In post-war England, local theatres and music halls struggled to keep their audiences in the face of stiff competition from cinema and the relatively new medium of television. Variety shows, along with their increasingly all-important ‘girlie’ shows and striptease acts, were used to attract audiences, but they had to abide by the Lord Chamberlain’s rulings. His office was responsible for stage censorship in England. It ruled that actresses could only pose nude if the pose were motionless. The pose had to be “artistic”. Nudity was only deemed legitimate if it bore a likeness to art: then, and only then, was it worthy of contemplation. Essentially, “if it moves, it’s rude”.
However, there was a legal loophole. Controversial plays banned by the Lord Chamberlain were being performed at private members clubs as they weren’t technically open to the public.
An Indian barrister, called Dhurjati Chaudhury, who was looking for an alternative use for his loss-making Asian Institute Art Gallery and Theatre, realised the loophole would allow him to stage striptease shows. He quickly converted his venue at 17 Irving Street, just off Leicester Square, London, into a ninety-eight-seat club, and Britain’s first strip-joint was born.
When it opened, advertising ‘non-stop striptease’ and billing itself as ‘the only theatre in London where the nudes can move’, it attracted long queues of would-be “art- lovers” prepared to pay the considerable twenty-five-shilling membership fee. The club attracted quite a few celebrities such as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Sean Connery and Alec Waugh, Evelyn’s brother.
The non-stop revue was provided by two companies that worked alternately. Five shows were staged daily for six days a week, with four on Sundays.
The in house photographer was Stanley Long, who went on to make several films such as Nudist Memories (1959), West End Jungle (1961) and Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976). However, around this time, he was working on a stereoscopic project called VistaScreen. The 3-d views of the Irving girls he took are highly collectable today as they were only obtainable from the theatre. I promise to write about VistaScreen in a future post.
Chaudhury, not wanting to miss a trick, also produced a quarterly magazine about the club called Vues from Revues.
Facing competition from newer clubs such as the Raymond Revuebar and the Nell Gwynne the Irving closed its doors in 1964.
If you worked at the club or have any memories of visiting, I would love to hear from you.