This essay contains original research.
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Having driven everyone at RCA ‘barmy’ within three months of rehearsing in the canteen, Dennis Leigh was keen to find somewhere more suitable for the band. He had already spent his grant on a PA and microphones, and was keen to earn some extra cash.
An opportunity presented itself through contacts with friends of friends from ‘up north’ and he was drawn once again into the company of Showroom Dummies
Modreno, in Albion Yard, N1 (now part of the six-acre ‘Regent’s Quarter’ behind King’s Cross station) was just a few minutes walk from where Leigh was squatting at the time, just off the Caledonian Road. Known as the “doll factory”, it was owned by Ronnie Kirkland, a businessman from Manchester who set up the company when invited to leave his job at Rootstein’s to set up a separate company doing repairs and restoration, rather than designing and making original mannequins. Rootstein’s itself was one of the largest suppliers of mannequins in the world in the 1960s, set up in London by the late couturier Adel Rootstein in 1956.
Alongside its professional staff (which included celebrated designer and make-up artist Anne Fontenoy) Modreno employed students from the RCA for pin money painting faces onto restored fashion display models – the same kind of work that Leigh had done while studying in Blackpool.
As Anne Fontenoy recalls “A lot of the work was for department stores and boutiques that would send their mannequins for re-spray and new make-up when they got a bit tatty. They usually wanted quite natural looking, sophisticated make-up but some of the small boutiques wanted something more creative.
It was the days of glam rock, so we could be very creative with colours and designs.
I remember vividly painting the make up on the mannequins’ faces and nails, gazing at rows of shelves of “body parts” while I worked, and being shown how to make perfectly clean, soft brushes to work with.
The make-up was created with oil paint, not cosmetics, and the restored figures were supplied to top city stores like Harrods and Harvey Nichols.”
(Pure Arts. December 2014)
While painting faces in the factory, Leigh noticed a big warehouse behind the workshop, large enough for a band to rehearse. And in Kirkland – by all accounts a jovial character with an easy-going temperament – he found an aspirational model for his role as frontman and organiser:
“I loved the way he organised people, he was very human about it, not at all the big boss. Every one liked what they were doing and worked well, were happy and excited about it. That was such a change from the factories I’d worked in up North that I decided to try and run the band like that.
The money was quite good too so it meant I could do a couple of days work and keep myself alive for the rest of the time.”
(John Foxx – ZigZag, December 1978)
Dennis Leigh joined Modreno (literally “Model Renovation”) as a make-up artist, and part of the team travelling the country repairing the mannequins in large department stores. Staff would set up temporary work benches on the store rooftops and repair and spray the figures and Dennis would be half a day behind them. He would then do the makeups in a side room before travelling on to the next city.
One of this travelling team of painters was an aspiring musician from Sheffield named Adolphus (Adi) Newton. Along with Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, Newton formed The Future in Sheffield in 1977, and left them to set up industrial experimentalists Clock DVA. According to his sleevenotes for the Horology retrospective, it was from snatches of conversation with Dennis Leigh at Modreno in Sheffield that Newton confirmed his ideas as to how music could be used as a vehicle for his existential and dramatic expressionism.
The band (both as Ultravox! and Tiger Lily) rehearsed extensively in the doll factory for a period of about three years, and were most famously photographed there by Ian Dickson in the closing months of 1976, shortly after recording their first album with Island.
They would set up in the evenings, occasionally overlapping with members of Modreno staff, including manager John Hughes (who now owns Panache Display in West London and supplies mannequins to John Lewis) and his successor Frank Glover, now the owner of one most popular service companies in the USA.
I am grateful to both Hughes and Glover for the anecdotes they have supplied in response to this piece, and both will be acknowledged in the book from which this extract is taken.
Between March 1981 and October 1983 Modreno was in a state of flux and business was uncertain. It ceased trading under that name during this period, but Kirkland managed to secure a new (though short) lease and continued as a “REPAIRER and RETAILER of FASHION DISPLAY MODELS” under the name Modreno 2 until finally going into liquidation in June 1985.
During the cessation of trade, the premises was picked up a by a location scout and became the setting for a couple of scenes in popular television crime dramas.
Between 11 and 22 May 1981, London Weekend used Modreno to film a scene for Series 4 of The Professionals in which Doyle is subject to a ‘medical exam’ while being checked out as a potential hitman
The fight scene takes place surrounded by mannequins in the office, whose plastic faces add atmosphere to the shooting. Throughout the episodes, there are several other long shots of the premises, clearly showing the warehouses and distinctive entrance. My thanks to Garry Hensey for finding the source.
Following this, Modreno featured even more prominently in an episode of Thames Television’s ‘Minder’, filmed in October 1983. Arthur Daley arrives in Albion Yard to do business with the doll factory owner ‘Joe Harrison’ and a shoot out ensues in the warehouse, where several of the showroom dummies get blown apart by a shotgun!
A similar shot to the one in The Professionals (above, from the same viewpoint) shows Daley arriving in Albion Yard, unaware that the place is about to be raided by bullying thugs intent on frightening the owner into paying off his gambling debts.
It hasn’t proved possible yet to find out what went on in Albion Yard and at Modreno premises in particular in the 20 years since 1985, but the site was extensively developed into apartments and offices in the early years of the 21st Century. According to this piece by Michael Whitworth a flat in the popular area nowadays costs around £925,000.
I visited in April 2016, walking in though an open gate down a passageway to the south, behind the Premier Inn hotel on Caledonia Street. Arriving at the vehicle entrance to Albion Yard, it is clear that the property on one’s right (to the left of the driveway) has not significantly changed externally since the original warehouses were built – sensitively redeveloped to retain the character of the brickwork and windows.
Walking out through the arch and looking back in, the original etched stone remains in place on Balfe Street, describing Albion Yard as WORKS & MILLS, built in 1845. That’s the picture at the top of this post.
I did notice there are cobbles now, which were not present when John Foxx, George Cole and Martin Shaw made their way across the courtyard…
Looking around, I consider that unfortunately the Modreno premises itself, (opposite the entrance) has been replaced by new apartments, but it felt good to stand on the spot, breathe the hauntology and visualise not only the television scenes of course, but to imagine the music of Ultravox! leaking out of the warehouse windows.
is invested in
is an image lost in faded films
More recently, on his 2011 album The Shape Of Things, Foxx includes a short piece of music called Modreno which captures the essence of this place wonderfully with its arpeggiated melody and gentle ARP washes.
Thank you for reading this (ongoing) piece.
If you have any information on Modreno, or connections with Albion Yard as it used to be please do get in touch.
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