London‘s best club?

Bingo, burlesque, naked clowns and rollerskating teagirls. Could this be London‘s best ever club?

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    London's best club? Probably

    There’s a soft mist of rain in the air on this Friday night, but the queue still stretches round the corner of the East End Victorian building. Guys in skinny jeans and cravats stroll in with pretty young things corseted into dresses their grandmothers might have worn. A girl on rollerskates sweeps past pouring Earl Grey tea into car-boot-sale china, while a trestle table heaves under the weight of home-made sandwiches and cakes. On stage, a rock ’n’ roll band warms up, and the DJ puts on a Chuck Berry record.

    Welcome to the coolest joint in town – Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. The club opened at 42 Pollard Row, E2, on July 7 1953, but it wasn’t until 2002 that event organiser Warren Dent ‘discovered’ it while scouting for a venue, and set about putting on a range of club nights. The plan quickly ran into licensing problems, but with the situation finally sorted last Christmas, Dent focused his attentions on booking regular events (including Viva Cake, on Time Out’s visit). And the eclectic results have been a revelation.

    Count Indigo, 41, one of the promoters of Workers Playtime (which started in May 2002, and has showcased Egyptian sand dancers, Jarvis Cocker and Bulgarian folk tunes on the ukulele), puts the popularity of the venue down to a number of things. ‘It’s partly to do with the whole show-cum-club-cum-cabaret nexus that’s been popular for a few years, but is at its zenith now. It’s also cheap and cheerful; what you see is what you get. There are places like it, but they’ve been designed to look that way. When you walk in, you get a sense of purpose and history. It’s all about community, and it’s really hard to feel part of a community in London.’


    Not that the old-timers have been booted out into the streets. The basement remains the inner sanctum for members. The parties happen in the school hall-styled main room upstairs – complete with Formica walls and red velvet curtains. The place is the antithesis of superclubs like Fabric, and party-goers love the fact that bottles of beer are £2.50 as opposed to nearer a fiver in the West End. Members, meanwhile, are overjoyed that their beloved club is close to paying off its crippling £40,000 debt, and is able to afford essential works to the building – the club’s last overhaul was in the early 1970s.

    Semi-spontaneous ‘happenings’ like Viva Cake, The Karminsky Experience, Oh My God I Miss You, XXXX and the Whoopee Club are the most exciting phenomenon in clubland right now. Promoters barely out of school are lining up circus acts, tarot readers, spanking new bands, jive instructors and DJs whose music collections go far beyond the latest top ten sellers from the Soho record shops. Make no mistake: this shabby East End working men’s club is the centre of London clubland. Go now.

    DJs Martin and James Karminsky

    Martin (39) and James (41) Karminsky, DJs
    ‘As soon as we walked through the doors,’ says Martin, a DJ at Workers Playtime, ‘we went “wow”. It’s so untouched. The members have always been very nice to us, but I think they were quite bemused in the beginning. All of these young people, dressing up. The location’s great, it’s just slightly off the beaten track – it’s a destination venue, and out of the Hoxton loop.’Is Martin concerned the refurbishment will ruin the aesthetics? ‘As long as they keep the sticky carpet and the broken wall lights,’ he laughs. ‘It is very charming in its original state. But I can’t ever imagine it being flash.’

    Club member Chris Giff (right)

    Chris Giff (68), club member
    ‘The kids upstairs think they’ve got the march on us,’ says Chris Giff, who’s been going to the club for 35 years since arriving from Ireland. ‘But they’re experiencing what we did 20 years ago. Isn’t it wonderful? I don’t know why, but the creative cream flock here. The place can’t close, it’s a living organ. People celebrate births, deaths, marriages, promotions, ninetieth birthdays and communions here. The beauty of this place is that if you’ve been to a funeral, you can come here and no one’s going to say anything if you have a little cry, but you couldn’t do that in a pub now, could you? My grandson is ten and I want him to celebrate his eighteenth here.’

    Warren Dent (34), promoter, and Steven Smorthit (51), club secretary
    ‘I’ve been coming here all my life,’ says Smorthit, who refuses to take wages, despite working up to 30 hours a week. ‘I first came with my dad to keep him happy and made my way up the ladder.’ Dent lived in Old Street until he was six, and regularly visited the club, which was known as the Repton Boxing Club, with his father, who was a keen boxer. After throwing occasional magazine launches and other parties, he discovered what dire trouble the place was in and set about bringing promoters to the table – not to mention taking on the council to get the licence changed (until then, ‘we were surviving on secret parties and photoshoots,’ he admits). ‘When we got the licence, we didn’t open every night. With a place like this, the pensioners feel as though they’ve got a community here,’ he says, ‘they wouldn’t feel safe just going to a pub.’

    Emmy the Great, rollerskating waitress

    Emmy the Great (22), rollerskating waitress
    ‘The club is amazing. They have always got something different, whether it’s a cake dance or a circus dance, not just an indie disco. I see a lot of the people [who come to events here] at festivals. When I arrived at the first Viva Cake last October, the promoters gave me a pair of skates and just pushed me towards the food. I think I’ve broken the most teacups of anyone at Viva Cake, if not the club. I haven’t dropped any food, though I often spill hot tea on people, but they’re so nice – they can see that I’m an amateur, I guess.’

    Promoters Becky, Stuart and Caroline

    Becky Forknall (25), Caroline Breen (26) and Stuart Thorn (26), promoters Flying in the face of the stereotype of the lazy, coke-snorting, money-grabbing promoter, Forknall, Breen and ‘technical wizard and ringmaster’ Thorn have worked day and night since last July to transform the venue for their monthly parties. Switching between the sleazy cabaret and naughty burlesque of the Hellfire Club and the circus-themed club night Get in the Ring, acts have included stripping clowns and a woman dressed as a peacock that eats vegetables in, ahem, a special way. ‘You go into a different world when you get there,’ says Breen, ‘so as a promoter, you’re halfway there when you walk into it.’ ‘Everything’s charming,’ agrees Forknall, ‘It’s just like going back in time to how things used to be. It’s nice that it’s small, it means that there’s a massive queue and people make a lot of effort to get in. Even so, people who come are really excited and charmed, rather than being a mass of trendy types going because they think they should.’

    Lorraine Hicks (43), barmaid
    ‘What do I do? I’m the dogsbody! I work behind the bar, do the unloading, whatever needs doing. I’ve been here four years. I can’t tell you how busy it’s been getting lately, but it’s such a nice atmosphere and we don’t ever get trouble. Upstairs, we get famous people, Teddy boys, fire-eaters, girls all dressed up. Some bring their mums to the burlesque nights when there’s a striptease. Downstairs, it’s men, grandparents, children. They play bingo while upstairs everyone’s wearing costumes and a bellydancer’s doing a show. This is Bethnal Green’s best kept secret.’

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