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I was 17 the first time I stepped inside Madame Jojo’s cabaret club. I went to see a band at the famous White Heat night, lost my friends on the hazy amble through Soho, and still had an incredible time. After another night at the club, on my nineteenth birthday, I ended up in Trafalgar Square at 4am having a lovely chat with some climate change protestors. Madame Jojo’s was that kind of place.
For over half a century, the club’s weird art deco interior was an arena for all sorts of fun – some of it seedy, and much of it seminal. Everyone from Lily Savage to Adele and The XX made early appearances. Cabaret and queer clubs sat alongside indie and electro nights. Marcus Harris, who co-ran White Heat at Jojo’s for almost ten years, says that this eclectic mixture was key to its appeal: ‘You always got people turning up for the cabaret or tranny events, so you ended up with a mixed crowd, and everyone got on.’
‘Madame Jojo’s holds a unique place in London’s nightlife history,’ adds Time Out’s former Cabaret editor Ben Walters. ‘It’s an emblem of a rich and provocative past, and a site for exciting new performance.’
But last week, that all came to an end. Following a fight in October between members of the public and staff from Jojo’s and the Escape bar next door, Westminster Council took away both venues’ licences. ‘The police outlined serious concerns,’ the council says, ‘and so we had to take action.’
So what’s next for the empty club? The council have already approved a planning application for drastic redevelopment. In September 2013, Soho Estates proposed a dreary-looking block of shops, offices and high-end flats, which was signed off despite complaints that it would wreck the character of the area. Images of the planned buildings show boring couples strolling down Walker’s Court (one of the last bits of the romanticised old Soho), and the doors to Madame Jojo’s and Escape as shop fronts. ‘The [nightclub unit], currently occupied by Madame Jojo’s, will undergo extensive demolition and remodelling,’ says a council report published a year ago.
‘We should not let Soho’s lights go out on our watch’
Are the plans connected to the closure of the club? ‘Planning and licensing decisions are governed under two entirely separate pieces of legislation,’ a council spokesperson told us this week, ‘and planning applications have no bearing whatsoever on a licensing committee decision.’ Soho Estates told Time Out: ‘We own the rights to the name Madame Jojo’s and we hope to recreate the concept in the new development.’ So Jojo’s could perhaps live again, in some form or another.
But the historic club has joined the half a dozen other venues in the area that have closed in recent years. It was also one of Soho’s last cheap nightspots. (Soho Estates’ plans retain The Box nightclub next door, where the minimum spend for a table of four is £2,000, as it is.)
‘We’re being robbed of our cultural heritage,’ says Harris. ‘The sheer number of venue closures in the last five years is unbelievable: so much has been taken in the name of regeneration. Regeneration for who? It’s cultural sanitisation and a hatred of independence.’
How can we fight against this trend, which has also recently claimed Buffalo Bar in Islington and the Joiners’ Arms in Shoreditch? People power might be worth a try. A Change.org petition, ‘Save Madame Jojo’s’, attracted 6,000 signatures in its first two days. ‘We should not let Soho’s lights go out on our watch,’ it says. Add your support, and maybe we can keep them burning through at least a few more unforgettable nights.