It’s been a cinema, the venue that introduced nude showgirls to London, a launchpad for a generation of postwar comedians and a dodgy strip club. Now, after a £10m refit, Soho’s infamous Windmill Theatre is to reopen later this month as a 350-seat venue offering food, drink and a rolling cabaret running into the small hours. As well as the main auditorium, balcony bar and private dining room it will have a basement speakeasy, Henderson’s, named after Laura Henderson, the eccentric pioneer of striptease who ran the venue in the 30s and 40s, and who was immortalised by Judi Dench in Stephen Frears’ 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents, later adapted as a stage musical.
The new Windmill is the first joint venture between nightlife entrepreneurs Ryan Bishti – creator of the Cirque Le Soir club concept – and Amrit Walia. “What we saw in the little interludes when Covid restrictions were lifted was that people were looking for something all-encompassing, where you could dine, see theatre and have late night entertainment all in one place,” Walia says. Bishti, meanwhile, “had a crush on the building”, with its comical turrets and louche red neon signs, since he was a boy. He made enquiries about the lease shortly after the Windmill International table dancing club – as it had become – lost its license in 2018 after strippers were found flouting “no touching” rules.
Bishti says that the entertainment will be “a modern day twist on what the Windmill was famous for, with a range of different performances, immersive theatre and music”. A blend of dance, cabaret and circus acrobatics will flow between stage and auditorium. The famous Windmill Girls are coming back, but this time they’ll have (some) clothes on and will be joined by male dancers and a large puppet flamingo nicknamed Raoul. “There’s plenty of ways of being risqué without resorting to striptease,” says Bishti.
The shows will be programmed by Bishti’s sister Camilla and her business partner Elizabeth West, with input from the wonderfully named Romain Pissenem, whose company High Scream has created events for Disney and David Guetta. Since the venue is small, with no wings or fly tower, much use will be made of a big LED screen at the back of the stage, camera drones, and body mapping and motion capture of performers. The opening show, according to director of operations John Common, “will tell the story of the Windmill”.
The menu – sashimi platters, wagyu sliders, Dover sole – is designed by Michelin-starred chef Andrew McLeish. Drag diva and DJ Jodie Harsh is among the Soho faces appointed to the venue’s board, and will presumably be on the decks at some point; Common envisages early-hours dancing among the tables. Bishti anticipates the spend per head will be north of £100 in order to cover the cost of the continuous entertainment. Initially the Windmill will open from 6pm to 1amThe four days a week (though it’s licensed till later), and Covid restrictions mean you have to book.
Personally, I have reservations about mixing food and entertainment: the American concept of dinner theatre never took off in London except in a tokenish way at Islington’s King’s Head. “Everyone loves dancing at a restaurant; no one likes eating at a nightclub,” concedes Walia. “The question is, how do you put all these things together? I think we’ve managed it.” And to be fair, peculiar reinvention has been the stock-in trade of the Windmill. The fact that Walia’s main business is farming superfoods in Africa is just the latest weird twist in its history.
It was opened on Great Windmill Street in 1909 as a cinema, the Palais Du Luxe, on a block including the Apollo and Lyric theatres, sharing a wall with the Lyric and a plot with Piccadilly Buildings, built in 1897 and the home of the Biograph film company (the turrets actually belong to the offices). The opening of larger cinemas nearby soon forced its closure but it was reopened in 1929 by the entrepreneur Elsie Cohen as London’s first ‘art’ cinema for foreign films. When Cohen herself departed for bigger premises – the Academy in Oxford St – Henderson bought and remodelled the building as a theatre, opening in 1931 with Michael Barringer’s play Inquest.
Michael who? Well, quite. Live theatre proved unpopular and Henderson resorted to screening films again until her new manager, Vivian Van Damm, came up with the concept of Revuedeville, a continuous variety show from 2.30pm to 11pm that began in 1932. This too remained unprofitable until Van Damm bypassed the Lord Chamberlain’s prohibition of nudity on stage by presenting naked girls in motionless tableaux vivants: if they were considered obscene, his (successful) argument went, classical statues were obscene too. This proved a smash hit and the concept of the Windmill Steeplechase – where punters would vault the seats as one show ended to secure a front row place for the next – was born.
Famously, the Windmill remained open throughout the war, with showgirls and other acts sheltering from the Blitz in the cellar room that is now Henderson’s. The theatre’s adopted motto, “We never closed” was archly parodied as “we never clothed”. Henderson died in 1944, leaving the theatre to Van Damm. In 1946 Harry Secombe joined the bill – his act involved shaving while singing Italian opera – and met Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers: with Spike Milligan they would go on to create the Goon Show, the foundation stone of surreal British comedy, on which everyone from Monty Python to the Mighty Boosh was built.
Tony Hancock, Bruce Forsyth, Tommy Cooper and Barry Cryer all got early gigs at the Windmill, and Morecambe and Wise were sacked for not being funny. It was a notoriously tough venue as most of the audience was there for the girls. Soho also got progressively seedier, and scarier. Derek Malcolm, former film critic of this newspaper and the Guardian, once told me he’d dated a Windmill dancer and was assaulted with a cosh by her husband, a gangster connected to the Kray twins.
When Van Damme died in 1960 his daughter Sheila – a pioneering female rally driver – took over but closed the Windmill four years later. It became a cinema showing softcore flicks, until Soho porn baron Paul Raymond bought it in 1974 and ran it variously as a theatre (the play Let’s Get Laid starred his girlfriend, model Fiona Richmond, and Are You Being Served’s John Inman), burlesque house, supper club, laser disco, cabaret and TV studio. In 1994 the businessman Oscar Owide (whose nickname, according to obituaries, was “shifty Oscar”) bought it and turned it into a table dancing club, dying a month before the venue lost its license (full disclosure, my mates and I were turned away from the Windmill International on my stag night in 1999.)
There’s a lot of affection for this venue’s seedy past. Raymond’s granddaughters Fawn and India Rose James and their father John are now landlords of the new Windmill Soho, as it’s been rebranded. Some of the former Windmill Girls are advising Bishti and Walia on the history. During the refit, a technician from the Lyric Theatre got the venue’s 50-year-old mechanical stage rising and falling again. Alongside the creation of Henderson’s, the mezzanine balcony of the auditorium has been named the Palais Du Luxe, and the huge red neon signs on the façade have been revised and restored. “The outside of the building still looks like a 1970s strip club,” Walia says, and Bisthi finishes the sentence: “…but inside it’s a completely different world.” The new custodians have tipped their hat at the Windmill’s rich and chequered history. Let’s see how the next stage goes.