(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – May 2021)
Having spent a good deal of my teens frequenting pubs around West Birmingham during the mid 1970s, it seemed perfectly natural to progress to working in them. My ambitions were to go on the stage but a girl has to make a living, right?
As soon as I left school in 1978, and with no particular place to go, I headed for an interview with a new wine bar that had just opened in the city centre – very upmarket! Harpers occupied a large corner site near the police station and Accident and Emergency Hospital, so I figured I’d be safe walking late at night to catch the bus from outside the ‘Back of Rackham’s’.
(Rackham’s was an elegant department store occupying a whole city block on Corporation Street in Birmingham. Rumours abounded that ladies of a certain type frequented the pavements outside the back door and Mom always warned me against hanging around there. I walked many times around the ‘Back of Rackham’s’ as I grew up and never once saw anything improper going on, much to my dismay.)
With Mom’s advice to ‘look smart and mind my manners’ ringing in my ears, I borrowed her fashionable black and white dog-tooth checked suit (shortening the skirt, obviously); teaming it with my white leather cowgirl boots, white cotton lace gloves and an antique parasol.
With the audacity of youth, I strutted into Harpers one sunny October afternoon and stopped in my tracks to gaze in wonder at the fabulous fixtures and fittings. The long mahogany bar was backed by a reclaimed church façade and bevelled mirrors, which reflected the light from the enormous curved, windows. I felt very grown up.
(Opposite: Harpers interior – now Sound Bar.)
Assistant Manager Tristan must have noticed me gawping and bounded over, shook my hand and ushered me to a table. He had a big Zapata moustache and an equally big, bright smile.
“Hello Darling, you must be Andrea?”
“Yes thanks, I am.” (Going well so far)
“So, you’ve come about the position as bar maid and waitress?”
“Yes thanks, I have.”
“Have you had any previous experience?”
“No, but I learn fast!”
Tristan flashed his brilliant smile at me, touching my arm lightly:
“I love your outfit darling – especially the parasol! Wonderful!”
“So, when can you start?”
“Right now.” (Mom had said I should appear ‘keen’.)
“OK darling, I’ll just have to introduce you to the manager.
Tristan trotted away to find said manager; a tall man with a weak handshake which worried me slightly as Dad had always warned me of men with a “limp” hand shake. (“Honey, you know where you stand with a firm grip.”)
“This is Andrea – isn’t she gorgeous? She can start right away and she’s a fast learner.”
“I bet she is,” said the manager as he looked me up and down. My interview was apparently over and I was asked to start work the next morning at 7:30 am to serve continental style breakfast and coffee from eight. I was put to work on the food counter, serving cold meats and cheese, croissants and pastries and the infamous Gaggia espresso machine. This great red and chrome beast occupied the whole length of the food bar, with its hot water spouts, coffee grinders and stacks of white cups and saucers.
Getting to grips with the Beast, as it became known, wasn’t easy – it was all in the wrist action. Customers would stand behind the counter and watch as the other girls and I twisted and twirled the mighty coffee grinders and polished the spouts in time to the music; steam hissing into the steel milk jugs. We could pull quite a crowd.
Having to start work so early meant I was often the first person there with the cleaners, one of whom was spooked by rumours that Harpers was haunted. There were stories that the bar stools had been found one morning stacked on top of each other – just like the kitchen chairs in Poltergeist! The lamps behind the bar moved and footsteps could be heard running up from the basement kitchen, where people had died during WW2 as they sheltered from the bombing. I hoped against hope to see a ghost but never did – but the old building certainly had an odd atmosphere.
Reports of hauntings didn’t put punters off, as solicitors from the Law Courts next door poured into Harpers for their ‘working lunches’. I worked the mighty Beast in beige cord jeans so tight I had to lie down and zip them up using a coat hanger. I was voted ‘Gaggia Girl 1979’ – my claim to fame!
As I worked the bar one evening, Andy Gray, – the Villa footballer – came in and asked the other girls and me if we would like to come over to his new night club? I had to think about that for, oh, maybe two seconds. Imagine, the girl from Virginia who didn’t know what the Villa was, now being asked to come check out a night club owned by a Villa player! Ha – what would the lads at the God Awful school think now?
The nightclub was the most fantastic, exotic place I had ever been! Like a dark cave, it went back and back through a series of rooms beneath the railway arches at Snow Hill station. It became a new romantic club in the early ’80s with live bands such as Roxy Music and Duran Duran, but when it opened in ’79 it pumped out disco. TheHarpers staff became regulars after our shift ended; strutting our stuff fired up on Pernod and coke, great music and youth. I crawled home at 2am to sleep it off, get up at five and do it all over again
Back at Harpers the buzz was always at fever pitch as we worked to the heady disco beat on a Bose Sound System: ‘Le Freak’’, ‘Ladies Night’, ‘Instant Replay’, ‘You Make Me Feel, Mighty Real’ beneath the huge mirror balls and innovative laser shows. I loved every minute.
It was in this heady atmosphere, that I first met George Melly when he was booked to play a gig at Harpers with John Chiltern and his Feet Warmers. I was asked to go down into the staff room to serve drinks to the band and was introduced to Mr. Melly, who was sitting with his large frame overextending the rather small chair; resplendent in a snappy pinstriped suit with wide lapels and a large snap brimmed fedora hat. He smiled his languid smile and said something like:
“So, my dear, how kind of you to bring old George a drink.”
As the lights in the bar dimmed to a spotlight, Mr. Melly sashed onto the floor with a wicked gleam in his eye and a whisky in his hand as he belted out Bessie Smith’s ‘Kitchen Man,’ which was rich with lewd innuendo.
I became a big fan, following his gigs from London’s Ronnie Scotts to the Malvern Theatre, where he had to stop the show and tell the be-jewelled, staid audience to clap on the off-beat: “This is Jazz!” he growled.
I saw George Melly several more times, including an appearance he made on BBC Pebble Mill’s ‘Six Fifty-five Special’ – a surreal experience. I was invited to meet him in the Green Room, where he sat in his trade mark Zoot suit and snap brim Fedora before he went on air. Whether he remembered me or not is doubtful, but he spoke to me as though I was his best friend:
“Hello my dear, how kind of you to come to see old George.” He still twinkled.
With him was Kenneth Williams, who was staring up the nostrils of 70s actor and singer David Soul, giving him an impromptu lesson on how to speak with an English accent:
“Enunciate, dear boy, e-nun-ciate.”
I had just witnessed a Master Class.
Before I left Harpers, we had a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party with a ‘Glamorous Hollywood’ theme. All staff were expected to do a ‘turn’ and having recently had my permed hair cut into a short crop, I went along dressed as Liza Minnelli as ‘Sally Bowles’ from “Cabaret” in bowler hat, black waistcoat, fishnets and towering stiletto’s. Grabbing a bar stool, I did my best, although I couldn’t for the life of me bend backwards over that stool! My brother Dale tagged along wearing a full suit of armour. Unable to sit down, he stood all evening with cigarette smoke curling through the grid on his visor.
The drag acts were outstanding that evening, including ‘Fred and Ginger’ who thrilled us with their rendition of ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘Rita Hayworth’ slinking across the floor to ‘Put the Blame on Mame’. We danced until dawn, seeing in 1979 in considerable style and with heavy hangovers!
Oh to be eighteen again!
(Copyright: Andrea Burn May 1st 2021)