Remembering The Harcourt

Note: this is a blog I wrote in 2016 about the much-missed Harcourt pub in Marylebone, London.

Lowculture’s recent brilliant post about schlager divas mentions the ridiculous London schlager scene (the ultimate lowculture subculture) that emerged in the mid-2000s. At its heart was The Harcourt pub, which shut its doors in 2014. As it prepares to reopen as “a new elegant restaurant/cocktail bar” later this year, it’s unlikely to play host to raucous Mello nights again (never say never, of course). Back in 2012, Göteborgs-Posten newspaper sent reporter Lisa Thanner to The Harcourt to document a typical Melodifestivalen viewing, and her photos are probably the only ‘official’ record of what we used to get up to there.

If New York punk had CBGB’s and Manchester rave had the Haçienda, London schlager had The Harcourt.

 

The Harcourt was London’s “Swedish pub”. Swedish pubs don’t even exist in Sweden, so The Harcourt was a an English boozer (and most definitely a London boozer) that offered the community of Marylebone’s ‘Little Sweden’ a place to congregate.

 

The Harcourt’s ‘Swedish Lounge’, located down the back to the right of the bar, was the only part of the pub’s decor that contained anything relating to Sweden in any meaningful way. With a small soft seating area, a bit of pine and some Swedish advertising posters, it was the world’s most half-hearted attempt to create the IKEA brand of coziness. But it was also pretty much perfect for the surroundings.

To be fair to The Harcourt, most of its bar staff did come from Sweden. It was always funny to hear one of the Brit schlager fans trying to order an “öl” in Swedish as the confused barmaid/man got him to repeat it at least twice before the word ‘Fosters’ came into play. They served a lot of Fosters.

The thing about the bar staff was that they worked in a local boozer that showed sports on the TV (including Swedish ice hockey, of course) and catered to a largely professional office-worker crowd. This was until someone realised that the ice hockey-receiving satellite dish on the roof was pointing in the same direction as the Melodifestivalen stage. And that’s when, on Saturday nights for six weeks each winter, The Harcourt became London’s biggest pop-up gay bar. The barmaid on the left is wearing the expression of shock (and slight awe) that most of the pub’s staff had on a Melodifestivalen night. I’m not kidding.

 

The reason that people are looking in two different directions is because there was no full screen in The Harcourt. The TV to the left, right next to the main entrance, was slightly bigger than the one to the right. The one on the right also had some tuning issues (Britain was fully digital, but The Harcourt was not), so there was some slight ghosting on the screen (we all thought Sanna Nielsen was a duo). However, the TV on the right was in a warmer position. If you stood in the middle, you could alternate between TVs and warmth. But you also had to make constant way for people who actually wanted to drink and those who needed the toilet. Schlager is tough, and we knew it.

There’s no remaining evidence of the toilets, and I only ever experienced the gents. But they really were the gents-est gents you’d ever pissed in. A 1950s public convenience would have been more comfortable. The hand dryer, produced some time in the early 80s (possibly earlier), would let out only a soft waft of heat. It would have been quicker to wave one hand at a time over a candle. There was a touch of Sweden here though, in the form of a little wall-mounted tray marked “SNUS HERE”. The used snus pouches were always disposed of in the urinal gutter, never in the tray.

 

The picture above sums up a typical Melodifestivalen night (no one ever called it ‘Mello’ back then) in The Harcourt. Swedish expats who would never dream of spending Saturday night watching the show at home would flock in to stand alongside British gays. The ratio of Swedish women to British gays changed regularly, and towards the end it was mainly the Brits in attendance. However, reactions always stayed the same. The Swedish punters always cheered the familiar names and laughed at the jokes, while the British punters were only there for the schlager divas (see the Lowculture post mentioned at the start). A Linda Bengtzing performance would provoke huge cheers, while a Carola appearance would cause meltdown. The Swedish viewers never understood this, or ever wanted to. In the middle of all this, at least two people would just want a bloody drink from the bar. Look at that man’s frustration.

 

This picture was either taken before the show started (that’s the right-hand dodgy TV switched off) and completely posed, or these two are listening to some of the schlager compilation CDs I used to demand were played following the show. The Harcourt had one CD with the same tracks, so each week without fail, I would turn up with a new one. To their credit, they usually did as I instructed, and even let me operate the CD player when they couldn’t be bothered to deal with it. The landlady once asked me to DJ at a summer barbecue, and insisted on giving me her number. It never happened – most definitely for the best.

About an hour after the show had ended, she or her husband would emerge to take their Basset Hounds for their constitutional. The hounds never batted one of their heavy eyelids at the scene in that bar.

My two favourite members of staff were barmaid Sara and then-manager Martin. Martin was never a schlager fan. You could tell. And when you got to know him, he would tell you he hated it all with just a shake of his head. I always knew my music would get played when Martin was working. His girlfriend Sara absolutely loved the pub’s complete change of character, though. I once insisted on taking her for a dance. It was a sad day when they returned to Sweden. I went to The Harcourt a couple of days before it closed down, and Martin and Sara – now engaged – were also there paying their respects, so it clearly meant something to all of us. I didn’t play any schlager for Martin, though.

 

While I’m very happy that these pictures exist, we did have to have words with the photographer at one point during this particular evening. She stood right in front of the TV to take a picture just as Charlotte Perrelli was about to launch into The Girl. “But I’m a journalist!” she said. I can’t remember our exact response, but it was something very close to “We haven’t paid six quid each to look at you when SHE is on stage”.

The Harcourt, after realising how popular the Melodifestivalen nights were, decided to sell tickets. £6 was the highest it got, if I remember correctly, but it did entitle you to a raffle ticket that would give you a bottle of beer (always 275ml) or a glass (small) of wine. By this stage, the bar manager was Czech Marek, who went on to transfer the title of ‘Swedish Pub’ to the nearby Duke Of York (which is still going and showing Mello). His face at the sight of the hoards descending was a powerful, visual expression of confusion combined with tired resignation.

 

The Harcourt has gone now. The Duke of York shows Mello (and ice hockey if you fancy it) [1], while the Swedish Church across the road is now packed almost to capacity for its Mello screenings. Plus the church has a small bar (with card machine – no 80p charge either, unlike The Harcourt) and shows the show on a BIG SCREEN. In addition, our broadband speeds are marginally better than a few years ago, and SVT’s online presence is excellent – so there’s little need to leave the house if it’s raining.

But I miss The Harcourt. It was a funny place – welcoming one week, and completely unwelcoming another – and was certainly not the sort of place you’d choose for a Saturday night out. However, purely through necessity (its expensive subscription to SVT World) did pub and punter come together for some brilliant, and always unique, evenings.


[1] Sadly, the Duke has also closed down now. No one knows what happened to the schlager-satellite dish, if anyone knows do tell me.

Pictures: Lisa Thanner/Göteborgs-Posten

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