Heaven nightclub celebrates its 40th anniversary
Danny Halpin talks to its general manager about its past, present and future.
07 February, 2020 — By Danny Halpin
Photo by Linda Brindley
When Heaven first opened its doors in December 1979, only 12 years had passed since the Sexual Offences Act, decriminalising homosexuality.
Prejudice was still rife and the gay clubbing scene still sheltered in basements with club owners paying off the police in order to avoid being raided.
Founder of the infamous Charing Cross hangout, Jeremy Norman, inspired by the New York scene, opened the club in response to Manhattan’s Studio 54, famed for its celebrity clientele, wild parties and sexual freedom.
“Heaven was the first club of its size catering to the lesbian and gay crowd,” says Mark Ellicott, who has been general manager of the club since 2008. “Previously, the majority of LGBT venues were fairly small, squalid, dingy, underground pub cellars. If they were above ground they had their windows blackened… there was none of this flying the flag you have nowadays because if you made it too obvious you’d get your windows smashed.”
The club quickly became a haven for the LGBT community. Punters from around the country flocked to London on the back of rumours and legend, most of them entering a gay club, and the gay community, for the first time.
Some of the original nights barred entry for straight men and women because there was a concern that letting everybody in would encourage “tourism”, voyeurs not there to party but to satisfy their perverse curiosity into how gay people expressed themselves.
One scathing article from a News of the World journalist in 1981 titled “A Club Named Heaven that is more like Hell,” shows some of the hostility that the gay community faced at the time.
“How the tabloid press regarded us was also how the local authority and police regarded us at the time,” said Mark. “We were barely tolerated by the authorities, but it’s improved as the political climate has changed.”
Now, Heaven has a great relationship with the local council and the nights are a complete mix between gay and straight crowds.
In fact, Heaven did have nights for mixed crowds as early as 1981, hosting live bands such as New Order, who played their debut London show there, Nick Cave’s first band The Birthday Party and industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle.
It also hosted the explosion of dance and acid-house that swept through the 1980s like a burst dam and brought together people that had previously been socially excluded from one another, while also providing a springboard for unknown DJs to reach the heady heights of world fame.
Paul Oakenfold is just one of many who began his career there.
Before Mark joined as general manager, live music was the exception rather than the rule.
“We’re not a natural live music venue,” he explains. “We have four busy club events a week so there are earlier curfew restrictions and the load-in facilities are not great.”
The live events and the weekly G-A-Y club nights together bring in over 40,000 people a month. Heaven is a thriving oasis in a hostile environment – no other venue in central London has the same 1,200 capacity.
According to Westminster Council, the number of LGBT clubs in the city has fallen by 58 per cent since 2006, so Heaven’s recent listing as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) comes like a late birthday present to the club, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in December.
The ACV means that an LGBT community group would have exclusive buying rights if the club were to go up for sale, preventing redevelopers from taking over and ensuring the venue stays with the community long into the future.