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Simone Lahbib – Nite Life During Wartime

Simone Lahbib has come a long way since she posed for a photograph on the stairs of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh one night way back in the 1980s. There she is, the then twenty-something future star of prime-time TV shows such as Bad Girls, Monarch of the Glen and Wire in the Blood, perched in front of the window sporting a little black dress and a hat of plastic fruit, looking every inch the girl about town. The trade union sign championing the NHS beside her is the perfect counterpoint. In an unemployment-riven era when Lahbib’s generation were terminally skint, a revolt into style made politics and partying after-hours bed-fellows in the same just cause of creating a scene.

Only now, however, has the black and white picture of the Stirling-born actress made her a cover star. The cover in question is that of Nite Life During Wartime: Edinburgh and beyond 1980-90. This second of photographer and writer Innes Reekie’s occasional series of pocket-sized photo-books archiving a past gone mad is launched in an edition published by Jeremy Thoms’ Stereogram imprint at the capital’s Stills photography gallery next week.

Reekie’s previous volume, Sometimes Pleasureheads Must Burn: The Birthday Party and beyond 1982-89, also published by Stereogram, focused on Nick Cave’s former band captured on a trip to Edinburgh. The follow-up, the Talking Heads referencing Nite Life During Wartime, immortalises a moment during roughly the same period when Edinburgh was brought to life by its own characters.

Edinburgh contemporaries of Lahbib included former Josef K singer Paul Haig, Associates vocalist Billy MacKenzie and future front-woman of Garbage, Shirley Manson. High on a post-punk anything goes mentality, they had stars in their eyes and ideas and attitude aplenty. There were bands to be formed and parties to be crashed, with the social whirl moving from Edinburgh Wine Bar on Hanover Street, to the City Café on Blair Street and the Hoochie Coochie club in Tollcross.

“I have such great memories of the old days in Edinburgh,” says the now London-based Lahbib. “I was there the other day, and me and a friend had a wander around, and reminisced about the flats we’d shared and the places we went to, and all the second-hand shops we used to go to. All the clothes I’m wearing in the pictures in the book are all second-hand, partly because that’s all we could afford, but partly because everything then was about being original, and being creative.”

 Also featured in Nite Life During Wartime are images of dancer and choreographer Michael Clark captured during the Edinburgh International Festival run of his ballet, I Am Curious Orange, featuring The Fall. There are shots too of Edinburgh post-punk irregulars such as Boots for Dancing, Fini Tribe and So You Think You’re a Cowboy, as well as poet Paul Reekie. Beyond Edinburgh after dark, there are moody images of the now demolished Leith Central Station, plus photographs from Reekie’s adventures in eastern Europe after fleeing the UK’s own hard-line reactionary forces.

“It was the height of Thatcher’s Britain,” says Lahbib, “and it’s really interesting that in the picture I’m standing next to the sign, because as I’ve got older, saving the NHS is one of the things I’ve become passionate about. So even though I probably wasn’t that politically aware at the time, it’s still had an effect.”

Lahbib originally trained as a dancer, and spent four years at ballet school. By the time the image adorning the cover of Nite Life During Wartime was taken, she had already made her onscreen debut in the title role of Cary Parker’s piece of big-screen 1980s Glasgow whimsy, The Girl in the Picture. Although the part was small, it gave her the taste for something more.

Rather than capitalise on her film experience straight away, Lahbib decided to learn her craft, and studied drama at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh. Early stage work included Wildcat’s production of Oh, What a Lovely War, with stints on Taggart before she moved to London. Once there, she was cast as a regular in long-running London-region only TV soap, London Bridge. From there she moved into cop show Thief Takers before appearing alongside Forbes Masson and Stephen McCole in Skins creator Brian Elsley’s mini-series, The Young Person’s Guide to Being a Rock Star.

Lahbib moved into the mainstream by way of three series of Bad Girls, before eventually joining Monarch of the Glen and appearing opposite Robson Green in Wire in the Blood. Lahbib also ran a performing school for young people. This led to her founding a children’s’ acting agency after one of her charges, Dylan McKiernan, was cast in Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake. Lahbib’s now thirteen-year-old daughter, Skye, meanwhile, has appeared in several series’ of Grantchester, playing her mum’s former co-star Robson Green’s daughter. Lahbib also co-runs her own producing house, Contro Vento, with her husband, actor Raffaella Degruttola, with several films under their belt.

Now back acting and producing full time, with a number of projects due for release, for Lahbib, Nite Life During Wartime is a step into a time and a place when she and her generation were on the cusp of making it.

“Going round all my old haunts and seeing Innes’ pictures has really taken me back,” she says. “There were all these people having fun, having adventures and doing these really creative things that were about to take off. Innes was a part of that, but he was also taking all these pictures of everything that was going on. Clever him.”

Nite Life During Wartime: Edinburgh and beyond 1980-90 by Innes Reekie is launched at Stills Centre for Photography, Edinburgh on June 20, 6.30-9pm.

The Herald, June 15th 2019

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