Soho… Long Ago

A compelling glimpse of Soho before its sanitisation.

For its citizens (or is that denizens?), Soho’s heyday is generally when they were there. But it is hard to dispute that the thirties and the subsequent three decades were probably it. Certainly the present times are placing the district under great pressure from developers, tourism and sleaze; despite the heroic efforts of the Soho Society and many distinguished supporters to retain its schools, doctor’s surgeries and historic buildings.

I was lucky enough to spend the latter half of the 1970s in Soho. Muriel still ran the Colony Club, left-wing politicos still met in The Gay Hussar and lunching at L’Escargot with its faded red leather banquettes and elderly waiters was to relive Edwardian London. Once recognised as a ‘local’ the Soho family looked after you. A colleague’s leather jacket – stolen from our favoured pub – was returned the following morning with an apology. And when my wallet was stolen from my office (near the entrance), it was returned – minus cash – by a plump Portuguese lady whose flat was in Greek Street (model, 2nd floor). She had my phone number from a business card in the wallet. It had sentimental value so I gave her a fiver and she said ‘I knew it was gentleman’s wallet, it was Asprey.’

Sadly, I was too late for Murray’s famed Cabaret Club that closed the year I arrived. Strip clubs (or clip joints) sex shops and cinemas catered for the lascivious and only Raymond’s Revue Bar managed anything approaching a stylish show. Murray’s club is best described in author Benjamin Levy’s own economic but fluid prose: ‘…..night after night Murray’s Cabaret Club set imaginations ablaze, forged fantasies for deadened aristocrats, served a dish of dreams to Arab businessmen and provided refuge for the hounded celebrity.’

It is tempting to describe this work as a coffee table book. The production is elegant enough for that role – or as a guest room bedside companion – and it is very well illustrated with the final 70 pages or so devoted to staging and costume design featuring in particular marvellous full colour sketches by Ronald Cobb and Michael Bronze that warrant almost as much attention as the preceding narrative. Since Levy is an alumnus of the V&A and specialises in theatre this is both to be expected and is a real bonus.

The story is of itself a piece of social history. One had no idea that in 1913 the tango had become a craze. An American called Jack May started a club called Murray’s to cater for ladies wishing to enjoy a place to dance. By the 1920s the nightclub scene was fully developed but Jack May and others were running into trouble over drugs (cocaine by then the hit of choice) and police bribery for which May was ultimately deported. Percival Murray (no relation to the restaurant whose name May had borrowed) returned from a successful club and theatre management career on the Continent, reclaimed the Cabaret Club which he had founded and then sold to May and the two ventures were merged in Beak Street premises.

To-day’s millennials might be appalled by the idea of young, scantily clad women parading for men (though there were always plenty of couples in the audience). They will be even more horrified by Percival ‘Pops’ Murray’s tendency to have applicant girls undress for him and to employ the casting couch on occasion. He also invited ‘his girls’ to his country home for weekends of fun and fine dining. Sometimes one of them would stay on as his mistress.

The other side of the story is that the girls, whether dancers or hostesses, were very well paid for the time. He took small groups to the south of France where they helped plan new routines and staging. ‘Pops’ valued intelligence and wide interests as they made for good conversationalists who were appreciated by customers. There was a ‘house mother’ and free medical care. They were discouraged from liaisons with customers. This did not prevent the girls from forming them however. A number of girls acquired rich husbands and even titles. It was at Murray’s that Christine Keeler met Profumo, and from where Kay Kendall launched her film career. Three of the former showgirls give their own accounts and Dita von Teese pens the foreword. None of them, whilst acknowledging some of the hazards of their work seem either victimised or regretful.

This was a class establishment frequented by the rich, famous and powerful. The cabarets were lavish and beautifully presented, the food excellent, the drinks pricey. Mantovani, Geraldo and Edmundo Ros provided the music. Band leader Al Tabor composed The Hokey Cokey for the club in 1940.

But times were indeed a-changing. The night club and live dance bands gave way to discotheques and pop music. Ironically, the club’s door bouncer Peter Grant, left to manage a band called Led Zeppelin. By 1975 ‘Pops’ Murray was bankrupt and closed the doors. The site is now a burger bar.

In today’s more sensitive climate, retro-outrage often tries to re-write, expunge or take revenge on history. Benjamin Levy’s cool account of this piece of the past leaves us to make up our own minds. Murray’s Cabaret Club was a place where people had a lot of fun and pretty girls from modest backgrounds could wear beautiful costumes, were appreciated and had the chance to better themselves. Best then to end with Christine Keeler’s own words:

‘Working at Murray’s left you in an unreal world: at night-time you entered this fantasy place where the rich and famous queued for your attention; the days were an endless series of dinner and party invitations and the social life was truly amazing. It was only after I left Murray’s and returned to the real world that I realised the strange underground fantasy life I had been leading.’

Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret, Benjamin Levy, The History Press, hardback, £25.00






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