September 20th, 2023 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

If I believed in ghosts I might find Islington Green a suitable starting point for a thesis. Trendy, even chic it may be nowadays but in the seventeenth century it was used as a plague pit  –  a little-known fact unlikely to trouble those queuing outside the Screen on the Green, which has always put on interesting programmes.

I saw To Have And Have Not There in 1971; Bogart and Bacall falling in love on Martinique. Ernest Hemingway might not have recognised the plot from his novel but it had Hoagy Carmichael tickling the ivories in a smoky night club and you can’t ask for more than that.

The last bet I had in Islington  –  I don’t visit London so often these days  –  was  a Tote place only bet on Who Dares Wins  –  good name for a horse, good motto for a gambler  –  at Huntingdon. I recall there was a single betting shop, a William Hill, on that part of Upper Street close to the Angel and I was paid out at 2/1 for third but I was thinking about Archie Rice.

Archie the horse was quite successful over a period of time, starting with William Jarvis, then winning four Wolverhampton races in just over six weeks for Tom Keddy as 2011 became 2012; a spell between the flags, on to Jimmy Frost and still quick enough to win a handicap hurdle for him. He’s done it all, old Archie, unlike his human counterpart played by Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer.

A few lifetimes ago there was a pub called the Lansdowne Arms on Islington Green. The music-hall devotee Sam Vagg, who sang as Sam Collins but made his early money as a chimney sweep, took it over and turned it into Collins Music Hall. All the great names  –  Marie Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, George Robey among them  –  performed there and Ed Glinert writes in his wonderful London Compendium that Olivier came to see Collins when researching his role as the struggling, all but washed-up music hall entertainer Archie Rice. If that is so, Sam must have been very nearly a hundred years old.

The building itself was destroyed by fire at around the time the film came out in 1960 and a Waterstones occupies the space now. The Entertainer is a sad, some would say bleak film  –  wintry seaside towns (much of it was shot in Morecambe), the inevitable erosion of a peculiarly English way of life, a beaten man looking for a last hurrah before an uncaring audience. It gave Joan Plowright her first big break and saw Albert Finney make his debut. And it was directed by Tony Richardson, who was in a rich vein of form at the time and directed A Taste Of Honey, hopelessly dated now but memorable for Rita Tushingham’s sad, cheeky face.

A Taste Of Honey reminded me of Salford and Fred Done starting out with a single shop. He’s got a few more now and pops up on our television screens, a veritable voice of reason, a grandad who’s scooped up all the chips but can still teach the little ‘uns how to shuffle the pack. It’s not quite Peter Finch in Sunday Bloody Sunday but, as pieces to camera go, it’s not bad. Salford has made it big, as well. Home to the BBC, no less, and no longer the Spinners’ Dirty Old Town, where we met our love by the factory wall and the funeral procession made sure Albert’s dad, a bookie like Fred, had a last, fleeting glimpse of Manchester racecourse.

Manchester in the rain and sometimes the fog. Operatic Society didn’t mind it. He unshipped Kenny Gethin at the start and completed a full circuit of the track as a warm-up before winning the 1959 November Handicap from 48 rivals. 48! O tempora! O mores!  If Fred had been around we’d probably have got a quarter the odds a place on the first five. And when Operatic Society turned his attention to Brighton and made one schoolboy very happy, he may well have brought a smile to Archie’s face, as well.

So I like to think, anyway.