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Turning points in Great Windmill Street

On this week's virtual ramble, Diary visits a stretch given its name by a 16th-century brewer, before a long association with entertainment as the shows went on even during the Blitz

13 November, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Great Windmill Street. Photo: Jeff Hitchcock

FROM where we left off in Lisle Street last week, let us pop into neighbouring Great Windmill Street for today’s instalment of our socially distanced, safe-as-houses saunter through Westminster.

No surprise that this stretch cutting between Brewer Street and Shaftesbury Avenue derives its name from a windmill – it is marked on a map dated 1585, and was owned by a brewer called Thomas Wilson.

From this pastoral idyll we are going to plunge headfirst into a world of classic Soho cultural entertainment which, let’s face it, is really what the street evokes.

Its long relationship with letting one’s hair down in one way or another started back in 1744, when a gentleman called John Cartwright built a tennis court attached to a gaming house called Piccadilly Hall.

By the 1820s Cartwright’s tennis court had become the site for theatre and circus performances – and would eventually morph into what is known today as the Windmill Theatre. A contemporary handbill offers an evening hosted by Christopher Lee Sugg, ventriloquist and conjurer. It also offered horsemanship, rope dancing and billiard tables – quite the night out.

By 1832 it had become the Royal Albion, and circumvented the law by offering people a membership subscription for entry. It meant no tickets were sold on the door and could avoid the censors’ whims of licensing authorities.

Owner Thomas Cooke, a circus impresario, fathered 40 children while in residence – giving him plenty of free labour to shift scenery about.

One hundred years later it saw a brief attempt to become London’s first arthouse cinema, advertising in 1931 that it “will be run on a policy of revivals of films regarded as classics and will make an appeal to a specialised public”.

It was not a great success, so owner Laura Henderson and her manager Vivian Van Damm hit on the wheeze for a “non-stop” variety show, with end-of-the-pier Vaudeville artistes who were facing harder times as the glitz of the movie industry took hold of the popular imagination, and young women in fetching outfits.

It was something of a last resort for Laura, who wanted to put on serious drama, but it would make the old playhouse famous.

“I started with an excellent play, Inquest,” she recalled. “At least all the critics said it was excellent, but it failed to please, and I lost more than I care to confess. I thought, if I lose all this over a good play, what am I going to lose over a bad one?”

When films also flopped, they decided variety was the game.

Judi Dench as Laura Henderson in the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents. Photo: The Weinstein Company

Henderson recalled its risqué slant was not what she expected.

“I was never allowed inside a theatre at all till I was married,” she said. “Consequently I had no idea of what it was like. My husband took me as my first effort to a Gaiety Burlesque. I, like most girls of that period, had been taught to regard legs as something you might perhaps meet in your bath, but never elsewhere, and my horror at the legs – rows and rows of them – I shall never forget. It’s true they were in tights, but they were undoubtedly legs. I had the shock of a lifetime, but was just bearing up when the principal came on with an enormous diamond star just in the middle of her thigh.

“This was more than I could bear, and I implored my husband to take me out, but he, being a wise man, said ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ and we remained.”

Uniquely the Windmill Theatre stayed open during the Blitz, hence its motto – “We Never Closed”. However, aware of the acres of flesh on show some wags changed it to “We Never Clothed”.

Opposite the Windmill is the stage door to the famous Lyric Theatre. But before the Lyric was built, it was home to a different type of theatre – it was the base for pioneering Scottish surgeon William Hunter from 1767.

He built a house and surgery on the site, and would hold lectures, dissections, and general medical chit-chat.

While there is little remaining of Hunter’s house, The Lyric’s fabric incorporates Hunter’s operating and lecture hall in part of its stage.

At Number 41 we come across the site of Club 11 – so called because it was owned by a businessman Harry Morris and then 10 bebop-playing jazz musicians.

A drugs raid saw officers find hashish and cocaine on customers and some broadsheet hand-wringing took place over the fact those arrested were young white men – undermining the racist idea that drug use was somehow something shady foreign types got up to.

Funnily enough, it was in a pub next door to Club 11 where GH MacDermott first sang GW Hunt’s By Jingo, popular during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 – and which has bequeathed us the word “jingoism” to describe a narrow nationalistic view.

It wasn’t always a case of hooray for Blighty in Great Windmill Street – the Red Lion opposite at Number 20 was a favoured boozer for Karl Marx. He regularly played chess there while enjoying inebriated bar stool preaching.

Finally, we’ll pop past the former headquarters of Israel Jacob “Jack” Solomons, one of the greatest boxing promoters ever to have stalked the streets.

He came from a family of Petticoat Lane fish merchants and got into the fight game in the 1930s.

From Great Windmill Street he set up 26 title fights, and brought Muhammad Ali to Britain twice (where The Greatest beat Brian London and Henry Cooper).

His first big bout came in 1945 – he hired White Hart Lane and drew a capacity crowd. He had to pay a 48 per cent entertainment tax, but it put him in the business.

“I can never forget I was running around, attending to last-minute details and then a gateman wouldn’t let me back inside for my own show. I told him I was Jack Solomons and that I was in a hurry. He replied: “And I’m Jack Solomons’ grandmother, and I ain’t in a hurry. Along with ye, mate, you don’t get in here.”

Later he would put a photograph of himself chomping a cigar on the front cover of fight programmes. One cannot help but wonder if this might be why.

Stay well. Stay safe.

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