Soho Cinemas #1: An ‘Exciting’ Establishment

Today, I’m beginning a brisk stroll through Soho, revisiting some of the most infamous sex cinemas of the 1970s, and my first ‘X’-rated port of call has quite a colourful history. Mary was, unquestionably, one of the best-known anti-Establishment figures of the 1970s, so it seems wholly appropriate that her most notorious film, Miss Bohrloch, once enjoyed a lengthy run at a particularly celebrated West End address – The Establishment Club. Well, sort of…

At number 18 Greek Street, right in the heart of Soho, stands a beautiful five-storey, brick-built, Regency mid-terrace house. The address is now home to Zebrano, a funky bar and restaurant, but few, if any, of the venue’s late-night revellers would ever guess what once went on in this lively corner of the West End. In the 1860s it was the headquarters of the communist-founded International Working Men’s Association, but 90 years later it had became the address of seedy strip-joint named Club Tropicana. In October 1961 the building found another vocation as The Establishment Club, co-founded by Peter Cook, and so-named as a tongue-in-cheek swipe at the ruling classes of post-war Britain.

The club rapidly became the most revered comedy club of the 1960s. Everybody from Barry Humphries to Dudley Moore and Frankie Howerd played the venue, and because it was a private members’ club, it sat outside of the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain’s rules on public obscenity. As a result, it was home to some of the most controversial, radical and uncensored stand-up material ever heard in the capital.  When notoriously foul-mouthed American comic Lenny Bruce played the club in 1962, the Metropolitan police were notified. Although they couldn’t arrest him, the comedian was subsequently banned from re-entering the UK the following year.

Sadly, scant film footage of the venue exists, although Stanley Long did film comedian Ray Martine on stage for a sequence in his 1965 mondo movie, Primitive London. However, by that time, the club’s hip reputation had already started to wane; Peter Cook parted company with the venue in 1964 and whilst the building kept its famous name for a while, without its lanky star attraction it began fall from favour. In the meantime, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had relocated their particular brand of eccentric satire to BBC television. 

In the early-1970s the building had returned to its roots as a striptease club, and by 1975 it had become a sex cinema. Like its predecessors, the newly-christened ‘Exciting Cinema’ was, again, a private members’ club, meaning that it could play host to more explicit material compared to a mainstream venue; in short, this meant the exhibition of hardcore pornography. Several 60 to 80-seat ‘cinema clubs’ already existed around the West End, including The Playboy at 28 Wardour Street, Cin Cinema at 32 Old Compton Street and John Lindsay’s licentious London Blue Movie Centre at 37 Berwick Street. The latter club brazenly advertised itself with the strap-line: ‘See Naughty Girl Guides in Action!’

However, compared to its competitors, what made the Exciting Cinema unique was its sheer size. The venue’s grand boast as ‘London’s Most Luxurious Porno Cinema Club’ was no exaggeration; there were two cinemas in the complex (one 120-seat auditorium, the other a 50-seater), and the décor had the appearance of a plush preview theatre. In 1976, membership was £1 per year, and thereafter each film screening cost £3.25 (or two shows for £5). This was quite a hefty price-tag for the time, but customers were rewarded with a promise of  ‘air-conditioning, central heating, soft seats, female usherettes and a licensed bar’. The sex films, unlike those on offer at several other establishments, were all in colour and presented on 16mm in the larger screen, and 8mm on the other. I can only guess, but I’m sure Peter Cook was hugely amused by his old club’s sordid new lease of life.

Around 1977 the Exciting Cinema began advertising special screenings of Miss Bohrloch, the hardcore porn film Mary had shot several years previously in Frankfurt for Charlie Brown’s Tabu label. The cinema club’s claim that Mary’s movie had ‘never been shown before in this country’ wasn’t true, but Miss Bohrloch certainly hadn’t previously enjoyed such swanky surroundings. By the end of the Seventies, faced with competition from the emerging VHS porn market, the Exciting Cinema was promoting ‘no holds barred action films’ including ‘female-animal action & group action – plenty of spunking, fucking, sucking etc’. At the time, bizarre publicity material for the club used an image of a top-hatted gentleman, coin in hand, entering the premises; like some sort of latter-day, porn-obsessed Jack the Ripper.

By the start of the 1980s the Exciting Cinema changed its name to the much bawdier-sounding ‘Porno Palace’ and then sadly ceased operation, a victim of a new and virulent  anti-porn purge, rampaging right through the West End. The lovely old building subsequently became various restaurants and night-clubs, but has been home to Zebrano since March 2008. As far as I’m aware the interior of the porn cinema was never used as a location for a movie, but you can enjoy actress Pat Astley strolling past the cinema in the opening sequence of The Playbirds (shot in the autumn of 1977), as well as Alan Lake walking beside the illuminated frontage, one balmy October evening in 1978, in Confessions from the David Galaxy Affair.

In 2008 a wall-plaque  commemorating the building’s tenure as The Establishment Club and its importance in Peter Cook’s comedy career was unveiled. Sadly, no such plaque exists celebrating Miss Bohrloch and Mary Millington’s unique place in Soho history, so when you next walk past 18 Greek Street, spare a thought for the 4’11” blonde who also took on the might of the British Establishment…

All words strictly © Simon Sheridan 2014

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