The Irving Theatre: VistaScreen’s rarest set shows London’s first strip joint

Nota Bene: If the title of this post and header image do not make this blatantly obvious, this post concerns 10 stereoviews of erotic performers at work. The Irving Theatre was a strip joint during the year 1957. If you are at work and work in a prudish environment, or for that matter if you take a dim view of sex workers in general, you might want to either save this one for later, or skip it altogether.

VistaScreen Series C.86 “The Irving Theatre (Set One)”

That Stanley Long enjoyed shooting nudes is no secret. So it should come as no surprise that, during the single year it existed as London’s first fully-nude strip club, The Irving Theatre was the target of Long’s lens. The West End nudie theatre was a 10 minute walk from his office at Soho Square, just past Leicester Square. What is less clear is what the purpose of this set was, or who the target audience was. It seems to be an advertisement for the Theatre, but it has a “C” designation, not an “H”. This is abnormal for mid-period VistaScreen.

Perhaps most curious of all, why did the Spring Brothers – co-owners of VistaScreen – allow publication of this series at all? Far from the bulk of their output, there is nothing wholesome about these stereoviews. Even the various “Miss Continentale” series, sold at certain news agents’ shops in brown paper wrapping, could be passed off as art nudes. These cannot. This is blatant eroticism. And unlike much of Long’s early (1957) stereography, this is really well done blatant eroticism. Before we peek into the Irving Theatre, however, let’s consider what came before.

The Windmill Theatre – tableaux vivants to avoid the Lord Chamberlain’s veto

All theatrical performances in the West End prior to 1968 were subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. For those unaccustomed to British custom, it’s nothing to do with the prat who appeased the Third Reich, allowed the annexation of the Sudetenland, and so on. That was Neville Chamberlain. The Lord Chamberlain is the most senior officer supporting the Royal Household. While purportedly a non-political position since 1924, Roger Lumley, 11th Earl of Scarbrough, who held the title from 1952-1963, wielded his power of censorship like a truncheon.

Prior to the Irving Theatre, there was but one outlet for live nude entertainment in the area – The Windmill Theatre. Two Lord Chamberlains before Lumley, the Windmill – failing as a performance venue – exploited a loophole. Borrowing (perhaps appropriately, given its name) from the Moulin Rouge in Paris, the “Windmill Girls” presented tableaux vivants. They appeared, fully nude, on stage, but there was a catch – they could not move. The loophole attested that nude statues ought not be censored, and thus neither should live nude women. “If you move, it’s rude” was the ruling.

Dhurjati Chaudhury, the “bespectacled Bengali barrister”

The Irving Theatre was a small, failing enterprise when Dhurjati Chaudhury acquired it in 1954. The original plan was to annex it to his already-failing Asian Institute of Art and Theatre. However, realizing that “sex sells”, Chaudhury – a barrister by trade – found a loophole even more glaring than that of the Windmill. Private membership clubs could avoid the censorship laws. Mike Hutton describes Chaudhury’s adventure:

The lawyer’s initial optimism was challenged by the existing laws that required a forty-eight hour waiting period from the time a prospective member signed the application form. In addition, a public music and dancing license was required, which the London County Council refused to issue. His pragmatic solution was to pay the regular £100 fines and cost it into the fixed overheads. The summer of 1957 saw lines of men snaking their way down Irving Street, anxious to pay their 25s for membership. The Irving Theatre had a certain ring to it and Chaudhuri tried to retain a surface air of seedy respectability. In a nod to the Windmill, the shows were produced along conventional lines with comedians and singers alternating with the girls, who looked wholesome rather than sexy. The shows were dreadfully amateurish, but the punters didn’t mind, compensated as they were by acres of moving flesh.

Victor Spinetti’s rather different recollections

Victor Spinetti – perhaps best remembered as the man who was in three of The Beatles’ films – got his start at the Irving Theatre. His recollections clash with Hutton’s description which included the words ‘wholesome’ and ‘respectability’. In his memoir “Up Front”, Spinetti recalls his first sojourn out to what would become his first steady theatrical job:

As I turned the corner into Irving Street, I saw on the front of the theatre a large sign garishly picked out in lightbulbs: ‘Irving Strip Club. The only theatre in London where the nudes can move.’ This was not what I’d remembered at all. It sounded more like the Windmill, which was the other side of Leicester Square, only this place had evidently got one up on it. The nudes at the Windmill had to stand absolutely still. God, I was wet behind the ears.

Spinetti’s first day at the Irving Theatre was memorable, to say the least:

The curtains, like two pocket handkerchiefs, parted. At last, the West End. I opened my mouth: ‘So this is London where the sophisticates -‘ The entire audience was composed of four Chinese sailors playing with themselves. ‘Sophisticates – ha, ha, ha’ I tried to carry on but I could not stop laughing. Behind me, the soubrettes fell about too, while Lindsay fell off altogether, her unrehearsed move rousing the sailors to even greater frenzy… As I left the stage, I thought: “You’ve really, really had it, Vic. That was your West End debut and your swan song, rolled into one.’ It wasn’t. We carried on and did the rest of our shows for that day and, as the weeks went by, it was not only Chinese sailors we had for an audience. From the stage, I recognised Kingsley Amis, accompanied by his friend, Philip Larkin, and Alec Waugh, Evelyn’s brother, who wrote Island in the Sun. The sketches were what they came for. The actors Jimmy Villiers and Ronnie Fraser were there for the girls and the bar.

‘You shouldn’t be working in a place like this’, they’d say from time to time, Sean Connery, in particular, but then they’d also say: ‘I’ve brought a friend. Is that all right?’

Sex Work in 1950s London

Prior to the year of the Irving Theatre, sex work in the West End was basically confined to prostitution. Centuries after Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies had praised the virtues of higher-end sex workers in that district, London was still abuzz with sex work. This was soon to come to an end. The Sexual Offences Act of 1959 outlawed soliciting, and now sex workers were criminals. The women who would twirl a keyring under a streetlight in the West End were forced into the alleys, or into brothels run by pimps and madams. This rather sad backward step happened five years after Alan Turing took his own life after a conviction for homosexuality. But for a little over a year, lovely, natural women had an opportunity to perform nude onstage thanks to a Bengali barrister.

Besides forcing outmoded religious values on others, I’ve never understood the prohibitions on sex work. By criminalizing it, women (moreso than men) are at greater risk of abuse, rape, and death. They are less likely to go to the police for help, as they must admit to criminal behavior and are often accused of “asking for it”. Take a look at these stereoviews; consider whether the women pictured – all making several times a factory wage for taking off their clothes – look happy. They were doing legal work here, whether entertaining Chinese sailors or Sean Connery. The following year, the Irving Theatre was converted to an experimental performance space, and Chaudhury sold it. But for a year, London’s first strip club seemed to please everybody but the Mary Whitehouse types.

VistaScreen Series C.86 “The Irving Theatre (Set One)” Stereoviews

Some Final Thoughts

That Stanley Long photographed the ladies of the Irving Theatre is not at all surprising. The quality of these images, as compared with other 1957 fare, shows that he actually cared about making quality images here – he wasn’t just phoning it in. Having finally acquired this set and popped it in a viewer, I’ve gained a little more respect for Long. I frequently make fun of his half-assed stereography, but these are good for what they are – one of the only records, and certainly the only 3D record, of London’s first proper strip club. Given a time machine, I’d like to meet Long for a brew at the Irving Theatre.

Given a time machine, I’d love to visit the place, full-stop. There’s something wonderfully playful and fun about these images, and something in these ladies that has been missing from the dancers at every strip club I’ve ever ventured into. (Big shocker here: I’ve visited strip clubs.) It might have something to do with 1950s styling, or the fact that these look like regular women (although it might be nice to see some ethnic diversity here). In the words of the venerable Sir Mix-a-Lot: “Silicone parts are made for toys”. Natural, beautiful women are not the norm in the modern American strip club. This looks like a hell of a lot more fun. Now pop on your red/cyan glasses; it’s time for…

Anaglyphs

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