Tag Archives: Windmill Theatre

Martin Besserman brings Alternative Variety to the London comedy circuit

It’s Camden Cabaret and the man behind it…

Martin Besserman, host of the long-established London comedy club Monkey Business is starting another night on Friday this week at his regular venue – the Pembroke Castle in Primrose Hill/Chalk Farm… It is not altogether comedy, though there will be some.

So we had a chat about it in his car, because it was raining. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? It was bloody wet.


JOHN: So, your new Camden Cabaret night. It involves burlesque. Will you be getting your kit off?

MARTIN: (LAUGHS) The most I’m likely to do is show a nipple. Those days of me showing a bit of my body – which I used to do at Speaker’s Corner – are long gone.

JOHN: You’re a long-time comedy venue runner. So why are you starting it? Bottom fallen out of comedy?

MARTIN: Well, all businesses are challenging. I was once a market trader. Before that, I was in a band and this is part of my journey in life. I’ve always been attracted to providing entertainment.

JOHN: So from band to street market to comedy to stripping.

MARTIN: I think stripping is an exaggeration. These days, stripping completely naked is rare. The emphasis is more on the creative aspect. I have gone through something like 150 different clips to identify the more creative and funny burlesque performers.

JOHN: How you suffer for your art…

MARTIN: (LAUGHS) But the shows are not just burlesque. It’s a real variety show.

“I was in a band” – Martin was performing in the mid-1980s…

JOHN: You know I have this obsession that, when Alternative Comedy first started in the mid-1980s, you would see a magician, a juggler, a comedian, all sorts of bizarre acts on the bill. Now you go to a comedy club and it’s six 24-year-old white blokes talking about wanking and how they watch porn.

MARTIN: And variety was on the bill before the 1980s as well. Bruce Forsyth and Ken Dodd and all those people. Our shows will have burlesque and drag artists and comedians and magicians. The character of the night will be one of unpredictability.

JOHN: Ironically, a lot of those old-school comics learnt their trade dying terrible on-stage deaths to apathetic audiences in between strippers at The Windmill.

MARTIN: Well, the new type of burlesque has really taken off in a big way. It is huge. Once there was an awareness that I was going to host this kind of night, a lot of performers – more than I had ever envisaged – were sending me their clips and wanting to get on the night. Perhaps in recognition that Monkey Business has been hugely successful over many, many years.

JOHN: Will you be having comics like (I NAMED A SPECIFIC COMIC) on the Camden Cabaret bill?

MARTIN: Well, we are living in a completely different political environment and it’s a dilemma for me to allow people to be a little bit rebellious on stage without offending customers who you want to return.

JOHN: So the punters won’t be offended by tits and bums, but they might be offended by (THE SPECIFIC COMIC I NAMED).

MARTIN: And you know why also? Because the burlesque performers are primarily feminists.

JOHN: Really?

Martin starts to prepare for the big night on Friday

MARTIN: Well, you gotta understand there would certainly be feminists opposed to the idea of women taking their clothes off and potentially turning men on. But – again – I have to say this is not about women taking their clothes off. This is about Art and we have some really, really creative performers. There’s a marvellous hula-hoop girl. Not all of the burlesque performers take their clothes off. 

On the night that Stephen Bailey is hosting – because I’m taking a back seat on some of these – he has an act on called Soul Illusion, a wonderful magic dance act.

What I’m trying to bring to this night is unpredictability. And it’s all about costumes as well. I’m trying to create a combination of old fashioned AND new entertainment. By doing that, we will hopefully cater for all.

It’s a cabaret night that happens to have a bit of burlesque in it. And comedy. And drag. But not always drag and not necessarily always burlesque.

It will cater for the straight AND the gay community. I should point out that The Black Cap in Camden closed about five years ago. It was a gay pub before homosexuality was even legal. (Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967) It did temporarily relocate to another venue in Camden, but it was very very short-lived.

I am not saying that Camden Cabaret will be a replacement for The Black Cap, but I hope Camden Cabaret will cater for that community as well.

JOHN: A bit like the late lamented Madame Jojo’s in Soho, then…?

MARTIN: Yes.

JOHN: And Camden Cabaret is not replacing Monkey Business but is running in tandem…

“I’m trying to create a combination of old fashioned AND new entertainment…”

MARTIN: Yes. Monkey Business is at the Pembroke Castle on Thursdays and Saturdays… and Camden Cabaret is on Fridays.

JOHN: You have President Obonjo appearing on your second Camden Cabaret show – presumably not stripping – and the wonderful Malcolm Hardee Award winning Candy Gigi compering your third and fourth nights.

MARTIN: Yes. For what I want to achieve with this kind of night – unpredictability – she will be fantastic. I want it to be a crazy kinda night.

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Filed under Burlesque, Cabaret, Comedy, Drag, Gay, London

Save Soho!

Tim Arnold stands next to a photo of his mum

Tim stands by a photo of his mum in a Windmill programme

I was chatting to singer-songwriter Tim Arnold, aka The Soho Hobo about his Save Soho! campaign following the sudden closure of iconic Soho club Madame JoJo’s.

I photographed him standing by a photo of his mother.

“Gillian Arnold,” I said, reading the name on the photo.

“Yes,” said Tim. “Mother was a Windmill girl, just before it closed down. She was the youngest nude at the Windmill Theatre at 15. She changed her name to Polly Perkins.”

“Polly Perkins?” I said, genuinely surprised. “Heavens! Really?”

“Yes,” said Tim. “That’s my mum. She was one of the first presenters on Ready Steady Go! before Cathy McGowan. She made several records in the 1960s. Jimmy Page played lead guitar for her for a time, which was inspiring for me when I started writing music. She ran her own club in Mayfair: The Candlelight Club. And then she was a TV actress in both Eldorado and, three years ago, EastEnders.”

The reason I mention this is to show Tim Arnold has quite a background in both show business and in London’s Soho.

Passers by - Madame JoJo’s last night

Soho punters passing by the closed Madame JoJo’s last night

In late October, there was a fight between Madame JoJo’s bouncers and a customer. The police report recommended the club’s licence be suspended. The club changed its manager and selected a new team of bouncers approved by Westminster Council. The Council then permanently revoked Madame JoJo’s licence and, as Tim wrote in an open letter to London Mayor Boris Johnson on 3rd December, “half a century of Soho history ended.”

The letter was also signed by Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Paul O’Grady. Pete Townshend, Eddie Izzard and a virtual roll-call of the British entertainment industry.

“What’s it all about?” I asked Tim yesterday.

“It’s quite complicated,” he told me. “What we know is that Westminster Council suspended the licence and then they permanently revoked the licence. But what we also know is that, a year beforehand, the Council was given an application by Soho Estates to redevelop that block, which would have involved demolishing Madame JoJo’s.”

“Who,” I asked, “is Soho Estates? Is that the Paul Raymond company?”

“Yes. Paul Raymond’s granddaughters.” (Fawn James & India Rose James)

“I’m surprised,” I said. “Because they quite like Soho.”

“I’m surprised too,” said Tim. “Fawn is a friend who I met three years ago, at the launch of the Soho Flea Market. It was lovely for me to finally meet her, because my grandfather used to work for her grandfather – my grandfather Dickie Arnold was actor-manager of the Raymond Revue when it toured; and, later on, he worked at the Raymond Revuebar with my grandmother.

“It was really great to make that connection with Fawn and, because she’s an actress as well, she performed in one of my videos – Manners On The Manor – which was shot at Ronnie Scott’s – playing the role of Queen of Soho.

“So I am quite confused as to how this has been allowed to happen with her being involved, because I know that Fawn supports the performing arts. And Paul Raymond supported the arts – people don’t realise this.

“I grew up surrounded by musicians, comedians, actors and singers who all, at one point or another, were given a start in Soho, largely down to Paul Raymond. He supported the arts and that is part of what his legacy should be.”

“When I interviewed Fawn on BBC1’s Inside Out a year ago, I asked her off-camera what was going to happen to Madame JoJo’s and she said it was going to have to be moved; but she didn’t elaborate. It’s also a year ago since I sang at Madame JoJo’s with Andy Serkis and The Blockheads. That’s the last time I was inside the venue.

“The sadness over the closure is not about the name. It’s about the space.

“Soho has been a stage for every emerging artist from all over the country for 50 years. Madam JoJo’s was not a pub which had been given a licence for performers to work in – it was a professional space where people could hawk their wares and showcase their talents to the entertainment industry in general which, by and large, is based in London.”

“Surely,” I said. “one little club dying isn’t going to destroy the whole of Soho?”

The London Astoria

The London Astoria – now knocked down & being redeveloped

“They’ve taken a lot of them out already,” said Tim. “The Astoria being knocked down was a shock, particularly to the music industry. That seemed to make it open season on other venues.

“I signed my first record deal with Sony after doing a gig in a basement club called the Borderline – a 200-capacity venue like Madame JoJo’s. These venues are important for up-and-coming bands. We have to keep these venues open, unless developers want to argue that TV talent shows are the only way forward for young artists to get their feet in the industry.

“People keep talking about Madame JoJo’s being representative of the gay and transgender culture. It is. But it was also somewhere bands could perform regardless of their sexual orientation.”

“It wasn’t particularly gay, though, was it?” I asked. “Lots of straight people went there for shows. It was not a gay club as such. It was cabaret, music, comedy, some gay stuff in among all that sex stuff around the Raymond Revuebar alleyway.”

“It was,” said Tim, “a microcosm of what Soho is. It’s everything – a melting pot. It does not have one single identity. Madam JoJo’s disappearing is almost like the performance heart of Soho is. It doesn’t matter what your culture, background, religion, sexual orientation is, you were welcome and that’s why it is pretty serious it has gone.

The Raymond Revuebar in its heyday

The Raymond Revuebar in its heyday

“I’m not a campaigner, I’m an entertainer. That’s the key. A campaign has arisen out of my passion for where I and my family have lived and worked for the last 50 years. I didn’t plan it as a campaign. My mother said I should write a letter to the mayor and I thought How can I make him respond to the letter quicker? So I called my friend Benedict Cumberbatch and he said he would help and, after that, it snowballed.

“Madame JoJo’s was open from 7.30pm to 3.00am. That’s a lot of entertainment. It kept performers working, earning a living, promoting what they do. Equity have come on board today and are also talking to the Council about this to try and repeal the decision.

“Where we are sitting now, in my flat on Frith Street, from Thursday to Saturday night, I see violent altercations pretty much every night dealt with by the police. It’s dealt with responsibly and none of these venues, restaurants or clubs get closed down. If a bouncer did something inappropriate on this street, they would lose their job. The venue does not get closed down and it doesn’t get green-lit for demolition. If they did that all the time, we would be able to see Buckingham Palace from here!”

The closed Raymond Revuebar (left) and Madame JoJo’s (right) in Soho last night

The closed Raymond Revuebar (left) and Madame JoJo’s (right) in Soho last night

“It sounds,” I said, “like bizarre corruption of some sort. They close down this venue where there is an application to change it.”

“I have never,” said Tim, “mentioned corruption, but I have never heard a single person this week not mention it. I’m a singer-songwriter. What do I know?

“And, of course,”I said, “in Soho, there is no history of corruption involving the police in Soho.”

“Anyway,” said Tim, “I don’t want to focus on that. I want to focus on a very clear message from all sides of the entertainment industry – emerging and established artists – saying You can’t keep doing this without talking to this community first.

“We can welcome any new addition – Mozart lived on this street and television was first demonstrated just a few doors down this same street – but not at the expense of taking away what we already have here.

“Having new art galleries and pop-up art galleries is all well and fine and it looks, on the surface, like the landlords supporting those art galleries are supporting the arts, but Soho IS an art gallery.”

Tim has a song called Soho Heroes

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Filed under Gay, London, Music