Re-established: The Establishment is back
Keith Allen and Victor Lewis-Smith are reviving Peter Cook's seminal satirical night spot. Join the club…
In August 1961, Peter Cook was standing outside Club Tropicana on Greek Street. The young comedian was about to reinvent it as a brand new venue: down would come the awning advertising 'All Girl Strip Revue'; up would go one announcing 'London's First Satirical Nightclub'. The Establishment had arrived.
Revelling in its flagrantly ironic name ('the only good title that I ever thought of', Cook famously said), this cradle of the satire boom did for live venues what 'Beyond the Fringe' had done for revue shows, Private Eye was doing for journalism and 'That Was the Week That Was' would do for TV: injected the irreverence of the postwar generation into a culture still largely hidebound to deferential tradition.
Not that Cook thought he was taking a chance. 'I didn't think it was a risk at all,' he later told Clive James. 'My dread in my last year in Cambridge was that somebody else would have this very obvious idea to do political cabaret uncensored by the Lord Chamberlain. I thought it was a certainty.'
The Establishment indeed proved to be a hit. Mostly funded by advance subscriptions, from people happy to pay up front for entertainment exempt from the strictures still applied to 'public' performance, it set a new benchmark for daring comedy from the likes of Lenny Bruce, Barry Humphries and Frankie Howerd, as well as showcasing contemporary music (Dudley Moore and his band were regulars, naturally).
There were plenty of hairy moments: the Krays approached Cook for protection money and he was once left bleeding after an unhappy patron clobbered him with her handbag. The club spawned a New York offshoot before closing in 1964 and entering Soho mythology.
This month, Keith Allen, Victor Lewis-Smith and Mike O'Brien stand - metaphorically speaking - a block away, as they prepare to revive The Establishment over on Frith Street, initially as a pop-up night at Ronnie Scott's. The venture originated in a conversation between Cook's widow Lin and Lewis-Smith, who has produced documentaries with 'The Comic Strip Presents…' veteran Allen, and whose own satirical projects include 'TV Offal'. Not long before his death in 1995, Cook had considered bringing the club back. 'Comedy was going into big-bucks mode and he could see what was happening,' says O'Brien, an old friend of Lewis-Smith's and co-founder of comedy label Laughing Stock Productions. Today, they feel, there's even more need for alternative work.
'There's a general malaise in the entertainment world,' says Allen, who will be master of ceremonies. 'It's in a state of flux. It doesn't know which way to go. I can't bear another bus stop queue full of comics - this incessant production line, it's so boring.'
The new night, he says, will be 'a quite definite reaction to government, that's for sure, but [the original club] was big enough to embrace everything and that's what we want to do. There will be music, there will be performance art. I like just being in a room with lots of people and seeing what happens. That's the only thing that would draw me back into entertainment in front of a live audience. When it becomes a market and a saleable commodity, you're playing to people's expectations. If they don't have any, it's much more exciting, much more fertile. I've always maintained that the energy comes from the audience.'
In fact, says Allen, that gives him an idea. 'I'd been wondering, in historical terms, who would tell the first joke at the new Establishment club. I'd have thought it would be me, but maybe it'll be the audience. I'll auction it!'
Both Allen and O'Brien are cagey about their line-up. 'We're keeping it quiet because we're presenting it as an anarchic night of comedy, cabaret and music,' O'Brien says. 'Some names you'll be familiar with, some not. The material would probably be unbroadcastable on the BBC.” In other words, 'Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow' it ain't. As reference points for the kind of cabaret they're keen to feature, O'Brien mentions talented, progressive acts such as Dickie Beau and Legs Malone. On the music side, James Pearson's house band will explore Dudley Moore's repertoire.
The current plan is for the night to run monthly at Ronnie Scott's with an eye to setting up as a members' club - though, 'hopefully' not an expensive one, O'Brien says - ideally located at The Establishment's original Greek Street premises, currently occupied by Zebrano, a bar. O'Brien has plans to webcast shows, both as a way to make money and to reach an international audience. Lewis-Smith is also shooting documentary material about the project with his independent TV producer hat on.
With an 11.30pm start time, the show marks a tantalising addition to Soho's after-hours landscape. 'We'll be bringing back late-night community singing,' Allen promises. 'We haven't really had it since the Blitz.' The more things change…