A colourful life

EPSON MFP image

With its bright paintwork, eccentric plasterwork and front garden overflowing with flowers, the home of former Loampit Hill resident Mr Pink was a much-loved local landmark. Helena Appio tells our writer how she came to make a short film about its owner

Words by Colin Richardson; Photo by Lianne Harris

When I was young, growing up in Lewisham, there was one place that was so mind-bogglingly exotic, so other-worldly, that every time I passed it I could only stare in silent wonder.

It turns out that I was not alone. Countless numbers of people – and maybe you’re one of them – have gone past and wondered. All except one person, that is. Helena Appio stopped and knocked on the door.

Close to the top of Loampit Hill, on the corner of Somerset Gardens, stands a house quite unlike any other in the neighbourhood. It is a large, red-brick Victorian mansion. It has a flight of stone steps up to the front door in front of which is an ample porch, its stone roof supported by several sturdy columns.

So far, so standard-issue. But then the eye is caught by the corner tower, which rises a full storey above the rest of the house and things take a different turn. You start to notice the plasterwork. It is as if a pastry chef, driven mad by years of decorating wedding cakes, has run amok with a giant piping bag full of liquid plaster.

Swags of grape-laden vines are draped around the massive windows. Strange faces peer out from the foliage. A thousand flowers bloom under the eaves. Scrolls and twirls and curlicues run riot. Rococo would be one word for it.

But what made this already remarkable house so utterly arresting was that someone had attacked the eccentric plasterwork with a paintbrush, a brush dipped in shades of pink and blue and green and red, which brought it to the fore in eye-popping detail.

The same hand also painted the columns in vertical candy stripes and the steps to the front door a bright, pillar-box red. In monochrome 1970s Lewisham this house was full-on Technicolor. And the person who made it so was a truly extraordinary man by the name of Brenton Samuel Pink.

In the late 1990s, Helena Appio, a producer and director of documentaries at the BBC, decided to strike out on her own and try her hand at independent film-making. Her first project, for Channel 4, was The Windrush Years, 12 three-minute portraits of people who came from the Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and 1971.

Then she saw the Arts Council was inviting submissions for short films about local artists and she wondered who might fit the bill.

“At that point,” Helena recalls, “I was living in Brockley, in Montague Avenue, and Mr Pink lived literally minutes away. I passed his house every day and I thought, ‘Who lives here?’ so I went and knocked on the door.

“He opened the door about two inches wide and peered out and said hello. I said, ‘I wonder if I could talk to you about making a film’, and he said, ‘Come back in a week or so.’

“I went back and took a bottle of rum with me. He opened the door a little wider this time and took the rum and said to come back later. I went back a third time and he let me in. He started talking and I realised he was very interesting, an amazing character. Then we went back and filmed.”

The result is a touching and, at times, elegiac 15-minute film, A Portrait of Mr Pink. In it, Mr P explains that he was born in Jamaica in 1925 and came to the UK on July 11, 1957, just shy of his 32nd birthday.

He had already established himself as a singer and musician, but although he continued to perform and make recordings, he spent his working life as a refuse collector and street cleaner for Lewisham Council.

He loved his job, he says in the film. On the day that he retired – August 28, 1988 (he is very precise about dates) – he was, he says, “very upset, terribly upset. If I was younger,” he adds, laughing, “I’d go back there right away, right away.”

Mr Pink bought the house on Loampit Hill in 1967 and lived there until he died last year. He seems to have shared it with his wife and eight children, most of whom had left by the time the film was made.

He devoted much of his time to putting his stamp on the place. “I like beauty and I like prettiness,” he says in the film. “When I just bought it, well, it was not beautiful. But since I take it over and added myself towards it, I developed it to have a lightness. My additions make a difference, brighten it up.

“I’ve created a part of Jamaica here. Some like this house and some may not like it, I don’t know. But I know a lot of people like it and I like it myself.”

In the film, Mr Pink points proudly at a large plaster face, with long, flowing tresses, which adorns the front of the porch. He thought it ugly, so he set about “prettying it up and chiselling it down”.

He painted the face a pinky brown, the tresses sea green like seaweed and added a blue moustache and beard. “It looks like Jesus,” he says approvingly.

He continued the religious theme inside, where the colour scheme was, if anything, even more startling. A framed copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper was hung on a mustard yellow wall.

Wonky plaster mouldings had been applied to the bedroom walls by Mr P’s very own trowel, creating an intricate and slightly bonkers latticework, the spaces in between painted with bright colours so that the whole resembled a somewhat woozy stained-glass window.

Outside, Mr Pink created a beautiful garden that was intended as a reminder of Jamaica. He was often seen tending to it while wearing one of his many hats, some of which were adorned with greenery. “I always wear a hat,” says Mr Pink to camera. “It makes me feel good and feel lovely.”

Mr Pink created his dream of Jamaica against a less than dreamy backdrop. In 1977, riots broke out on Lewisham High Street when a march by the racist National Front (NF) was confronted by the Anti-Nazi League.

In local elections that year for the Greater London Council, the NF took a third of the vote in Lewisham. The following year, Mr Pink himself, returning from a “fantastic” holiday in Jamaica, was detained for some hours at Heathrow airport.

“It made me feel very sick, very dirty, very nasty, very ugly, not a pretty, happy person at the time at all,” he says in the film. He never went abroad again.

And while, arguably, Lewisham and the UK as a whole have changed for the better in so many ways since then, for people of the Windrush generation like Mr Pink, it seems that much has stayed the same.

Today, a year after Mr Pink’s death, his house is a shadow of its former glorious self. The colours have faded, the paint is peeling, the garden is unkempt. Jesus has lost his blue moustache and beard and now looks more like Ann Widdecombe. There is something of Bates Motel about the place; it is more English gothic than Caribbean rococo.

For all that, it remains an arresting sight. People still stop and look and wonder. The magic that Mr Pink wove has not entirely dissipated.

Earlier this year, Helena was contacted by two people who had heard about her film and were interested in seeing it. So she posted it on Facebook “in memory of Mr Pink, who died last year”. Then she went to bed and thought no more of it.

The next morning, she checked her phone and said to her husband, Tom, “That’s weird. I’ve got an awful lot of Facebook notifications.” The film had gone viral. It went from 1,000 views first thing to 4,000 after breakfast. By lunchtime, it was over 6,000.

“It just continued,” says Helena. “I think it’s now 530,000.” And that’s just the Facebook viewings. After Time Out put it up on their website and Helena posted it to YouTube, “there were something like a million views in about a month”.

“It had obviously touched people,” Helena says. “It was really lovely.”

Watch A Portrait of Mr Pink on YouTube at tinyurl.com/mrpinkfilm. The Windrush Years, directed by Helena Appio and Petal Felix, can be viewed on Vimeo at tinyurl.com/windrushfilm

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