Riots and Rachman to 'new reality': the Notting Hill effect

One of the capital's most sought-after districts is to star in a fly-on-the-wall TV show. Andy McSmith reflects on the mystique of W11
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Notting Hill has hardly lacked for attention over the years. From tomorrow night, it will be back in the limelight, as television viewers become flies on the wall, peering into the daily lives of people who live and work in the fashionable London suburb.

Channel 4, whose main reality television output for the past decade has come from the Big Brother house (initially in Bow, east London, but more recently at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire), is swivelling its cameras west with a "docu-soap" set in London W11. Each week from tomorrow, Seven Days will peer into the lives of people living or working in Notting Hill, including Mr Lee, battling to keep his business going, Laura, the daughter of the celebrity chef Aldo Zilli, an unemployed musician and rapper, an interior designer, an estate agent, and a mother of three.

"We are not putting boundaries around them, real or figurative," said Channel 4's Simon Dickson. "Nobody's ever done anything like this before. There's absolutely no guarantee that it's going to work but it's going to be an adventure."

Whether or not Seven Days, for which filming will take place just a few days before each episode is broadcast, offers the red-top fodder generated by the ream by Big Brother, whose departure has left a big hole in the schedules for Channel 4, remains to be seen. But the real star of the new reality show is Notting Hill itself. It is a district that in recent years has become uniquely emblematic of British life, embodying both dramatic social change and enduring social inequalities.

Houses in its poorer streets can be bought for what you would pay every year in rent for an apartment in the most desirable areas. In Lansdowne Crescent, by Kensington Park, there is a six-bedroom house on offer for nearly £7m. That is not unusual for this particular pleasant street, where the average price of houses sold in the past two years is just under £5m. Yet only a few minutes' walk away there is Queensdale Crescent, by Avondale, where the average price is under £210,000.

When the mega-rich banker or rock star from the Kensington end of Notting Hill goes to get his hair cut in Portobello Road, it is quite possible that the person wielding the scissors will be a near-neighbour, living in a council house, earning not much above the national minimum wage.

It seems from the records that it was always thus. When Charles Dickens launched the magazine Household Words in 1850, one of the first areas it featured was Notting Hill. "In a neighbourhood studded thickly with elegant mansions, viz Bayswater and Notting Hill, in the parish of Kensington, is a plague spot, scarcely equalled for insalubrity by any other in London," the contributor W H Wills complained.

Fast-forward a century or so, and the unsavoury reputation remained. Following the Conservative government's abolition of rent controls in 1957, a particularly ruthless landlord named Peter Rachman began buying up property in Notting Hill, forcing tenants out, and reletting the flats to immigrants arriving from Caribbean islands, who were forced to live in squalid, overcrowded conditions and pay extortionate rents.

The slums were some of the worst in the Western world, but, unfortunately, many of Notting Hill's older residents did not see the incomers as victims of exploitation, but as unfamiliar and unwelcome intruders. By mid-1958, it had become hazardous to be on your own in the streets of Notting Hill if your face was not white. Gangs of Teddy boys made a sport of harassing blacks and smashing up their cafés.

A summer of rioting followed, as white gangs, egged on by members of a resurgent fascist movement, attacked black people on the streets. Tony Benn, who lived in Holland Park, walked through the battle zone on 1 September, and noted in his diary: "It was extremely sinister to see everyone standing out in front of their doors in the hot sultry air just waiting for something to happen. The crowds of young people gathering on street corners indicated the outbreak of some new attack."

Yet the riots proved to be a catalyst that, eventually, turned Notting Hill into the funky, cosmopolitan neighbourhood that has attracted Channel 4. The process began with street parties featuring steel bands, modelled on Caribbean carnivals. The first Notting Hill carnival took to the streets in August 1964. By 1976, it was attracting 150,000 people. It is now Europe's biggest carnival.

Meanwhile, one side effect of the affair between the Defence minister, John Profumo, and the prostitute Christine Keeler was that, when the tabloid press began looking into it, they learnt that Notting Hill was where louche members of London's middle class went to buy drugs. They also uncovered Rachman's activities, which became a national scandal.

The area became a draw for young whites who wanted to live an alternative lifestyle, and Notting Hill and its street names started cropping up in the lyrics of rock songs. On the B-side of Donovan's 1966 hit "Mellow Yellow" was a song about how "in the Portobello I met a fella with a cane umbrella"; in 1974, a traffic-conscious Leo Sayer warned: "Everybody knows down Ladbroke Grove you have to leap across the street..."

By 1999, the appeal had become global. Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, brought American tourists flocking to see the original location, and there must be millions around the world (including many in the UK) whose image of London is still coloured by that film.

Around the same time, the area grew popular with the political classes. Peter Mandelson bought a home there in 1996 (helped by a £373,000 loan from Geoffrey Robinson that led to his 1998 resignation), while the subsequent rise of the "Notting Hill Tories" has closely shadowed the rise of David Cameron.

And now here come the television cameras again. There are mixed feelings about this celebrity among the shopkeepers and stallholders along the Portobello Road. Those who specialise in expensive goods and memorabilia naturally welcome the visitors with dollars and euros to spend, but others, who provide services for the local community, fear that rising costs will drive them out of business.

John Lee, aged 47, who opened the Children of Vision hairdressing salon in Portobello Road in 1999, is now struggling to keep the business afloat. His rent has risen by a third in 10 years, but he says he cannot put up the price of a haircut to match his rising costs because it would drive his customers away.

"Tourists don't come here to get their hair cut. They buy cheap rubbish and throw litter in the street. It's a false economy," he claimed. "I'm doing everything I can to keep hold of my business. It's a fantastic business. I've got great clients. But lots of men my age find it very difficult. Businesses are closing. You get no help. Only huge companies can afford the rents being charged here. Local businesses are being ground down. Everybody's moving away. It's a great community. It's a shame it's being destroyed."

Others agree with his verdict that there is a unique community in Notting Hill, without sharing his grim prognosis. Emma Smith, the mother of a two-year-old called Marcella, moved into the Ladbroke Grove end of the neighbourhood two years ago. "There's a very, very wealthy part of Notting Hill which I don't know so well," she said. "You have got to have millions to live there. It's very glossy. But at the other end, it's very, very lively. There are a lot of Spanish speakers, a lot of Portuguese, a lot of Moroccans."

Maria Gonzales, a 25-year-old student from northern Spain, moved in two years ago, to improve her English. "It's affordable," she said. "If you want an expensive restaurant, you can find it. If you want a hamburger, you can find it."

Mike Williams arrived from the Caribbean in 1976 and has watched the area gentrify. He is now the manager of a boutique called One of a Kind, where the stars buy vintage clothes. On the wall behind the counter you see pictures of customers – Kate Moss, Winona Ryder, Yoko Ono and Julian Lennon, Victoria Beckham, Madonna. The most expensive item in the store (which is not on display) is a 1960s dress valued at £70,000.

"I've seen a lot of changes, all for the better, really," he said. "Putting up all the CCTV cameras has helped. A lot of the snipers have gone somewhere else. Every weekend, from morning to night, it's a great atmosphere."

His co-worker Mike Morales moved to Notting Hill as an 18-year-old in 1996. "It's a fabulous little eccentric area," he said. "It's got a lot of character. Come six o'clock, it kind of empties of tourists and leaves all the local people, and what's good is that everybody knows everybody. That's what makes Notting Hill funky and trendy."

Divided, desirable and now, in the words of Channel 4's deputy head of documentaries, Simon Dickson: "The biggest reality set in the history of television." It remains to be seen if the fly-on-the-wall experiment will work. But it seems that, more than ever, Notting Hill has an identity that transcends its postcode.

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