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.
Many thanks to Marc for allowing us to use his work. You can find more off beat stories from around London here http://darkestlondon.com/about/
“READ ALL ABOUT IT” cried the kid in madras shorts and sneakers on the newspaper stand. London’s Zesty-Boy gives his opinion on the latest car crash of an article on Mods to appear in the British media.
I know nothing about a lot of stuff, if I was to write about a whole number of subjects as an outsider looking in I’m sure I’d miss the mark and the point. Its with this in mind that I can’t help but feel that The Guardian’s Martin Horsfield’s article on Modernist culture not only misses the point but is also pointless. He’ll have to come up with something more than a blag from someone looking to sell polo shirts, Fred Perry’s marketing chief, Richard Martin, Britpop and the name dropping of pop artists that aren’t mods, Wiggo, Freeman and TV chefs (not that they aren’t mods). Let alone mods first getting their look from Italian suits on Bluenote album covers. Sloppy research makes a sloppy article. Other than a mention of Conran and Hemmingway and a Dean Rudland quote the article has no relevance to anything of interest to a Modernist what so ever. He doesn’t really know what he’s carping on about, and that makes two of us…
Dexter Gordon’s 1958 album, Our Man In Paris and Donald Byrds 1959 Royal Flush cover.
I’m not sure how hard you’d have to look to find the link between Ivy dress and American black Jazz, and adoption of the look amongst the 50s Modernists of London, not very I suspect. The first Modernists of Soho wore the clothes that were fashionable in America, their look was as fresh as their music. And as different to the trad look and sound of the Jazz clubs. Of course I’m not saying Mr. Horsfield should research subject matter to PhD level. But a little research wouldn’t have gone amiss, and would surely have made for a more interesting read.
The truth is these people like to give the impression they know what their talking about to people that know little or nothing about the subject. My dad always used to say never trust a Politician or Journalist, they talk shite. Still, you’ve gotta make a living I suppose, why bother working for a living when you can write any old rubbish and get paid for it? I’d have expected more of the Guardian though.
Over looked as a casual item of early modernist wear is the humble Sweatshirt. An imported look that lends itself from the American campus’s of Ivy. An effortless garment that gets the College no.9 seal of approval. No need for numbers or letters, paired with Levi’s or chino’s the sweatshirt gives that early American modernist look that few adopt today.
Its a garment I’ve been on a bit of a quest for the last couple of years to find one thats good in body and sleeve length without being too baggy with a overhang on the shoulders. Its been a bit of a struggle to say the lest. NN. 07 offer them in great colours but fit was really bad for me, Rickson’s models look great but where can you find them instore here in Oslo? I came close to getting one a year or so back with a Phigvel grey number, cotton was super soft, stitching was spot on and the ribbed V was just what I was looking for. I tried it on and it was just too baggy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for a slimfit model. Just a half right fit.
Now though my quest has ended with my my purchase from Archival. I’ve taken charge of a quality cotton sweatshirt in grey. The fit is really great.
The fact that Archival offer their sweatshirts in tall sizes as well as regular has been the key I think. I’ve already ordered the same sweatshirt in Eggplant from them. The sweatshirts are made for Achival in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A, by Columbiaknit a company that has been making cotton garments since 1921. Archival had their sweats modeled on ones made in 1947 by a company called Wards.
As well as Grey and Eggplant the Sweatshirts also come in navy and black, they’ll be perfect for an under the radar Mod evening look this summer paired up with my new 60s deadstock Levi Spikes, but their another story!
From 2009; Formerly unreleased take of the Rita & the Tiaras classic on Los Angeles record label Dore from 1967, Gone With The Wind. Same vocals from Rita Graham and the girls but with BIG strings. Rita became one of the Raelettes the following year and also in ‘68 had a solo album called Vibrations produced by Ray Charles and released on his Tangerine label. For me the Strings on this version give it the edge on the Dore release. Massive current floor filler at Klubb Magnus, a serious soul find that features the instrumental on the flip.
These are on sale in Kamikaze. 4 700NOK, which I don’t think is to bad a price. The photo’s don’t really do them justice. Its been a while since I’ve seen such great shoes. I don’t really think that much of Gucci as a rule. All those snide bum bags and caps “da bad boys” bounce round in don’t help, do it, Bit loud init, as they say in inner city circles. I do like these though…
College no.9’s Dean Swift gives his view on Fray shirts.
Fray is a small shirt making company found in Casalecchio di Reno, Bologna, Italy. The company was started by Lucia Pasin in 1962. Shirts are cut by hand from cardboard patterns ensuring pattern matching on the separate parts of the shirt when sewn. Using only high quality cloths and MOP buttons with rounded edges the company makes shirts with a full range of collars and cuffs as well as a number of different fits. No box pleats, inverted pleats or side pleats, no fuss on the back of these shirts. No front placket either. I don’t know about you but I’m right off the front placket thing. An ugly unnecessary fuss as far as I can see. The brand can be found in the worlds most exclusive stores, alas not here in Norway. I was lucky that I have a friend in NYC that buys end of season stock from Barney’s and other such stores in the city who managed to purchase a couple of their shirts last Autumn, one in my size. A couple of weeks ago he got in touch and offered me another and I have just taken charge of my second shirt by Fray, the first was a mid-blue Herringbone in a fantastic cotton. The needle work is very fine, I would give the stitches per inch but I’d need a magnifying glass to count them, something I don’t have. Not many shirt makers can boast of making a shirt as elegant as Fray. Both shirts I have feature pleated shoulders which are done by hand. I know not everyone digs this kind of shoulder but its a detail that I really like, I find it both relaxed and elegant at the same time. They also have button down collars, the collar is soft, there is some light interlining in the Herringbone shirt that is non fused but nothing heavy, the new shirt collar has no lining I think, if it has I can’t feel it. Both the shirts have a great roll. Beyond any doubt these are the best shirts in my wardrobe, scored at the price of a fair high street shirt brand.
Pleated shoulder detail.
Close up of stitching on the yoke seam.
The BD collar models are very hard to find, at a half right price even harder. These shirts can fetch up to the 3500NOK mark (£350+). Lots of handwork in pattern cutting and finishing on the shirt itself along with high quality materials used means the shirts are never going to come cheap. Though the button holes are machined I believe, all be it perfectly. While a lot of people moan about the quality of shirts found on the high street I suspect few would want to pay that sort of figure for RTW. That said, the shirts are better made than my bespoke ones, maybe I need to find a better shirt maker. Its a service Fray offer. Though I don’t own one and haven’t tried on one, the only other shirts I’ve seen that matches these Fray shirts in RTW are Mario Santangelo and Kiton, though not Kiton with a BD collar. Once again it seems Italian garment artisans that hold onto their traditional methods of production making with new fabric leads the way in its chosen field, in this case, dress shirts. My man in New York is looking out for a Tom Ford tab (after reading the Narrators post on here). Maybe Tom can reinstall some faith in American shirting for me.
The collar, my kind of length, nice soft roll and pleasing shape when worn with a tie.
Saul Bass (above) is the best known for his work as a graphic designer in the American film industry. The working class New Yorker studied design at Art Students League of New York part time while working in various manual jobs. In the 40s he was responsible for designing film advert’s for magazines and newspaper. His first film poster was in 1954 for the Film Carmen Jones, a musical based on the Broadway show that had opened in 1943. The film caused a minor stir at the time due to its sexual contents. It was the following year when Bass designed the poster for the film The Man With The Golden Arm that his work became of note. The film tells the story of a Jazz player fighting to over come Heroin addiction and stay clean following his release from prison. The subject of drugs was one that was “swept under the carpet” during the period. It was the first film to use the subject of addiction and was released without a Hays Production code which was given to films according to their viewing content. It was also the film that was to open the door for other taboo subjects to be used as subject matter in film as well as a rethinking of the Hays system of grading content, the code was abandoned in 1968.
above; never a man to shy away, Otto Preminger.
Bass was asked by the director of the film, Otto Preminger to design the poster. Preminger gave Bass instruction to design the poster to show the subject the film was about. Bass produced a poster that caused as much storm as the film itself, a graphic design that was a simple direct image that showed no actors or scenes. The first of its kind and it changed the way posters were thought of creatively, it shocked the film industry. An iconic film poster that led to Bass working on posters and film openings for 40 years. Including other movies by Preminger who continued to use taboo subject matter for film and again turned to Bass for poster design as well as title sequences’. The two men worked on Anatomy of A Murder, (banned in Chicago) which addresses the issue of Rape in 1959 and again in 1962 on Advise and Consent with the subject of homosexuality. Advise and consent was the first film to use film shot in a gay bar and Perminger also pushed boundaries by casting actors Will Geer and Burgess Meredith who were on a Hollywood “blacklist” due to their socialist leanings.
Prefab designed by Daniel Libeskind
Keef rocking it in a POW jacket.