On a recent Sunday evening, the Shaftesbury Theatre in Soho was packed to the gills with a crowd celebrating a dramatic tribute to a landlord: the best kind of landlord, the landlord of a pub. And not just any old pub, but the pub he ruled with an iron fist for 63 years until his retirement in 2006. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Norman Balon, sole proprietor of the legendary Coach and Horses. ‘London’s rudest landlord’, as he was known; it said so on the matchboxes.
On for one night only, Norman Balon – It’s All True was a play written by the person who took over the lease, Alastair Choat. It followed in the footsteps of Keith Waterhouse’s Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, which in 1989 established a precedent for West End plays set in this pub.
The pub itself has certainly been the stage for plenty of real-life drama. I first stepped warily into the Coach in 1984; I was 21. I had graduated with a useless degree. It was time to pick up some life experience. Some people travel the world. Some embark on careers. Some run away to join the circus. And some… go to the pub. But not any old pub.
A year before, my best friend (he still is) had recommended I read The Spectator. I curled my leftie lip. ‘Give me one good reason,’ I said. He showed me Jeffrey Bernard’s column, ‘Low Life’. For those of you too young to have read it in its first incarnation, this was a weekly (when Bernard was sober enough to write it) chronicle of the exploits of a small group of Soho wasters, passing the time from the moment the bolts slid back at 11 a.m. to the moment they were ejected, 12 hours (plus drinking-up time) later.
There were two dead hours in the afternoon when the pub closed, during which time the customers wandered Soho like lost souls, decamping either to the Colony Club or one of the even less salubrious dives which were the only way to be served alcohol in the afternoon. Around