Retro Heaven

Hanging Out with John Wayne

BBC4’s Annabel’s Nightclub documentary…

BBC4 provided we, the proletariat, with a reminder of how the other half live with a fascinating insight into the world famous Annabel’s nightclub in Mayfair, London last night. An institution amongst the rich and famous, it’s history is long and colourful but much of what went on behind those sacred doors remains a mystery to those of us at the lowest rung of the socialite ladder.

Opened in 1963 and named after the beautiful Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart (now Lady Annabel Goldsmith) its founder Mark Birley charged his founding members £5.25 a year to join, a sum which is still honoured for those remaining original members.

Annabel’s was not an immediate success but Birley’s impeccable taste and desire to keep the club as private as possible made it the go-to spot on London’s society map. Here was a place in which the biggest names in film, music, art and politics could go without fear of paparazzi and socialise amongst people “who knew how to behave themselves”  By that one assumes a code of silence rather than sobriety.

Birley created a private haven in which sumptuous wall colours hosted his extravagant art, subtle lighting offered privacy and a menu overseen by the great food writer of the 1960s, Elizabeth David, was served by loyal and well-respected staff who interacted with the guests in a charming, understated way. Those long-serving staff members will have seen many a drunken evening but these stories seldom broke in the newspapers, especially in the early years.

What I enjoyed about the documentary was seeing the transformation of the club through the decades and how it hit its peak in the 1980s (didn’t everything?) As news of a Conservative victory broke in 1979 so the champagne corks flew out of the bottles in Annabel’s and a new, hedonistic dawn emerged from the dark days of late 70s Britain. Here then, royalty mixed freely with the cream of society, a strict dress code ensured Birley’s vision remained true and the press lined up to photograph the stars entering and leaving.

Birley hosted incredible events from live music to fashion shows and Brazilian carnival parties, Ike and Tina Turner played on the small dance floor and in recent years Lady Gaga followed in the footsteps of Ray Charles with a piano and vocal set. Looking at those images from the seventies and eighties prompted a sense of nostalgia for a time long since gone. For many, regardless of wealth, the eighties was a decadent period and music, fashion and partying reached new and heady heights and Annabel’s reflected that better than anyone.

My favourite moment from the documentary? A member of staff helping an intoxicated John Wayne to the bathroom after fawning over a female’s chest. As he stood at the urinal he turned to the man next to him and said “Well, you can go tell your friends you’ve hung out with John Wayne!”

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