Monthly Archives: September 2014


There are many sites of pilgrimage for Sherlock fans in London (The Criterion, St Bart’s, Baker St), but one that is often overlooked is The Langham Hotel, which sits in splendid grandeur opposite the BBC in Portland Place. A regular haunt of Arthur Conan Doyle, not only does it feature in A Scandal in Bohemia, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax and The Sign of Four, it was also the venue for a memorable dinner which, arguably, ensured Sherlock became the iconic character he is today.

9. The Sign of Four

       It was on 30th August, 1889, that Conan Doyle accepted an invitation to dine with Joseph Marshall Stoddart, Managing Editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, who was in town looking for UK writers for the US publication, and Oscar Wilde. It was, Conan Doyle, later said, ‘a magical evening’, and from it came The Sign of Four, Holmes’s second outing, and, from Wilde, the not inconsiderable The Picture of Dorian Gray. (There are those who claim the playfulness in some of the Holmes stories was a direct result of Conan Doyle meeting the legendarily witty Wilde.)

7. The Sign of Four

       As Nicholas Utechin, historian for the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, points out, at this juncture Holmes was a moribund character. He had appeared in A Study in Scarlet in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887, but it garnered scant attention, and it was by no means certain he would appear again. ‘The Langham dinner revived a career that was all but comatose,’ says Utechin.

       Last Monday, the 29th of September, Chris King, Head Chef of Roux at the Landau restaurant in The Langham recreated (or rather re-booted) the type of menu the men would have enjoyed at dinner, using a Victorian menu from the archives as a template. I was fortunate enough to be invited. The lunch included a beautifully intense consommé with shaved turnips and seared foie gras; dover sole in vermouth, tarragon and shimeji (mushrooms possibly not on the original list); rib of beef from the trolley and cheese with straw, praline and dandelion (see below).


Original Victorian Langham menu... with ads...

Original Victorian Langham menu… with ads…

Between the beef and the cheese was a surprise course – a chance to view the original first page of the manuscript of what was then called The Sign of The Four (the second definite article being dropped later). It, famously, opens with a description of Holmes and his notorious seven per cent solution:

The first manuscript page of ‘The Sign of Four’ by Arthur Co

       This precious relic has been loaned by the University of California Audrey Geisel University Library at the University of California in San Diego. Sadly, the rest of the m/s is in the hands of a private collector, but that one page of meticulous, very lightly corrected handwriting will be on display in the Museum of London’s “Sherlock: The Man Who Never lived And Will Never Die” (£12/£10) exhibition. This installation covers all aspects of Sherlock’s career, from the writings to Gillette on stage, silent films, right up to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Belstaff coat, and runs from October 17-until April 2015. See 

 10. The Sign of Four







On November 18 a piece of music will be premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that owes its existence to a lunch I once had with Jeffrey Bernard (below).


A few months ago, I received two phone calls, a day apart, both concerning Soho. One was from the Groucho Club, asking if I had any anecdotes to contribute to a compendium it was compiling for its 30th anniversary. The other was from Guy Barker, saying he had a hankering to write a piece based on Soho for the BBC Concert Orchestra (he is Associate Composer there). However, he was staring at a blank page (well, actually a screen of the Sibelius programme) and needed a framework. Did I have any ideas for a skeleton he could flesh out with his music? We have done this before, with dZf, a re-working of the Magic Flute, and last year That Obscure Hurt, a Henry James/Britten-inspired piece. I give Guy a narrative; he builds his music around it.

Both phone calls, it seemed to me, could involve a story told to me by Jeff when, back in 1987, I interviewed him over a rather disastrous lunch at the back of the Groucho Club brasserie, when he fell asleep in the soup – the only time I have ever had to save a man from death by pea and ham. Anyway, he described an incident involving himself, the Colony Room, Francis Bacon & Co, a window cleaner’s ladder and more profanity than can be repeated here.

I wrote up the story for the Groucho and then met with Guy and said I would like to make that story at least part of the ‘Soho Symphony’ as we began to call it. I talked over other locations and tall tales we could include. I ended up with the task of combining Bar Italia, Mozart, Ronnie Scott’s, Archer St, a serial killer, the French, the Protestant church on Soho Square, Pizza Express, 20th Century Fox, ‘Fifis’ (the French and Belgian working girls of the 1950s), all-nighters at the Flamingo Club, late night drinking at Gerry’s, Harrison Marks, Paul Raymond, The Black Gardenia and, of course, that Groucho lunch, among many others.

And so, I wrote a short story that is (very, very loosely) inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses (but, you know, more readable), about a boy failing to meet a girl and spending 24 hours wandering around the streets of Soho, among its ghosts, its music and its memories, and meeting Jeff with his ladder. To paraphrase the producer/writer Kip Hanrahan, I gave this piece of pressed tin to Guy Barker who proceeded to turn it into rolled gold.

It will be played at an ‘orchestral jazz’ concert – although Guy’s piece does not feature his usual jazz band, it is for the BBC C.O. only – featuring the symphony, plus the excellent saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes, and the vocal legend that is Norma Winstone, at the QEH on November 18, as part of the London Jazz Festival (see