I’ve always absolutely adored the rich colour of London’s Soho district. The neon ‘XXX’ signs, the sex shops with their tangle of multicoloured ‘modesty’ strips hanging in their doorways, the tatty hand-written signs in red-illuminated hallways promising “stunning models, first floor”, the lurid transsexual prostitutes’ cards stuck haphazardly with blu-tack in telephone kiosks and the deliciously vulgar ‘adults only’ cinema foyers. But much has changed in Soho over the past two decades and, sadly, by the time I was old enough to fully explore the area, most of the creaky old sex cinemas were on their last legs. The most famous ‘blue cinema’ in London – the five-screen Classic Moulin at 44 Great Windmill Street (where Mary Millington’s Come Play with Me took up residence for four years) – shut up shop suddenly in 1990 – whilst the 298-seater Astral at 5-7 Brewer Street (where Mary’s 1975 film Erotic Inferno had also enjoyed a record-breaking run) finally limped to a sorry end in 2004.
In 2000, whilst researching the first edition of my Keeping the British End Up book, I did an unofficial study of all Soho’s sex retailers. At the time there were 16 licensed sex shops (in other words premises ‘officially’ recognised by Westminster Council) and a further 18 unlicensed sex shops, all trading illegally. That makes 34 sex shops all jammed into a space measuring less than half a square mile. This might sound impressive, but in the late-1970s there were close to 90, spreading from the far end of Brewer Street in the west to the further reaches of Charing Cross Road in the east. In addition there were sex shops punctuating the entire length of Tottenham Court Road and clustered around Piccadilly Circus and Kings Cross. Many of these gloriously garish premises can be seen in a number of key British sex films of the Seventies, including Stanley Long’s 1971 documentary Naughty! as well as Sex Express (1975), Get ‘Em Off! (1977) Come Play with Me (also 1977) and The Playbirds (1978), the latter where Mary famously walks through Brewer Street and Golden Square wearing her fake police uniform.
Two weeks ago, in-between film meetings in the West End, I ventured out into Soho again to do another sex shop audit – my sorry findings didn’t surprise me in the least, but it was certainly depressing. Since the closure of Raymond Revuebar (modestly dubbed the ‘World Centre of Erotic Entertainment’) at 11 Walkers Court in 2004, Soho has seen a marked decline in all things pornographic. The dominance of hardcore porn on the internet has gradually put ‘traditional’ sex shops out of business, especially those most reliant on brisk DVD sales. After impresario Paul Raymond’s death in 2008 the bulk of his vast fortune (once estimated to be around the £650 million mark), and impressive portfolio of Soho properties, was inherited by his two granddaughters, Fawn and India. Now all grown up, the girls have set about ‘redeveloping Soho’. In 2012 Fawn, who sits on the board of her grandfather’s property company Soho Estates, made public her plans to ‘revitalise’ the 60 acres of land she co-manages in London’s West End. Her blueprint will ‘transform streets synonymous with sleaze into a world of edgy, upmarket bars, shops and restaurants…’
As I walked down Brewer Street on 22 August 2013, it was obvious that the dramatic facelift has already begun in earnest. The road was blocked with construction traffic, the tarmac excavated and many of the sex shops had already been boarded up, their eerily blank frontages stamped with the ominous legend: ‘Soho Estates. New development coming soon’. So, notebook, and camera in hand, I took a peek to see what sex still survives in Soho…
To start with, there are no longer any sex shops in the following roads: Berwick Street, Greek Street, Great Windmill Street, Rupert Street, Old Compton Street, Frith Street or Moor Street. Soho DVDs at 6 Brewer Street has closed, as has Private at number 35 Brewer Street. Clone Zone, one of Soho’s first gay sex shops at 64 Old Compton Street has also shut up shop, as has whip-crackers’ paradise Janus, a few doors up. Other recent sex shop casualties include Spankarama at 7 Walkers Court, and Carnal, next door at number 8. In fact, the once-excitable Walkers Court – the little alleyway which enjoyed a cameo in Derek Ford’s 1978’s sex comedy What’s Up Superdoc! and runs beside the old Revuebar, joining Brewer Street to Berwick Street – is arguably undergoing the biggest revamp; punters are now promised ‘New York-style delis’ instead of flesh-peddling adult shops. Two peep shows (“C’mon in, darling. Pretty girls today!”) do still exist over the road in Tisbury Court, an address once immortalised on celluloid in 1981’s Emmanuelle in Soho, but there are no shops remaining. A short walk away, at 30 Dean Street, the legendary Sunset Strip also plies its trade of basement strippers. I once saw a nude show there in the company of Melvyn Hayes (from sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum), but that’s another story…
So what sex shops are actually left? Well, I can sadly report that there are only TWELVE (licensed or not) still remaining in Soho. These are Simply Pleasure at 29-31 Brewer Street and Supermags next door at number 33. Across the road at number 12 stands the Original Soho Book Shop still bathing in all its neon glory and almost opposite (on the site of the old Astral cinema) is Prowler, the biggest gay sex shop in Britain. Walkers Court is still clinging onto two Harmony sex shops at numbers 4 and 7 (the former boasts the largest retail floor-space in Soho), plus Adults Only at number 5 and the DVD & Mag Exchange opposite. The district’s last sex cinema – The Soho Cinema – still operates at 8-9 Walkers Court, showing both gay and straight films to a largely older clientele. Around the corner there’s Eros Movieland at 28 Peter Street, Ann Summers at 79 Wardour Street and the newly relocated Up West British Adult Shop tucked away at 8 Greens Court. Recent reports about the closure of the infamous Lovejoys at 99a Charing Cross Road aren’t strictly accurate; a sex shop has been there for over 30 years, but the premises are now being refitted as a new branch of Harmony. I was given permission to take a peek inside, and for one final time I wistfully felt the infamous hessian wallpaper down the staircase and viewed the original 1970s interior decorations tucked away at the back of once-bulging stockrooms.
So there you have it – just a dirty dozen of sex shops left in Soho, and the situation is not going to change; only get worse, or better, depending on your point of view. 35 years ago Soho boasted ranks of brightly-coloured shops selling vibrators, under-the-counter 8mm films and the ubiquitous ‘dirty books’, but now most of that irresistible flavour is being steadily eroded, replaced with acupuncture clinics, fashion boutiques, champagne bars, artisan cake shops and hairdressers. Soho might well have been sleazy, but that was part of its unmistakable, and addictive, character. Westminster Council sees no value in preserving this important part of London’s sexual history, especially since Soho can now grandly claim to be a ‘conservation area’. Ironically, the very same day I completed my sex shop audit, the Evening Standard reported that Kylie Minogue’s favourite West End restaurant, La Bogeda Negra in Old Compton Street, had been issued with a legal notice to remove the neon ‘sex shop’ display from its frontage. The tongue-in-cheek signs reading ‘Adult Video’ and ‘Peep Show’ are an installation by New York artist Serge Becker, but Westminster Council has taken umbrage, telling restaurant owner Will Ricker, “The continued display of the neon advertisement is considered to constitute a substantial injury to the area.” Of course, Soho has lived through a ‘clean up’ by Westminster Council before, in the early-1980s, but this is something quite different – where pornography once titillated Soho, it now actually injures it.
They’ll always be sex and vice in a city the size of London, but I can’t help feel sad that Soho’s soul is being cleansed with corporate disinfectant. In future decades, I wonder if customers happily munching away on their cream cheese and pastrami bagels in Walkers Court will spare a thought for the red-lipped blow-up doll which once proudly dangled from the awning above their heads.
All words and photos strictly © Simon Sheridan 2013-2015