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What a thrill it was to find this cache of unpublished photos from the Establishment’s archive – particularly on the eve of what would have been Peter Cook’s 80th birthday, on 17th November.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