Here I am in the centre of Soho London at 18 Greek Street. Between 1961 and 1964 this was building was the home of the Establishment Club nightclub set up by comedian Peter Cook and Nicholas Luard.
Whenever I see documentaries set in the 1960s featuring the club the camera pans across the front facade of this building. The footage is always in black and white, the street seems broader and all the men are wearing shirts and ties. Now it’s a “Zebrano” cocktail bar, the street seems narrower and passers-by are mainly dressed for leisure.
The Establishment opened in October 1961 and soon became famous for satirical comedy, jazz and other events. Lots of budding comedians performed here though there’s hardly any historical footage. Three famous faces did landmark gigs here: Lenny Bruce, Barry Humphries and Frankie Howerd. Dudley Moore often appeared with The Dudley Moore Trio. Famous faces were often there: EM Forster, Robert Mitchum, Jack Lemmon, Paul McCartney and most of the hundred people who made the sixties glitter. George Melly visited most nights and had his own table. It became so popular many members couldn’t get in.
Hardly any photographs of the club’s interior exist and not many recordings were made of the acts who took to its stage. The small size of the club itself leant a busy and intimate feeling. About half of the building was given over to the theatre and restaurant and the stage was at the far end. Within weeks of opening membership applications were 7000 and lifetime members received a portrait of Harold Macmillan. There was a first sitting in restaurant at 7.30pm before the early show started at 8.15pm. Plates were cleared away before the show began. The first show lasted for roughly 90 minutes, followed by a second sitting at the restaurant, and then the late show which started at 10.45pm.
The satirical magazine Private Eye briefly moved in upstairs (prior to Cook becoming the main shareholder. Upstairs photographer Lewis Morley had a room. It was here he took his famous photograph of Christine Keeler astride an Arne Jacobsen chair
Peter Cook also set up a similar club in New York called The Establishment at the Strollers Theatre Club on East 54th Street. He spent so much time out of England that when he returned in April 1964 the Soho club was suffering serious financial troubles and soon folded.
Since 1964 the premises have remained a bar with nightclub leanings. I had stroll up and down Beak Street and decided Soho was generally a more vibrant place in the sixties. Peter had liked the seediness of Soho, the only place in England where sex was visibly on sale in cinemas, peep shows and strip joints. The Wolfenden Report had forced prostitutes off the streets and into the network of tiny rooms in the surrounding buildings. Now Soho seems to suffer from too many franchises and has lost some of its dirtiness.
Some devotees of Peter Cook pressured the current owners for some recognition of the club’s relevance and they agreed to "The Establishment" in writing above the door. There’s also a green plaque on the wall after the same devotees put pressure on Westminster City Council. Decades after The Establishment closed it remains one of the most iconic comedy venues in the world.
The only reference to the building’s former use…
The famous photograph of Christine Keeler was taken in a studio above the club…