you and the Country Squires!
Allan Warren’s publications can be found here