Peter Cook would be turn­ing eighty. Elis­a­beth Luard has found lost pho­tos of the early days of his ex­tra­or­di­nary Es­tab­lish­ment Club, in Soho

Peter Cook would have been 80 this month. Elis­a­beth Luard has dis­cov­ered lost pho­tos of Cook in 1961, when she worked along­side him at The Es­tab­lish­ment, Bri­tain’s first satire club

The Oldie - - NEWS -

For just two years in the early Six­ties – mid-1961 un­til the end of 1963 – The Es­tab­lish­ment Club in Soho was the hottest ticket in town. For those of us who worked there, it was the beat­ing heart of the uni­verse.

What a thrill it was to find this cache of un­pub­lished pho­tos from the Es­tab­lish­ment’s ar­chive – par­tic­u­larly on the eve of what would have been Peter Cook’s 80th birth­day, on 17th Novem­ber.

The cache of press pho­tos, com­mis­sioned by the club, had been stored un­opened in a box in var­i­ous Luard at­tics and garages – in Spain, the Isle of Mull and Wales – since 1963, when the club closed.

Be­fore 19 Greek Street be­came London’s first (and last) satir­i­cal the­atre­club, it was the Club Trop­i­cana, a strip joint with rooms. The ad­van­tage to the pro­pri­etors, Peter Cook and Ni­cholas Luard, was the dis­rep­utable­ness of the area, the space – two long, thin rooms with a war­ren of smaller ones be­hind – and the prox­im­ity to Theatre­land and the politi­cians in West­min­ster.

Sean Kenny, de­signer of the min­i­mal­ist set for Be­yond the Fringe, was re­cruited by Peter to strip out the vel­vet cur­tains in favour of floor-to-ceil­ing black­board paint, in­dus­trial light­ing and wall pro­jec­tions of Ban the Bomb marchers. In the base­ment, An­nie Ross sang Christo­pher Logue’s sub­ver­sive lyrics to Tony Kin­sey’s jazz quar­tet, un­til Dud­ley Moore took over at the pi­ano.

Up­stairs, the ladies bar dou­bled as an art gallery, dom­i­nated by Ger­ald Scarfe’s enor­mous car­toon of a semi-naked Harold Macmil­lan, mostly in green. Pho­tog­ra­pher Lewis Mor­ley rented the top floor, where he snapped Chris­tine Keeler strad­dling a heart-shaped chair, to pub­li­cise a film about the Pro­fumo af­fair.

Night­clubs are never ap­petis­ing by day. The fra­grance that hung over the scrubbed wooden ta­bles and un­matched chairs when I ar­rived at mid­day for work (morn­ings I spent at art school) was vine­gary Chi­anti, left­over shep­herd’s pie, Balkan So­bra­nies and un­tipped Gi­tanes.

By night, the ul­tra-fash­ion­able mem­ber­ship – seven thou­sand on the night the club opened – was di­luted with a shift­ing cast of po­ets, con­men, artists, play­wrights, ac­tors, pro­fes­sional drunks, bent po­lice­men and East End vil­lains.

I was there the night Peter per­suaded the Richard­son twins, ri­vals to the Krays, not to trash the up­stairs bar, talk­ing them down the stairs and on to the street – an act of as­ton­ish­ing brav­ery – with a wildly im­pro­vised ac­count of Sir Arthur Streeb-gree­bling’s heroic at­tempts to teach ravens to swim un­der­wa­ter.

The green room dou­bled as the wait­ers’ chang­ing-room and (briefly) ac­com­mo­dated Pri­vate Eye, be­fore new ed­i­to­rial premises were found three doors along the street. The move left me, the sec­re­tar­ial help, be­hind, in Ac­counts with unglam­orous Mr Plat­man from Southend – not what I had in mind. What I had in mind was the less fa­mous but equally glam­orous of the two pro­pri­etors, Ni­cholas Luard (reader, I mar­ried him – it wasn’t an easy forty years, but what did I ex­pect?).

The monotony of of­fice work was re­lieved by – my choice – mar­ket­ing for­ays on Cam­bridge Cir­cus for the Eye, of­ten with the as­sis­tance of ‘Pro­fes­sor’ Ir­win Corey, a club reg­u­lar. The prof’s sales tech­nique was to roll up a trouser-leg, re­veal­ing a hairy shin, a yel­low sock held up by scar­let sus­penders, and rush into the traf­fic, wav­ing the limb and shout­ing. As soon as an alarmed driver rolled down a win­dow, it was my re­spon­si­bil­ity to thrust the mag through the gap and

de­mand pay­ment. Suc­cess was lim­ited.

The main hazard of life at the club for a day worker was ne­go­ti­at­ing the green room on the way to and from the of­fice. On a reg­u­lar day, it might be just the cast – the two Johns, For­tune and Bird, al­ways-tran­quil Eleanor Bron – ag­o­nis­ing over a script. Or it might be Barry Humphries’s al­ter ego, Les Pat­ter­son, eat­ing fish and chips; on stage, Dame Edna (then just Mrs Ever­age) and her glad­dies died a pre­ma­ture death.

Even more alarm­ingly, Frankie How­erd – told about my pre­vi­ous sta­tus as a deb – stood to at­ten­tion in string vest and ragged underpants and ad­dressed me as my name­sake, The Queen.

The reg­u­lar Es­tab­lish­ment show be­gan at 9.45pm, amid a clat­ter of clear­ing plates. But there was some­times an­other at mid­night, when Peter came in from the show. Be­yond The Fringe was still run­ning to packed houses at the For­tune The­atre.

I had seen Be­yond the Fringe soon af­ter it opened, and there was never any doubt that Peter, then in his midtwen­ties, was the star. It helped that he was ab­surdly hand­some, tall and slen­der, with a mop of dark hair and bright, watch­ful eyes. Of the per­form­ers – lanky Jonathan, earnest Alan, bouncy Dud­ley – Peter was the one throw­ing ad-libs and span­ners in the works, scan­ning the

au­di­ence, gaug­ing re­sponses.

On stage at the club, wear­ing a Macmil­lan mask with ges­tures to match – or em­broi­der­ing on the un­holy ac­tiv­i­ties of his Or­der of the Leap­ing Nuns at Pri­vate Eye – this alert­ness re­mained.

London in the Six­ties. Days of wine and roses. No short­age of wine; not many roses. Sex was easy, at least for the men. As for the women, we were the first gen­er­a­tion lib­er­ated by the Pill, but we hadn’t yet worked out how to say ‘no’.

Some of us had read Si­mone de Beau­voir, a few of us Anaïs Nin. Not all of us were look­ing for hus­bands, some of us were look­ing for life. Which was

why I went to work at Pri­vate Eye, around is­sue ten, for a fiver a week.

Soon, the mag­a­zine needed a new pro­pri­etor ca­pa­ble of pay­ing the print bill. The Es­tab­lish­ment and its youth­ful en­trepreneurs, Cook and Luard, were the log­i­cal can­di­dates. The ed­i­to­rial team at the Eye – Richard In­grams, Christo­pher Booker and Willie Rushton – were un­will­ing to risk iden­ti­fi­ca­tion so soon in ne­go­ti­a­tion. So they de­cided to dis­patch the anony­mous of­fice girl, me, to re­quest per­mis­sion to sell the mag at the club, a sign that co-op­er­a­tion might be pos­si­ble.

Once safely in­side the club – no need for mem­ber­ship if you were a per­son­able young woman in a Mary Quant miniskirt – I headed for the of­fice at the back, where I found the two pro­pri­etors an­swer­ing tele­phones. I asked whether we could sell Pri­vate Eye in the club.

‘Sure,’ said Ni­cholas, ab­sent-mind­edly wav­ing a cig­a­rette. ‘Go ahead.’

Peter was not so sure. If Pri­vate Eye viewed the Es­tab­lish­ment as a bunch of Cam­bridge left­ies pro­mot­ing pornog­ra­phy, the Es­tab­lish­ment saw the Eye as a bunch of Ox­ford school­boys pur­vey­ing lava­to­rial jokes. But, still, the mar­riage was made, if not in heaven.

There­after, I spent most of my evenings at the club, tucked into the pro­jec­tion room with a bird’s eye view of au­di­ence and stage. That’s where I was on the night an overly-re­freshed Siob­hán Mckenna, out­raged by Peter’s cru­ci­fix­ion sketch – the one where the cen­tral fig­ure as­cribes his el­e­va­tion to a

very in­flu­en­tial Fa­ther – grabbed the of­fender by the tie and dragged him from the stage. Or maybe it was ir­rev­er­ent men­tion of the IRA that caused the trou­ble.

Most rev­o­lu­tion­ary of all was Lenny Bruce, brought to London by Peter. Lenny, quite sim­ply, was magic. Ro­man­ti­cally good-look­ing, hopelessly ad­dicted to sub­stances none of us had even tried, he could say the un­sayable, and did.

While the pub­lic school­boys of our gen­er­a­tion were dis­mis­sive of women and fear­ful of the mys­te­ri­ous bits be­tween our legs, Lenny treated us as equals. Hard to be­lieve that this was a time when women couldn’t get a pass­port or a mort­gage, or open a bank ac­count, with­out a man.

To Lenny, if war was ob­scen­ity, sex was pure joy, and women were the source. On stage, he came straight to the point: ‘Lis­ten up, folks. If f**king is truly an act of love and pro­cre­ation, why don’t we say, “Un-f**k you, mis­ter?”’

Hard to imag­ine it now, but there were no bar­ri­ers – in­tel­lec­tual or phys­i­cal. No vel­vet ropes or pis­tol-pack­ing min­ders; no such thing as celebrity.

On any even­ing in the club, Ber­trand Rus­sell might be ar­gu­ing a philo­soph­i­cal point with Arnold Wesker. Or James But­ler, son of the then Home Sec­re­tary, might be dis­cussing the cater­ing in French jails with ‘Dandy Kim’ Water­field, fresh from Fresnes slam­mer. Or Ni­cholas’s child­hood friend Ed­ward Adeane, later Prince Charles’s Pri­vate Sec­re­tary, rem­i­nisc­ing about

rap­tors with hawk-fancier Ken Loach. Or the artists’ model Hen­ri­etta Mo­raes, fresh from ro­manc­ing Lenny Bruce by lock­ing him in the green room with a sy­ringe, flirt­ing with Lu­cian Freud.

It all came to an end too soon, when the money ran out. The orig­i­nal Ed­in­burgh Be­yond the Fringe show was bankrolled by Willie Donaldson, a Wyke­hamist like Ni­cholas, and a mi­nor co-per­former with Peter at the Cam­bridge Foot­lights. While Willie was kept fi­nan­cially afloat by a flotilla of ship-own­ing maiden aunts, Ni­cholas soon ran out of his grand­fa­ther’s legacy. So Willie topped up the Es­tab­lish­ment’s cof­fers when needed and dropped a ladle­ful of money into Scene, Ni­cholas’s short-lived arts mag­a­zine.

Pub­lished weekly – never mind that Tom Stop­pard was its the­atre critic (pseu­do­nym: Henry Boot) or that the news pages car­ried the first na­tional press on The Bea­tles – Scene sank with all on board, and took the Es­tab­lish­ment Club down with it.

Still, for a short while, the Es­tab­lish­ment en­cap­su­lated the real revo­lu­tion of the Six­ties – the so­cial and gen­er­a­tional mix-up that was at once cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and phys­i­cal – and we didn’t even know it.

But that was then and this is now. You’d never get away with it to­day – or would we? Might be worth a try.

Elis­a­beth Luard is au­thor of ‘My Life As A Wife: Love, Liquor and What To Do about the Other Women’ (Blooms­bury, £9.99)

The Es­tab­lish­ment, 1961. Back row: four staff, in­clud­ing man­ager Bruce Kopp and bar­man Brendan; Owen Hale (light­ing); John Bird; Jeremy Geidt (ac­tor). Mid­dle: Nick Luard; Peter Cook; David Walsh (ac­tor); Ca­role Simp­son (singer); John For­tune; Steve...

Cook in Harold Macmil­lan mask, out­side the Es­tab­lish­ment (for­merly Club Trop­i­cana), 1961. Cook of­ten lam­pooned the PM. Right, with club co-founder Nick Luard, 1961. Cook eats the Lord Chamberlain’s doc­u­ment that cen­sored the re­vue script

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