Stephen McGinty: In with the real in crowd

Annabel's has the added attraction of exclusive cocktails. Picture: Getty

Annabel's has the added attraction of exclusive cocktails. Picture: Getty

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Annabel’s is first choice for royalty, aristocracy and the rich and famous when it comes to clubbing. But it has something more to offer than just decadent hedonism, writes Stephen McGinty

HER Majesty the Queen rather lacks the reputation of a disco diva. When one’s life is surrounded by the Crown Jewels, it will be hard to be dazzled by the glitter ball of an ordinary nightclub. Yet there is one nocturnal establishment into whose louche surroundings Queen Elizabeth has deigned to enter. While it is not known if she took to the dance floor – I rather doubt it somehow – her drink of choice was duly recorded by the barman who took her order: “Gin martini – no lemon.” Annabel’s, the private member’s club located in the basement of a town house at 44 Berkeley Square in London’s Mayfair, has yet to attain the status “by royal appointment”, but if a nightclub in Britain is ever to be so bestowed, there really isn’t any other more suitable choice.

For it was here, on the small dancefloor to which the guests stepped down, that Princess Diana liked to dance, preferably barefoot, a tradition, minus the nude feet of course, carried on by both her sons. When Prince Andrew held his bachelor party at Annabel’s, both Diana and the prince’s bride-to-be, Sarah Ferguson, decided to join the fun while dressed as police women, with arresting results.

Last week, a documentary, Annabel’s: A String of Naked Lightbulbs, was released in selected cinemas. It is about the private member’s club, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and must rate as the most exclusive nightclub in the world, and also, perhaps, the most expensive, having been bought over in 2007 for £90 million by Richard Caring, the clothing entrepreneur and owner of The Ivy restaurant. The film, executive produced by Ridley Scott and directed by Greg Fay, is a worthy homage to an establishment designed for the Establishment and so makes for a fascinating piece of social history.

Since opening its doors in 1963, many of those who have shaped the world in which we now live passed by the top-hatted doorman and went down the steps into a subterranean world of plush fabrics, gold-burnished framed paintings and coyly smiling Buddhas. Like Cheers, the Boston bar, which was also set in a basement, at Annabel’s, indeed, “Everybody knows your name and is really glad you came”. But this is also because patrons’ names were of the calibre of president Richard Nixon, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra – names few staff would forget, even if they didn’t come bearing $100 tips.

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Last week, my name was temporarily added to the guest list, and who wouldn’t wish to peek inside an establishment that once featured in a political cartoon in which Harold Wilson’s demands included: (5) “Compulsory exams on Mao’s thoughts” and (6) “Nationalise Annabel’s Club”. According to the documentary, the MPs most delighted to be invited by contacts to dine in the club were from the Labour Party.

It should first be pointed out I have never been one of nature’s “clubbers”. For many, an ability to dance is difficult, but I lack even a basic sense of rhythm that precludes even dancing with my own wife for fear of providing ample grounds for divorce. An abstemious nature also means I can’t even apply enough alcohol to loosen said limbs or steep my brain to the point where I can be self-hypnotised into believing that I’m a natural John Travolta.

I have also, in the past, lacked suitable attire. My wife still mocks me over an occasion when I was asked by my then employer to infiltrate an achingly hip London nightclub, owned by a prominent donor to the Labour Party, in a bid to discover what illegal drugs were available on the premises. As my natural wardrobe of chinos and cord jackets were deemed a barrier to entry, I had to borrow her leather jacket. The evening was a disaster, over which an elegantly draped curtain must now be drawn.

Yet what was surprising is that Annabel’s turned out to be my type of club. There is a prescribed dress code, with gentlemen required to wear a shirt with collar and suit jacket. Ties are no longer mandatory, as in the days when Eric Clapton was turned away and Mick Jagger had to borrow one from the doorman, but if one is wearing a shirt and jacket, why not complete the trio with a tie? Suitably attired, I stepped out of a taxi at 11pm and was ushered down the stairs by the doorman with a tip of his top hat.

Guests arrive in a narrow corridor decorated with sepia-toned paintings, antique skiing posters and elegant nudes, both paintings and sketches. Mark Birley, the son of a society painter, who founded the club in 1963, said he wanted it to “smell of exclusivity and sex”. He named the club after his wife, Lady Annabel, the daughter of the 8th Marquess of Londonderry, who, unfortunately for him, within a year of the venue opening, began an affair with his close friend Sir James Goldsmith, a lover whom she would later marry.

While Annabel’s remains a lasting testimony to Mark Birley’s good taste, and while the business accrued tremendous value, buttressed by a membership of 9,000 people paying an annual subscription of £900, plenty of rain would fall into his life. The couple’s son, Robin was, as a child, mauled and permanently disfigured by a tiger that belonged to John Aspinall, a family friend. Their eldest son disappeared, believed drowned, while in Togo. In later life, Mark Birley and Robin would become bitterly estranged after he handed over the club, then took it back. There was also the small matter of Robin hiring a private detective to spy on his sister’s boyfriend. This chasm, which prompted the club’s sale in 2007, remained unbridged at the time of Mark’s death in 2008.

The documentary touches lightly on such matters, allowing the camera to drift over newspaper headlines that spell out the painful past. Yet visitors to Annabel’s do have the feeling of stepping away from the stress and strain of the outside world and can be afforded the luxury of the past. When Dean Martin was still alive, he wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to sip a bourbon here – although claret is the club’s drink of choice – and, well, who wouldn’t want to party with Dean. A few minutes after my arrival, and I’m whisked past the bar and the elegant dining tables to the comfortable low seats in front of the little stage where, in the past, stars such as Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Bryan Ferry and, most recently, Lady Gaga have performed. (Shirley Bassey performed but was promptly banned for many years after daring to kick the club’s legendary maître d’.)

Quietly sipping my virgin moijito, as a band played classic old Italian hits, I thought the establishment couldn’t get any better, but then the manager, Claudio Vigilante, ushered me upstairs to what can only be described as a heaven on earth for smokers – granted they may well encounter the real thing earlier than most. A cigar terrace such as this, with a small bar, heaters, quilted chairs and covered roof, would be utterly prohibited in Scotland, where the government will not tolerate anything that allows a cigar – or cigarette for that matter – to be smoked in anything that could be considered as comfortable surroundings.

The cigar terrace, an addition by Richard Caring, the new owner, has helped to maintain the club’s profitability as well as bringing in new and younger members. Puffing on a Romeo y Julieta short robusto, I couldn’t help but again think back to Cheers and its theme song:

“Taking a break from all your troubles, sure would help a lot…” Even the Establishment needs a local.

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