Here’s a question they’ll probably never ask on Have I Got News For You. What do Rolling Stones sidekick David Litvinoff, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide and TV show Little Britain have in common? The answer is… Llanddewi Brefi, a tiny village in Ceredigion, Wales.
Bloody L in indeed! The man who played a huge part in the making of my favourite ever British movie (Performance, just pipping Peeping Tom at the post) hallucinogenics and the fictional home of the only gay in the village, Daffyd Thomas. Sounds like my kind of place! If only Patti Labelle would move there, we’d all be living in La La Land.
So first, a bit of etymology: Dewi is Welsh for David, as in Saint David, and I was born on St David’s Day, so I should know. Llan refers to a church or other holy place, and Brefi is a tributary of the river Teifi, hence Lllandewi Brefi (David’s Holy Place on the River Brefi). Appropriate, really, because in 1968 (my favourite year) David – David Litvinoff, that is – moved to said village from London, allegedly because the Krays, or related East End villains, wanted to break his legs.
Described by his niece Vida as “the court jester to the rich, smart Chelsea set of the sixties” Litvinoff had long traded on his knowledge of/connections to low life scum like the Krays. He had a razor blade-inflicted scar across his face to prove it. When his old mate from the art world Donald Cammell and tyro cameraman Nic Roeg got together to make Performance, the story of a Cockney criminal who hides out in the home of a washed-up pop star (Mick Jagger) and gets into all sorts of psychological/psychedelic trouble, Litvinoff was the natural choice of “dialogue coach and technical adviser”, charged with showing James Fox how to walk the walk and talk the talk of a real gangster. This mainly involved introducing him to hard man John Bindon, who had once bitten off a man’s ear in a fight and presented it to him in a cigarette box. Bindon ended up in the film, while Fox took his “performance” to its logical extreme and, like his character Chaz, embraced the unfamiliar druggy world of the Stones, before becoming a Born Again Christian, and then a Born Again Actor in films like Sexy Beast (not bad, but it’s no Performance).
Litvinoff doesn’t appear in the film, which is a shame. He’s a kind of anti-Zelig figure in a way, The Man Who Was (Yet Isn’t) There, although audio recordings do exist of him winding up famous people on the telephone, which seems as good a way as any to pass the time (mind you, comedian Stewart Lee once said his only regret in life was ringing the film director Ang Lee on a radio programme and asking him, for a laugh, if he ever got “angly” when people mispronounced his name).
In a way, Performance can be seen as a cinematic version of Litvinoff’s own schizophrenic existence, with one foot in the gay criminal demi-monde and the other in the lotus-eating colony of the rock aristocracy. Whether he had pissed off the Krays for real, or just felt like getting it together in the country, Litvinoff decamped to Llandewi Brefi, post-Performance, and was, for a time, the real-life Only Gay in the Village (probably). A stream of lotus-eaters came to pay their respects, including the artist Martin Sharp, who designed the awesome cover for Cream’s Disraeli Gears, and Eric “I’m No Racist” Clapton. Litvinoff then left Wales in late ‘69 and moved to Australia, returning to London in the early 70s. In 1975, apparently bored with London (and thus with life) he took an overdose of sleeping pills in Davington Priory, in Kent, which is now the home of Bob Geldof. There is no suggestion that Litvinoff’s suicide is related in any way to that fact.
Llandewi Brefi languished in blissful obscurity for the next few years, until, in 1977, it suddenly became the epicentre of one of the UK’s biggest ever drug raids. Over 6 million tabs of LSD were seized as part of the infamous Operation Julie. There is nothing to connect Litvinoff to the drugs scene in Llandewi Brefi, apart from as an enthusiastic customer: he was long gone before the acid queens David Solomon and Richard Kemp arrived in 1973, and set about organising the largest production and distribution network for LSD ever seen in Britain, with acid cheap and plentiful at the celebrated (and sometimes government-supported) free festivals of the time. Long might it have continued, as well, were it not for a cruel twist of fate in April ‘75, when Richard Kemp’s red Range Rover was involved in a fatal collision near Machynlleth.
Kemp was known to the Thames Valley Drug Squad and they accordingly shifted their investigations to Wales. In May ‘76, a police team moved into a farmhouse overlooking Kemp’s cottage. Locals took the police for birdwatchers at first – there is a certain nerdish similarity – but as the surveillance operation progressed, female officers joined the team. One of these women, Sergeant Julie Taylor, gave her name to the operation.
On 26 March 1977, the pigs took over the pig sty, swooping (if pigs can swoop) on 87 homes in England and Wales. 120 suspects were arrested and at Bristol Crown Court, 15 of them were sentenced to a total of 120 years in jail, an average of 8 years each for making cheap LSD, a drug which never killed anybody, widely available. Although it’s only fair to add, I suppose, that some people experienced bad trips and never really recovered, becoming Born Again Christians and doing movies with Ben Kingsley. But how, one wonders, did David Walliams and Matt Lucas settle on Llandewi Befi as the fictional home of Daffyd Thomas? Is it a sly reference to Operation Julie? Or an even slyer reference to David Litvinoff, a fellow friend of Dorothy? Unlikely.
If you want to know more about the Llandwei Brefi of the 60s and 70s, there’s a brilliant biography of Litvinoff out there (and I mean, REALLY “out there”), called Jumpin’ Jack Flash (by Keiron Pim) and there are any number of books about Operation Julie, by cops and acidheads alike. Or you can just cop a load of this Operation Julie-inspired slice of punky bollocks from the Clash: