Over 50 years ago, comedian Peter Cook’s comedy club was one of the multi-media trio which created the satire boom in the early 1960s.
There was live comedy at Peter Cook’s club The Establishment; there was Peter Cook’s Private Eye magazine; and, on TV, there was That Was The Week That Was – the original pilot for the show had been a series of satirical sketches based on The Establishment Club. When Cook was in New York, performing in Beyond The Fringe, the BBC re-fashioned the show and replaced Peter Cook with David Frost. Cook later half-jokingly complained that Frost’s subsequent success was based on copying his (Cook’s) own stage persona and that his only regret in life had been once saving Frost from drowning.
The original Establishment Club started in London in August 1961 and lasted until 1964. It was at 18 Greek Street in Soho which, before that, had been the Club Tropicana boasting an All Girl Strip Revue. Cook replaced the sign with one saying London’s First Satirical Nightclub. It is now the Zebrano Bar.
And now The Establishment club has been re-started by amiable Laughing Stock record label boss Mike O’Brien, who has a treasure trove of early alternative comedy club recordings… by actor/comedian Keith Allen, with whom I worked at Noel Gay Television around 1989… and by journalist Victor Lewis-Smith who also produces TV programmes.
Victor (an otherwise entirely admirable chap) once threatened me with legal action for uploading onto YouTube a sales tape for a planned documentary by Keith Allen about comedian Malcolm Hardee’s funeral. I thought this was an over-reaction, as what I uploaded was what his company were using to try to generate interest in the suggested programme from TV broadcast companies. The documentary eventually failed to find a buyer and the full footage of the funeral and its aftermath still languishes unseen on a shelf somewhere; it had originally been planned for Channel 4 transmission but the TV station backed-out, I am told, because Malcolm was “not well-known enough”.
But, anyway, this highly creative trio have re-started The Establishment club in Soho.
According to Keith Allen last night: “We’re trying to re-open the Establishment Club at its old premises in Greek Street as a members’ club. The idea is that we will create a room where you can come in and your expectations will be undermined. Anything can happen. It might involve somebody coming up and talking about something very interesting and pertinent and you listening; it might involve you dancing; it might involve you doing anything. Anything is possible. And the time is right, now, to make sure that anything can be possible. Which is why we’re doing the Establishment Club.”
For the moment, though, there are planned monthly performances at Ronnie Scott’s Club in Frith Street.
On their opening night this week – on Wednesday – they had comedians Terry Alderton, Arnold Brown, Phil Nichol and others, plus ex-rogue MP George Galloway saying he thought Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was innocent of the rape allegations he now faces. According to the review in today’s Independent by Julian Hall, a former judge for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards, “ultimately, this tribute to Pete was a dud”.
I was unable to go to the opening night but did go last night with low expectations and I thought they managed to pull off the almost impossible. They have re-imagined The Establishment for 2012. They have the makings of a very entertaining and potentially even occasionally controversial comedy club here. Except it is not a comedy club.
At the Edinburgh Fringe this year, I saw what appears to be the rise of Cabaret with acts and shows like Dusty Limits, East End Cabaret, Lili La Scala’s Another Fucking Variety Show, Mat Ricardo’s Voodoo Varieties, and Tricity Vogue’s Ukelele Cabaret providing more laughs, entertainment and originality than, arguably, most stand-up comedy.
Indeed, the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show this year was compered not by a stand-up comic but by cabaret legend Miss Behave and it was more a cabaret variety show than a stand-up comedy show.
So, last night, The Establishment did have two excellent stand-ups on – Scott Capurro and Paul Sinha – but they also had their house jazz band, the James Pearson Trio plus comedian Lee Kern with a video story about Twitter and the astonishingly good (and strangely un-introduced) Dickie Beau performing a red-haired, red-costumed drag act mimed to genuine recordings of an increasingly drunken Judy Garland.
We also had Ophelia Bitz screening a sadly ineffective compilation of early 20th century hard core porn films involving fellatio and cunnilingus (neither erotic nor, to a 2012 Establishment audience, shocking) but – again on the Rise-of-Cabaret theme – performing some stonkingly good songs… In my opinion, anyone who manages to rhyme “cunnilingus” with “music by Mingus” at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club is worth the entire price of admission.
And then we come to what were, to me, the two most interesting ‘acts’ of the night.
The Strypes are an astonishingly good 4-piece rock band from Cavan in Ireland. Keith Allen introduced them as having an average age of 14 though, on Irish TV’s Late Late Show in April, they were said to have an average age of 15. But, whatever, they are very young and very, very talented. Like all starters, they are copying. There are bits of the Rolling Stones, bits of the Beatles, bits of Jimi Hendrix, even bits (I thought) of the Velvet Underground – the shades of the lead singer.
But, strutting and posing and staring, they have an extraordinary presence. Keith Allen introduced them by saying to the audience:
“You know one of them is going to end up on the crack pipe. One of them is going to ‘come out’ and ignore his female fanbase. And one is obviously going to end up on heroin. You decide which one it’s gonna be…”
They have a very strong drummer and a very strong bass player holding everything together. An amazing, charismatic-voiced lead singer. And a lead guitarist to die for, mixing Keith Richard stares with soaring fluid guitar and dropping-to-the-knees Jimi Hendrix moments.
They are amazing. They are copying, but copying from the best with years to develop. They believe in what they act out. They are living the dream.
Last night, The Strypes also performed what was, to my ears, a version of My Generation better than The Who’s version.
The other extraordinary ‘performer’ at The Establishment last night was Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who was sacked in October 2004.
He, like George Galloway, believes that Julian Assange is not guilty of the rape charges. (I am not so sure myself.)
Craig Murray said last night that he believes there is “a really strange alliance between the liberal/Left Guardianista Establishment and the Right Wing Murdoch commentariat to attack Assange. Even suggesting he might be innocent seems to be somehow socially disgraceful, something you’re not allowed to say in the media. I’m pretty convinced he’s innocent.
“I came across Extraordinary Rendition, torturing people to get intelligence, shipping people into Uzbekistan in order for them to be tortured… So I resigned and blew the whistle, which any honest person would do. But I found myself immediately charged with sexual allegations. I was charged with issuing visas in return for sexual favours.
“But it’s not only me. I can name Scott Ritter, former UN arms inspector… Janis Karpinski, brigadier general, who blew the whistle on Donald Rumsfeld’s approval of the torture techniques at Abu Ghraib prison,.. James Yee, chaplain at Guantanamo Bay…
“All of these people blew the whistle and all of these people, in the week following blowing the whistle, were charged with unrelated criminal offences. And that’s what ‘they’ do. All the male ones were of a sexual nature.
“It’s extraordinary that this happens so often to whistleblowers and people just don’t see it. I know, because they did it to me, what they’re doing to Julian. And the media should damn well know it too, but the media doesn’t publish it. What I’ve just said about all these people who, one after the other, have been charged with sexual offences after blowing the whistle… Has anyone read that in the mainstream media? No. Because the bastards will not publish it.”
“Are all whistle-blowers perverts?” someone shouted out from the audience.
“Well,” said Craig Murray, “it’s extraordinary that that narrative could be accepted. I was fighting the government like hell over Extraordinary Rendition and arms in Iraq. In the middle of that fight, did I suddenly decide I was going to blackmail a visa applicant into sex? Brigadier Janis Karpinski - the senior female in the American Army – she blew the whistle on Rumsfeld’s torture techniques – did she actually come home and the very next day decide to go shoplifting?
“It makes no bloody sense. And yet the media accept these stupid narratives. For me, it’s very scary. I don’t think people realise the extent to which the corporate ownership of the media combines with an ultra-corrupt political elite who have poisoned our society.
“I blew the whistle on torture. People were being boiled alive. I mean it. People were boiled alive. I actually got a pathology report on dissidents who were boiled alive in Uzbekistan. They had a factory, in effect. And it wasn’t just there. Mubarak was doing it (in Egypt). Gaddafy was doing the same (in Libya). These dictators were boiling people alive, were torturing people for the CIA, for MI6, who were shipping people around in order to be tortured, in order to get intelligence which exaggerated the strength of al-Queda, which exaggerated the Islamic threat.
“And the reason for that is the government was using that largely invented threat in order to clamp down on civil liberties and opposition at home.
“We are besieged by a single narrative in the media. All we have is social media, the internet, to fight against it and try to build up networks for a wider dialogue. I’m certainly hoping that what you’re doing with The Establishment club will give a chance for people like me – who have got something strange and different to say, something that you don’t get to hear every day on the normal media – to come along and say it.”
I should mention, here, that I do not necessarily agree with everything I quote other people as saying in this blog, but that last bit about The Establishment club I agree with.
Long live The Establishment club!
Though I am old enough to know that hoping is not the same as getting…