March 11, 2013
Between 1961 and 1964, 18 Greek Street, Soho was the home of the Establishment Club.
The club was open for a little over three years, and for nearly half that time, the man most associated with it, Peter Cook, wasn’t even in the country. Very few photographs of its interior exist and not many recordings were made of the acts who took to its stage.
And yet, nearly fifty years after it shut, it remains one of the most iconic comedy venues in the world.
Opening a satirical nightclub had been a dream of Cook’s ever since he started performing at university. With the satire boom catapulting him into sudden stardom (he was starring nightly in Beyond The Fringe at the Fortune Theatre from May 1961), he wasted no time in setting up a joint venture with Cambridge colleague Nick Luard. His plan was to open a theatre/dinner club with a jazz club in the basement, which would feature a nightly satirical show on stage. “I didn’t think it was a risk at all,’ he later told Clive James. “My dread in my last year in Cambridge was that somebody else would have this very obvious idea to do political cabaret uncensored by the Lord Chamberlain. I thought it was a certainty.”
The flagrantly ironic name (‘the only good title that I ever thought of’, Cook famously said) came first; locating the premises second.
Cook himself wanted the seediness of Soho. At the time, Soho was the only place in England where sex was visibly on sale – in blue cinemas, strip joints, peep shows and stag clubs. An ongoing gangland turf war had been inflamed by the results of the Wolfenden Report, which had forced prostitutes off the streets and into the network of tiny rooms in the surrounding buildings.
On their first viewing of 18 Greek Street (then Club Tropicana, a club boasting an “all girl strip revue”), Cook’s wife Wendy recalled it was “the seediest of beer-sodden atmospheres. The windows were swagged in oceans of red velvet curtains…there were discarded G-strings, used condoms, plastic chandeliers – all the tawdry remnants of a former strip club.” It was perfect.
Cook and Luard at their new premises in Soho, 1961
The Establishment Club opened in October 1961. The décor was chosen by Sean Kenny, who had designed the sets for Lionel Bart’s Oliver and Roger Law (who, as one half of Fluck and Law, would go on to create the long running ITV satire puppet show Spitting Image) had a space for a nightly cartoon on one of the walls near the entrance.
The size of the place – “it was a tiny little room” recalled resident singer Jean Hart – meant it always seemed busy and intimate. Manager Bruce Copp recalled the layout: “There was a long approach as you went into the club; it was a long building, in fact, as most are on Greek Street. A good half of it was given over to the theatre and restaurant and the stage was at the far end of that. The first half was a long bar. As you came in the door, the bar used to be very crowded and yet you would recognise every face.”
Advance subscriptions had ensured there was a profit before the doors ever opened, and within weeks, membership applications quickly rose to 7000. Lifetime members received a portrait of Harold Macmillan.
Early visitors included EM Forster, the writer James Baldwin, Robert Mitchum, Jack Lemmon, Paul McCartney (on the cusp of fame) and George Melly, who visited almost nightly and had his own table kept permanently aside for him and wife Diana. The Club’s success in attracting members quickly became a double-edged sword: it was full most nights, but that meant many members couldn’t get in.
Cook on stage at the club, 1961
Some less welcome visitors also came through the doors early on – a group of local thugs turned up to innocently ask if the club had “fire insurance.” “Once, Peter brought them all in and threatened to put them all on stage. I thought that was absolutely brilliant,” recalled Christopher Logue, whose lyrics were sung at the club by Jean Hart. “Of course, they became terribly embarrassed and left.”
There was a first sitting in restaurant at 7.30pm before the early show started at 8.15pm. All the plates were cleared away before the show began – to avoid any “clatter and carry-on”, in the words of Bruce Copp. “The show comes first, and if they can’t wait, they are philistine and they will have to go. If they have come here just for the food, they must be mad.”
The menu from the Establishment
The show lasted for roughly 90 minutes, followed by a second sitting at the restaurant, and then the late show which started at 10.45pm. Dudley Moore, performing with Cook in Beyond The Fringe, would arrive and head downstairs around this time to perform with his Trio (he later complained he never got to see anything which happened upstairs in all the time he was there.) Cook also arrived at the same time, doing usually ten to fifteen minutes on stage every night.
The original Establishment Club players consisted of John Bird, John Fortune, Eleanor Bron and Jeremy Geidt – near-contemporaries of Cook’s from Cambridge and, like the Beyond The Fringe performers, had been involved with Oxbridge revues. A compilation of their best sketches, recorded in the club, was released on LP (it’s currently unavailable.)
The satirical magazine Private Eye briefly moved in upstairs (prior to Cook becoming the main shareholder, although he had already given them some financial assistance on occasion) – the opening of the club and the first publication of the magazine had occured within three weeks of each other. Upstairs Sean Kenny also had a studio, as did photographer Lewis Morley (it was on the first floor of the building where he took his famous photograph of Christine Keeler astride an Arne Jacobsen chair, which you can see here at the V&A’s website, along with an interview about the session from Morley.)
In 1962, the club saw three very different comedians perform landmark gigs.
The American comedian Lenny Bruce did his first and only London run at the club. Cook personally picked him up from Heathrow and the early signs weren’t good: “This dreadful shambling figure came out carrying three miniature tape recorders, which he insisted on playing all the way and which consisted of nothing but aeroplane noises and grunting and farting. And I thought, “What am I going to do with this wreck?” I had left him at the hotel, and the next thing that happened was that I got a call saying Mr Bruce had been asked to leave the hotel because there were hookers and syringes everywhere.”
Bruce endured a terrible week, struggling through the days as the only heroin he could illegally find in London was far weaker than the stuff he was legally prescribed in the US. Jean Hart recalled, “I sang a couple of nights when Lenny Bruce was there and it was awful. This creature was almost being eaten up. He was huddled in the corner like a little rag doll…nobody knew how to deal with this man whose habit was a hundred times bigger than anything our doctors had seen. He was going crazy, poor man.”
His material included the difficulty of getting snot off suede jackets, cancer, and asking the front row “Hands up who has masturbated today?” Christopher Booker remembered, “I loved it, but I was slightly worried by the atmosphere of the time; the menace of it. I went almost every night Lenny Bruce was there.”
Bizarrely, the singer Alma Cogan became smitten with Bruce, and attended every night of his run. Bruce didn’t reciprocate her affections – he spent most nights in the greasy spoon cafes around Leicester Square, which he liked because they reminded him of his early days in New York.
A return booking in May 1963 fell apart when the Home Secretary deemed Bruce an “undesirable alien” and he was refused entry to the country as soon as he reached Heathrow.
A similarly seismic performance came from a comedian who couldn’t be any less like Lenny Bruce: Frankie Howerd.
Hugely popular in the post-World War 2 period, Howerd’s career was largely regarded as being on the wane when he attended the Evening Standard Theatre Awards at the Savoy. Given the chance to say a few words (and his terrible nerves fortified by scotch), he brought the house down. Cook was in the audience and he immediately booked him to play the Establishment Club. On Howerd’s This Is Your Life many years later, Cook called him “one of the funniest men in the world. I’d say ‘the funniest’, but Dudley’s very sensitive.”
Cook also thought the irreverent Howerd might be a big name to attract new members. Howerd was paid £400 a week, and his act was written by a who’s who of comedy – Johnny Speight (author of Till Death Us Do Part) wrote the main bulk of the material, with contributions from Galton and Simpson (the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour), and Howerd had the routine checked over by Barry Cryer, Barry Took and Eric Sykes. He couldn’t afford for it to go badly. It didn’t.
His opening line – “If you expect Lenny Bruce then you may as well piss off now!” – brought the house down. He continued by pondering why a sausage was funnier than a lamb chop. His performances packed the club out. On the LP released of the act, Kenneth William’s instantly recognisable laugh can be heard throughout, and also in the audience was Ned Sherrin who was so impressed, he gave Howerd a lengthy solo slot on That Was The Week That Was. A star was reborn.
The Australian actor and comedian Barry Humpheries also made his debut at the Establishment in 1962 – although the reception was far less rapturous than it was for Howerd or Bruce. This Lewis Morley photo shows Humpheries relaxing outside the club in 1962.
Humpheries had served for a year as Sowerberry the Undertaker in Oliver, understudying Ron Moody’s Fagin, and was feeling creatively stifled. Having returned to Melbourne earlier in the year for his critically acclaimed first solo show (A Nice Night’s Entertainment, largely a showcase for his Melbourne housewife Dame Edna Everage) he remained an underground figure on the fringes of art and theatre in England. In May 1962, Peter Cook asked Humpheries to stand in for Lenny Bruce when the British authorities refused to let him enter the country.
Humpheries recalled first meeting Cook outside the club in Edna’s 1989 autobiography My Gorgeous Life. He had “a little upside-down smile, like a thin, kind shark.” After“some university students…doing impressions of Harold Macmillian and stopping to laugh at themselves and light smelly cigarettes,” Humpheries stepped onto the Establishment stage and began “his endless chatter.”
That evening the little tables in the club were packed with celebrities, and kind, supportive Peter pointed some of them out to me as we nibbled our steaks in the corner. That jolly little balding man with the wavy upper lip was John Betjeman, the famous poet, who apparently adored me. Over there in a grubby pink suit was a droopy man whose arms were too long for his body, chain smoking cigarettes with the wrong fingers. His name was Tynan, a critic apparently…Jean Shrimpton, the famous glamour-puss, was looking bewildered. Holding forth at her table was a carrot-headed camel-faced man in a crumpled corduroy suit called Dr [Jonathan] Miller, who seemed to be trying to knot his arms together with some degree of success. I even noticed a few journalists with notebooks at the ready.
As Humpheries droned on, he became aware the laughter he’d heard in Australia was entirely absent. “Instead of laughter and applause, I could hear an odd shuffling and clattering noise and even the sound of people chatting quite loudly amongst themselves.”
The act was a flop, and the critics were harsh. The Daily Mail reviewed the gig: “His eyes tiny like diamond chips, his mouth slit and thin like a beak, Barry Humpheries looked for all the world like an emu in moult.”
Humpheries later referred to his “highly successful, five minute season” at the Establishment Club. Continuing his dramatic and musical roles, he created Barry McKenzie for Private Eye in 1964 (which ran for a decade and spawned two movies in the early 1970s) before a triumphant return to Australia with the 1965 solo show Excuse I. Success in Britain eluded him until 1976’s Housewife Superstar! which became “one of the most popular series of one-man shows since Charles Dickens’ tours in the 1880s.” Edna – “the thinking man’s Eva Peron” – played to sold out audiences for four months, first at the Apollo, then the Globe. From that point on he was a West End fixture.
In September 1962, Cook sailed to New York with the rest of the Beyond The Fringe cast to start the show on Broadway. Just as it had been in London, the show was a huge success – as Harold MacMillan had attended the London run, so JFK turned up for a performance in New York. Cook also opened up a US version of The Establishment at the Strollers Theatre Club on East 54th St.
By the time Cook returned to London in April 1964, the Establishment Club was going down the tubes. It had run into serious financial trouble. As Luard ran into financial difficulties when a couple of his other businesses folded, he was forced by the bank to hand the club over to Raymond Nash, a “tough Lebanese entrepreneur” and stockholder who craved both legitimacy (the Establishment was an entirely straight business, something of a rarity in Soho.) Nash took over the running of the Establishment and it was the moment everything changed – in short, the intelligentsia stopped going.
Luard’s wife Elizabeth said “The collapse of the enterprise was sudden. Peter and Nicholas never, to my knowledge, discussed it – still less apportioned blame. Certainly Nicolas blamed himself; and perhaps Peter knew that he’d left his friend up the creek without a paddle.”
Since 1964, 18 Greek Street has been much the same as it is today – a bar with nightclub leanings. Formerly the Boardwalk, the occupier since 2008 has been the “funky cocktail bar and restaurant” Zebrano. Zebrano even paid quiet tribute to the former club by naming themselves “Zebrano at the Establishment” over one window.
On 15 February 2009, a plaque was erected outside, commemorating the Establishment. It was unveiled by the DJ Mike Read – it was going to be Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, but he pulled out when a newspaper revealed he’d fathered a child with his housekeeper.
In September 2012, Keith Allen and Victor Lewis-Smith attempted to revive the spirit of the Establishment Club with two nights of comedy and cabaret at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club on Gerrard Street. The evenings were planned as monthly pop-ups, following a conversation Lewis-Smith had with Cook’s widow Lin, where she claimed Cook was planning to reopen The Establishment when he died in 1995. Whether they will manage to get back into the original premises remains to be seen.
Note: there’s actually surprisingly little specific material on the Establishment Club in books dealing with satire. Most of the anecdotes are simply people saying “Gosh, yes, I remember it, it was frightfully exciting.” One of the more detailed books is Wendy Cook’s So Farewell Then: The Biography of Peter Cook, which I used alongside all the other major Cook books. Any more details gratefully received.
January 24, 2013
At 72 Wardour Street in Soho, there’s a newsagent which goes by the unusual name of The Hobbit.
Or, at least, there used to be.
For the last twelve months, the shop has been empty and it’s only since it’s closed down that everyone seems to have noticed the odd name (if you google ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Soho’, you’ll see the sign has caught the eye of almost everyone with a camera.)
The newsagent was given the name in the early 1970s, simply because the owner Ray Grant was a fan of the book (his name can be seen on the right of the sign.) Run by manager Victor for most of its lifespan, the shop was an old-fashioned newsagent in the heart of Soho, and when I recall its dusty, faded, strangely East German-looking interior, I could kick myself for never taking photos.
The largely unmodernised shop was sold to new owners in 2007, who gutted, refurbished and turned it into something closer to a late-night mini-mart. They retained a later sign which had been erected by Ray Grant, but while the new owners diligently chiselled his name off the front, they left The Hobbit.
The name looks even odder when you see it on the modern sign – it seems to bear absolutely no relation to the other words, or the building its on, or any sort of possible business.
The shop closed down in late 2011 and after being empty for six months, the modern sign was removed to reveal the original 1970s frontage in all of its handpainted glory.
I think part of the joy of seeing the sign again is that it’s a reminder of how shop fronts used to look. Inviting, quietly attractive examples of the human sign-writer’s art. They’re not like the majority of newsagent’s signs today, which are uniformly awful: looming, back-lit slabs which people with no design experience have drawn up on a PC, squashed into shape and had printed on sheets of neon plastic.
So far the 1970s sign has enjoyed six unexpected months in the open air – but how much longer it will stay there is anyone’s guess.
July 13, 2011
At 29 Great Marlborough Street, W1 (but most often approached by Carnaby Street, where it’s situated on a corner where the street meets Fouberts Place) stands The Shakespeare’s Head.
The sign outside the pub claims the inn was established on the site in 1735 and was named after the owners, Thomas and John Shakespeare, who claimed to be distant relations of their famous namesake. Nothing of the original establishment remains – the building which stands today is late nineteenth-century (albeit in a Tudor style) – and there are serious doubts over whether it has any connection even with Shakespeare’s descendants. After all, The Shakespeare’s Head is a fairly common pub name in London – others can be found in Holborn, the City, Kingsway, Finsbury and Forest Hill.
It’s likely Thomas and John Shakespeare form part of a colourful story about the pub’s origins, and one which has been stated with increasing conviction over the years. The presence of the claim on a nicely-painted board outside the pub certainly helps attract the passing tourists ambling down Carnaby Street, but it doesn’t make the story any more likely to be true.
What the pub does have, however, is one of London’s most charming Shakespeare statues.
There are others dotted around the capital – Leicester Square, Westminster Abbey, on the front of City of London school, a bust in the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury – but none with the playfulness of the one which peers out from a window-like recess of the pub.
There’s just something perfectly realised about the position of the body. While the face is cold and fixed, the stance of the body really conveys him casually examining the crowds below – a fixed moment where the greatest playright of all time is half-looking for inspiration in the throng that passes outside his window.
I have no idea whether the bust has always been painted in these cold colours, but there’s more than a touch of “zombie Shakespeare” about the hue (a zombie Shakespeare made an appearance in The Simpsons’ 1992 Halloween special Treehouse of Horror III, looking surprisingly similar to the pub’s statue.)
The sign outside also claims the bust lost a hand in World War 2 “when a bomb dropped nearby.”
While the bust is definitely one hand down, I’m inclined to take everything that sign says with a pinch of salt.
June 2, 2011
As a long-time comics fan, there’s nothing I enjoy more than conjuring up mental images of how comic shops used to be. When I was nine-years-old, the original Forbidden Planet comic shop at 23 Denmark Street was simply the most magical place on earth.
I only have to see a glimpse of the Brian Bolland artwork which used to adorn the plastic bags (and the associated t-shirt my dad bought me on one trip) and I’m straight back to the uneven wooden floor, the smell of pulp paper, the shafts of light streaming through the dust which hung in the air, and the vague unease of my mum as the till rang through each 75p I’d spent on the recent releases.
The store first opened in 1978, the third of the dedicated comics shops in London following Dark They Were And Golden Eyed in Soho and Weird Fantasy in New Cross.
The original Forbidden Planet was owned by Nick Laundau, a former sub-editor of 1970s British comics 2000AD and the war title Battle. He went on to establish Titan Entertainment, a company distributing imported the US comics which were previously only sporadically available at British newsagents.
There’s no better example of how American comic books were distributed in the UK prior to the 1970s than with the knowledge that most arrived in the country as ballast inside American ships. It’s a commonly told tale that when the ships docked in Manchester during the 1940s, the ballast was purchased by two brothers who wanted the American newspapers inside to sell on to fish and chip shops as wrappers. Any comic books they found would be diverted to a market stall and sold from there (the two Mancunian brothers later went on to found World Publishing, a successful children’s book imprint which finally closed in 2003.)
Today, Laundau is no longer the owner of the Forbidden Planet chain, but remains with Titan Books, now a vast publishing company specialising in TV tie-in books and magazines.
Just round the corner from the original shop on St Giles High Street was FP2, which, despite it’s claim in the poster above to be “the cinema and television shop”, I recall being stuffed full to bursting with sci-fi novels.
The two shops combined and moved round the corner to New Oxford Street in the early 1990s, forming the country’s first Comics and Sci-Fi Megastore.
It was a boom time for the comics shop – a new generation’s rediscovery of the Star Wars films and the announcement of an upcoming prequel, a mania for TV hits like the X-Files, and a runaway speculator’s market of limited edition comics and cover variants, meant that comics and pop culture had never been more mainstream.
Blinded by the record profits that the mania for collecting generated, the comic companies made a terrible mistake; they forgot to make their comics any good. While they would happily produce six different front cover designs for every single issue, they completely forgot to deliver the goods inside the covers.
As the writing and artwork inside the comics plummeted, so too did the numbers of readers. Copies which were once highly prized collectables became impossible to shift from the shelves. The speculators and collectors all retreated, and many of the smaller comic companies who’d been riding those waves folded almost instantly. It’s no surprise that, of the dozen or so mainstream comic shops operating in London at this time, all but the Forbidden Planet have since shut up shop.
Now pretty much the sole vendor in town, Forbidden Planet moved to its present, even larger location at 179 Shaftesbury Avenue in 2003.
I like the shop, but I can’t imagine it excites the minds of ten-year-olds like the original did mine. It’s very white, clean and tidy – a far cry from the sense I used to get of hunting for buried treasure in the scruffy old shop located down a rather insalubrious side street.
In fact, with all the silent men in their forties flipping morosely through leaflets, it looks a little bit like a private medical facility where all the health information pamphlets star Spiderman.
There’s still a shop in London that conjures up the wonder of the early 1980s comic shops, however; the Comic and Book Exchange in Notting Hill.
Everything about it is as perfect a relic of 1980s comic shops as you could ever imagine. The floor is dirty, the strip lighting flickers, and most importantly, it smells of cheap paper.
The racks are full to bursting with stuff you’ve never heard of, you can find amazing bargains, the signs are all handwritten, and the vast majority of their stock harks back to a time when comics had lurid, over-the-top covers created solely to encourage kids to pick them up.
It’s odd that the last place to go when you get nostalgic for Forbidden Planet would be Forbidden Planet. While FP might be the last of the London comic book stores to survive, the Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange is the only one in London that feels like stepping back to the modern industry’s very earliest days.
May 4, 2011
Back in 2009, there was a little lady nicknamed Soho Pam who walked around Soho most nights asking for change. If you gave her some, she’d often ask if you wanted to buy a picture of her for a bit extra. I did. She told me that someone had come up to her in the street, asked if he could paint her and she agreed. When it was done, she took a photo of the finished result, and ordered loads of reprints from the negative.
If you give her a couple of quid, you get a picture of the lady you just gave it to.
Everyone should do this – if someone does you a favour, give them a painting someone’s done of you. That way, over time, they’d end up with a visual record of all the people they’d ever been nice to, and when they’re old, they can warm their cockles looking over their gallery.
Update: It was reported in early January 2013 that Soho Pam, the lady who handed out these photos, had died. Over the years, she had become one of Soho’s most familiar street faces – anyone stepping outside for a smoke on a night out would almost be guaranteed to have Pam bobble over at some point to cadge some change. The photo below comes from a Twitter account in her name.
Here’s the Telegraph’s obituary of Pam from January 2013.